Lake Phelps in Tyrrell County, first discovered about 1755, is located in the middle of the swampland known as “the Great Eastern Dismal,” or the “Great Alligator Dismal.” In colonial days dismal was another word for swamp. The nearly 200,000 acres of land around Lake Phelps was considered worthless due to the density of the swamp and the limited access to the region.
The first plan to develop the swamp around Lake Phelps occurred in 1784 when a group of men (including William R. Davie, Allen Jones, Nathaniel Allen, and others) were given authorization by the North Carolina legislature to drain the land. The group completed the initial surveys of the land but never proceeded to drain and develop the area.
In 1784, Josiah Collins, Sr., Nathaniel Allen, and Dr. Samuel Dickinson (three prominent men from Edenton, N.C.) entered verbally into a partnership and formed the Lake Company and began acquiring land. Through government land patents and purchase, they were able to acquire an estimated 109,978 acres of land between Lake Phelps and the Scuppernong River. Collins himself owned another 60,000 acres of land to the east of the company’s lands.
In 1784-1785, Collins went to Boston and outfitted a ship to collect and transport slaves from Africa to the Lake Company lands. When the ship returned in 1786, it carried one hundred slaves who were put to work digging a canal between Lake Phelps and the Scuppernong River. The six-mile-long canal was completed in 1788 at a cost of $30,000. In 1787 the North Carolina House of Commons authorized the Lake Company to drain and use the land around Lake Phelps in Tyrell County and Washington County.
After the completion of the canal, the slaves were put to work digging cross ditches, extracting timber, farming the land, and building the infrastructure. By 1790, the Lake Company owned 113 slaves, and by 1794, the Lake Company operated two sawmills, a gristmill, and a rice machine. Originally rice and wheat were the primary crops produced by the Lake Company, but because of health concerns (caused by the swampy terrain needed for rice production), corn soon replaced rice. Other products produced by the Lake Company included lumber, staves, and shingles.
Despite its success, the Lake Company suffered from internal problems among the partners. The three partners supposedly shared the cost of improvements equally and divided the profits. However, Josiah Collins paid more for the improvements than his partners. As a result, Allen and Dickenson became indebted to Collins. As the disparity became more substantial, Collins asked for a settlement of the company’s affairs, but his partners were unwilling. Collins then filed a lawsuit. The original suit began in 1790 but became more complicated when his partners countersued. After a long battle in the courts (concluding in 1795) and the even longer process of acquiring his partners’ shares, Josiah Collins and his son, Josiah Collins II, became the owners of the Lake Company in 1816.
After his family acquired sole ownership of the Lake Company, Collins turned the Lake Company into a private plantation. He named the plantation “Somerset Place” in honor of the county in England where he was born. Collins devoted more attention to the Lake Company’s holdings and Somerset Plantation. Josiah Collins suffered an accident while visiting Somerset in 1819 and his health quickly declined. He died on May 14, 1819 and left the Lake Company’s holdings (now called “Somerset Place”) under the ownership and control of his son Josiah Collins II until his grandson Josiah Collins III came of age. Josiah Collins III took control of the plantation in 1830, and under Josiah III, Somerset Plantation became one of the largest plantations in the South. Today Somerset Place is a North Carolina state historic site.
A.C. Menius III, “Josiah Collins, Sr.” in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography Vol. 1 A-C, edited by William S. Powell (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1979), 404-405.
William S. Tarlton, Somerset Place and its Restoration, (N.C. Division of State Parks: August 1, 1954). Copy found in the North Carolina Department of Archives and History: Josiah Collins Collection.
North Carolina Historic Sites. “Somerset Place,” North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, http://www.nchistoricsites.org/somerset/main.htm. Accessed on August 13, 2013.
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program, “Lake Company,” North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?sp=search&k=Markers&sv=B-35. Accessed on August 13, 2013.