The 1787-89 debates over ratifying the Constitution offer another example of North Carolina’s longstanding role as a battleground state in U.S. political history.
Josiah Collins, Sr. (1735-1819) was a prominent businessman, merchant, plantation owner, and land speculator from Edenton, North Carolina. Collins was a well-respected member of the Edenton community, and he engaged in global trade, rope making, land development, and farming. He built and operated Somerset Place on Lake Phelps, which became one of the largest plantations in North Carolina and the upper South.
The Dismal Swamp Canal, originally chartered in 1790, connects the Albemarle Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. Opened in 1805, the Dismal Swamp Canal created a passage between northeastern North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia. By the mid-1820s, the Dismal Swamp Canal was widened and deepened enough for reliable commercial traffic. As a result, international trade shifted from Albemarle Sound towns, like Edenton, to Norfolk, Virginia. Today the Dismal Swamp Canal is primarily used for recreational boating.
The Lake Company was created in 1784 by Josiah Collins, Sr., Nathaniel Allen, and Dr. Samuel Dickenson to acquire and develop land around Lake Phelps. The Lake Company was a successful agricultural business and built canals around Lake Phelps. After a long legal battle, Collins bought his partners’ shares in the company, and turned the Lake Company into “Somerset Place” Plantation.
Somerset Place is plantation located on the land around Lake Phelps in present-day Washington County, North Carolina. Originally part of the Lake Company’s holdings that spanned over 100,000 acres in Washington and Tyrrell Counties, the area became Somerset Place in 1816 when Josiah Collins, Sr. became sole owner of the Lake Company. Under Collins’s grandson, Josiah Collins III, Somerset Place became one of the largest plantations in the South. Today it is a North Carolina State Historic Site.
Josiah Collins II was the son of the prominent merchant Josiah Collins, Sr. He became manager and eventually the owner of the Collins Ropewalk in Edenton. Under his management, the Edenton Ropewalk became one of the most prosperous rope manufacturing sites in North America. When his father died in 1819, Josiah II became the temporary owner and manager of Somerset Plantation until his son Josiah III came of age. Josiah II was also important in the organization of North Carolina’s Episcopal Diocese in 1817.
Josiah Collins III was the heir to Somerset Place, a plantation originally built by his grandfather Josiah Collins, Sr. and his Lake Company. Josiah Collins III was educated at Harvard and later studied law in Litchfield, Connecticut, and lived in New York City for a time. At age 21, he assumed management of Somerset Place and turned it into one of the largest and most prosperous plantations in the South. Josiah Collins III died shortly after the beginning of the Civil War and his death marked the end of Somerset Place. It was restored as a North Carolina State Historic Site in the 1950s and 1960s.
Although born in Scotland in 1733, Samuel Johnston lived in North Carolina from infancy. Historians have described the native Scot as a “prominent voice for the Patriot cause” who possessed “Revolutionary zeal.” Even so, many North Carolinians today are unaware of his illustrious political and legal career.
One of the first rope manufacturing establishments in North America; the Edenton Ropewalk (also referred to as the Hewes Ropewalk or the Collins Ropewalk) was originally established by Joseph Hewes in about 1777 and was acquired by Josiah Collins, Sr. in 1783. Under the management of his son, Josiah Collins II, the Edenton Ropewalk became one of the premier rope manufacturing sites in America. Covering an immense 131-acres of land, the Edenton Ropewalk was a large-scale rope making operation and by 1795 it is said to have created some of the best rope in the colonies. However, due to changes in the economic climate and the death of Josiah Collins II, the Edenton Ropewalk ceased operation in 1839.
In my experiences teaching United States history, students have a misconception that American slavery was strictly an agricultural institution. The slave labor experience, in particular, is considered one that existed entirely on plantation fields, sowing, tending, or harvesting cash crops — tobacco, cotton, or rice. Not all rural slaves worked on plantations, though; many toiled on smaller farms with a workforce of five to 10 field hands.