People and Places: Somerset Place

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If you drive about seven miles south of Creswell in Washington County, you may feel like you’ve gone back in time.

There, along the shore of Lake Phelps, sits a former plantation that dates back to when the United States was less than ten years old.

Somerset Place is the site of a former 19th-century antebellum plantation, once the second-largest slaveholding plantation in North Carolina. 

Now Somerset Place State Historic Site aims to tell the story of all the people who played a role on this plantation.

“We focus on the social history of the plantation days,” said Karen Hayes, site manager. “We interpret the lives of the people who lived, who labored and who died here.”

Somerset Place dates back to 1785. 

Josiah Collins, a native of Somerset, England, owned the property then.     

By the mid-19th century, more than 50 buildings made up the plantation.

Seven of the plantation’s original structures still stand today.

The crown jewel, the Collins home, was built in the 1830s.     

“But Josiah III inherited the property in 1829, and he wanted to live here at Somerset,” said Hayes. “So, he had the Collins home built. It’s a Greek-revival style architectural home. It’s 6,809 square feet. The Collins family lived in more space than 188 members of the former enslaved community. So, we use it as a tool to compare and to contrast of how people lived in various economic levels.”

At one time, more than 25 slave houses could be found here.

Today, several reconstructed slave homes are on the site.

“It’s important to tell their story as well,” said Hayes. 

That includes the home of slave Sucky Davis, who spent most of her life at Somerset Place.

Her life story and that of many of her descendants are highlighted there.

“It’s very important that we interpret the lives and remember the people who labored here at Somerset Place in the enslaved community,” said Hayes. “Because it’s not only African history, African American history or Black history, it’s American history. So, we like to tell the whole story of all the people who lived here.”

Visitors to Somerset Place can roam the grounds on their own, or take part in a 90-minute guided tour.

It’s a chance to walk along one of North Carolina’s largest and most beautiful lakes, and to get a glimpse of what life was like during one of America’s most infamous periods.

“There was once an old motto that said that if you remember people’s names, and you call their names, they’ll always live,” said Hayes. “So we like to remember the people who labored and lived and died here at Somerset Place.”

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