History

Three buildings within the enslaved community

Somerset Place is a representative state historic site offering a comprehensive and realistic view of 19th-century life on a large North Carolina plantation. Originally, this atypical plantation included more than 100,000 densely wooded, mainly swampy acres bordering the five-by-eight mile Lake Phelps, in present-day Washington County. During its 80 years as an active plantation (1785-1865), enslaved persons converted thousand of acres into high yielding fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax. Meanwhile, enslaved and free millwrights operated sophisticated sawmills that turned out thousands of feet of lumber. By 1860, Somerset Place was one of the Upper South's largest plantations.

From Somerset's earliest days through the end of the Civil War, people of different races and legal and economic status lived on the property. A labor force of almost 200 men, women, and children was assembled before 1790. They were black and white, enslaved and free. Over the life of the plantation, three generations of owners, around 50 white employees, two free black employees, and more than 861 enslaved people lived and worked on the plantation.

By the mid-19th century, more than 50 buildings were clustered on the northeast rim of Lake Phelps, serving as the industrial complex and residential community. Included were barns, saw and gristmills, stables, a hospital, an Episcopal chapel, a kitchen complex, and 26 houses for members of the enslaved community. Homes for overseers, tutors, ministers, and the owner's family—along with a kitchen/laundry, dairy, storehouse, and smoke and salting houses—also stood here.

With the end of the Civil War, Somerset Place entered a new era. Nearly all the emancipated black families left the plantation by the end of 1865. The financially crippled owners eventually sold and left the property, never to return. The plantation itself remained functioning through 1945, but it was never profitable without enslaved labor. Today, this unique historic attraction is one of two North Carolina plantations preserved as state historic sites and open to the visiting public.

Somerset Place Becomes a State Historic Site

In 1939, after 70 years of change and the loss of most of the original buildings, Somerset's plantation house and six adjacent structures were incorporated into the newly formed Pettigrew State Park. In 1969, these buildings and the immediate grounds became a state historic site that is now administered under the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Office of Archives and History, Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.

The present-day historic site includes 31 of the original lakeside acres and seven original 19th-century buildings. With the goal of accurately representing the lives and lifestyles of the plantation's entire antebellum community, the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties has acquired the reconstructed Overseer's House and reconstructed representative one-room and four-room homes where enslaved families once lived, along with the plantation hospital.

Somerset Place stands today as a rather remarkable historic site. It offers an interpretive tour that meshes the lifestyles of all the plantation's antebellum residents into one concise chronological social history. Visitors explore the lives of the plantation's owners, enslaved community, employed whites, and free blacks during Somerset Place's 80-year lifespan under slavery.

Plan your visit to learn more about the history of Somerset Place.

Further Reading

Somerset Homecoming: Recovering A Lost Heritage
by Dorothy Spruill Redford and Michael D'Orso
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
(Originally published New York: Doubleday, 1988)

Black Americans in North Carolina and the South
edited by Jeffrey J. Crow and Flora J. Hatley
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

A History of African Americans in North Carolina
by Jeffrey J. Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Flora J. Hatley
Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2019.

Recollections of My Slavery Days
by William Henry Singleton
Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2007.