Somerset Place is a representative antebellum plantation offering an insightful view of life during the period before the Civil War. During its eighty-year existence as an active plantation (1785-1865), it encompassed as many as 100,000 acres and became one of North Carolina's most prosperous rice, corn, and wheat plantations. It was home to more than three hundred enslaved men, women, and children of African descent- eighty of whom were brought to Somerset directly from their West African homeland in 1786. These native African slaves had firsthand knowledge of rice cultivation. Members of the enslaved community dug a system of irrigation and transportation canals; built a sawmill, gristmills, barns, stables, work buildings, and dwelling houses; and cultivated fields.
The plantation operated as a business investment for more than forty years. In 1829 it became home to two generations of a planter family: Josiah Collins III, his wife Mary, and their six sons. Josiah III inherited the property from his grandfather, Josiah I, who along with two partners had aquired the land and planned its early development.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, so did slavery in the United States. Left without unpaid labor, planters such as the Collins family could no longer maintain the plntation system that had characterized the antebellum South.
The life of the Collins family is well documented through manuscripts and public documents. Ongoing research has recently focused on the slave community at Somerset Place. Records reveal fascinating information about the lifestyles and families of the plantation's enslaved community.
Since the early 1950s archaeology has been used to reveal undocumented information about Somerset Place. Early work focused on the areas around the main house and gardens. More recent digs enrich the African American aspect of the plantation's history and complement the historical research. The end result will be the reconstruction of several buildings in the slave community.
Hands-on educational programs introduce visitors to the plantation system and daily life at Somerset during the antebellum period. Participants learn the impact of African culture and traditions on Somerset's enslaved community and the Collins family. These events focus on the many traditions of the people who lived at Somerset.
The main house is furnished with pieces from the period and a few from the
Collins family. Outbuildings include the kitchen, the smokehouse, the
dairy, and a boarding school for the Collins' six boys.