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Visit to Somerset Place North Carolina Historic Site ~ A Photo Essay

December 6, 2018
Post by Contributing Author, Susan Holmes Jackson

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On December 2, I had the privilege of attending the annual Christmas Open House at Somerset Historic Site in Creswell, North Carolina.  Somerset was built by the Collins family and named for their home of ancestral birth in Somerset, England. The Lake Company, as the proprietors of the land was known at first,  began using slaves and indentured servants before the 1800’s to dig canals, and clear and farm the land. Read more history of how the land was acquired, and the years of it being one of the largest plantations in the upper South from the North Carolina Historic Sites website.

There was beautiful Christmas music provided by local musician Bob Waters on hammered dulcimer, as well as old carols performed by three wonderful young ladies from the local Columbia High School chorus (I digress, they were my youngest daughter and two of her best friends), and a tribute was made to a former docent, Alecia Rodgers, who worked and volunteered at Somerset for twelve years, who passed away earlier in 2018.  Blackeyed peas cooked outside over a woodfire in a cast iron pot, delicious old-fashioned cornbread cooked on the fire inside the original kitchen/laundry house, and hot spiced tea were the highlight of the day! Dorothy Spruill Redford, author of Somerset Homecoming, former director of Somerset Place and descendant of Elsy LIttlejohn, one of the enslaved people at Somerset, made an appearance as well.  Decorations were likely more fanciful than when the Collins family lived there before the Civil War, but they were made by the staff and volunteers, so the house felt festive and warm–but that was because it was a 75-degree day! Got to love Christmastime in eastern North Carolina!  

Come with me as I enjoyed the sights, smells and sounds of Christmastime at Somerset Place!

This is the Josiah Collins III Home;  it is 6,809 square feet, is two and a half stories, contains fourteen rooms, and double porches on the front, as well as on both sides of the back.  The front of the house faces a canal, dug by slaves to connect to the Scuppernong River, and was one reason the plantation survived. The canal brought tragedy as well:  in different incidences, three of the Collins’ sons, as well as two sons of slaves, drowned in the canal.

The rear of the Collins house, which is just as pretty in back as it is the front.

Lovely natural decor fancied up the “Colony House,” as it became known.  It is the original plantation family home and became the place where the Collins children got their education, and housed their tutors and the area’s ministers. It serves as the Welcome Center, gift shop for the site today.

The front parlor.

Copies of original plantation documents are displayed on an antique desk.  I cannot imagine writing out financial records and information for human beings I “owned,” and the Collins owned, over time, almost 800 slaves, as well as white indentured servants.

This isn’t the original dining table, but it is groaning with foods and decor that would’ve been served when the Collinses had guests.

The gardens are kept up by volunteers, but were never a huge focus of the mistress of the house, Mary Collins.  Read more about her and her life at Somerset here from Southern Garden History (opens in pdf format).

View from the rear of the house looking south towards Lake Phelps, which was originally named Scuppernong by the Native people there, meaning “place of the sweet bay tree.”

The overseer’s house sits overlooking the enslaved living quarters, which was done purposely as a reminder of the overseer’s job in relation to the slaves’ position.

The interior of original kitchen rations building, complete with drying herbs and plants.

The Sucky Davis House, reconstructed on uncovered foundations and named for one of the original Somerset slaves from Africa who, with “…18 members of her family, from three generations, lived in three rooms. Five members of an unrelated family lived in the fourth room. Sucky was purchased in 1786 for £75.” (from the NC Historic Sites website)

One side of the one-room first floor of the Sucky Davis House. There are three other beds in this room in each corner, and baskets underneath, which surely was where mothers kept their babies.

Interior of the one-room first floor of just one of the twenty three 16×16’ slaves’ quarters, reconstructed in the 1990’s.  This is the Lewis and Judy House, and the original was home for “…Judy, her husband Lewis, five teens, one adult child, a daughter-in-law, and a grandchild.”

I don’t know what this large wooden bowl was used for, but my grandmother had a much smaller version to make biscuits in.

The path that leads to the slave quarters veers to the North, and the large building here is the reconstructed hospital.  Many other building foundations have been found in a line from the hospital towards the overseer’s house, including a chapel.  

One of the site managers, dressed in period costume, cooks just as the slaves did in the kitchen, over a very hot fire, and December 2, 2018 was not a cool day here in northeastern North Carolina!  She had the “fast flip” down to a science, so she could back away and keep cool! I can’t imagine what it was like to cook here on a July day in the 18th century. The fried cornbread/fritters were delicious.  I just needed some molasses to make mine better!

As much as the main house and grounds are beautiful, you get a real sense of what at least the basic living conditions was like for the slaves at Somerset Plantation.  They were people who stood their ground, and according to Dorothy Redford, once tried to poison an overseer! I love knowing that they fought back as best as they could.  Those slaves were punished by being sold almost immediately.  Many descendants of the Somerset slaves still live in the area.

I wish I had been able to take more photos, but that just gives you a reason to venture off NC highway 64 on the way to the Outer Banks, and visit Somerset Place yourself. The site is open April through October, on Mondays through Saturdays, between 9 AM and 5 PM, and on Sundays from 1 PM until 5 PM. November through March hours are, Mondays through Saturday, 10 AM until 4 PM, and on Sundays, between 1 PM and 4 PM. If you need additional information, call 252-797-4500.   If you’d like to learn more of the history and how Dorothy Spruill Redford helped make the historic site what it is today, read Somerset Homecoming, which is probably available through the site gift shop as well, so give them a call, and support this important place of North Carolina history.

Have you ever visited Somerset Place? Tell us about your visit in the comments.

Susan Jackson is a mother of four who lives in coastal North Carolina, and is an avid Outlander fan.  Besides reading, she loves cooking and baking, and music.  She is a thyroid cancer survivor and has worked in education most of her life. She hopes to one day blog about her thyroid cancer journey. She is a contributing author for Outlander North Carolina and, among other articles, has previously written about the infamous Stede Bonnet in Will The Real Stephen Bonnet Please Stand Up?