“So were they better than the average plantation owner?” asked the male half of the UK couple on a tour of Somerset Place with us. He was referring to the way the owner treated his slaves.
Hold that thought.
Somerset Place State Historic Site in Creswell, North Carolina, was once part of the third largest plantation in the state.
In 1785, Joshua Collins I and two business partners bought over 100,000 acres of swamp land and turned it into a rice and lumber plantation. They moved from rice to corn when the swampy conditions necessary to cultivating rice started killing off their workforce in large numbers. The plantation was worked, over its 80 year life from 1785 to 1865, by 50 white employees, two free black employees, and about 850 (there were 300ish at any given time) enslaved Africans.
When the man asked the question, during the tour, about the Somerset owner being a better slave master than others of his ilk, we were standing in a reconstruction of a hospital that Joshua Collins III had built for the care of his enslaved workers. It’s the large, two story building at the left of the photo above (the overseer’s house is at the far end). The guide had just gone through an explanation of the “modern” tools that the doctor — an actual certified doctor for humans (female slaves were trained to nurse) — at Somerset used. Like the UK visitor, I was surprised. I’d never seen a purpose-built hospital on a plantation before, staffed by a trained doctor using state-of-the-art equipment. But before we could get the warm fuzzies about Mr. Collins, there came the next hospital story.
Collins III would occasionally give his enslaved workers passes for Christmas, so that they could visit family in the surrounding area. The photo above shows photocopied pages from Collins’ records, showing lists of “Negroes allowed to visit Edenton Christmas 1836” and 1837. Edenton was a the closest large town, where the Collins owned a house and many of their enslaved workers family lived. One Christmas, he didn’t give out passes. Or at least, he didn’t give one to a young woman named Rebecca Drew. Which led her to leave without one. She was caught and put in the stocks overnight. I had no idea that hot and steamy coastal North Carolina ever got this cold, even in December, but apparently the temperatures went below freezing and Rebecca developed frostbite. So she ended up at the hospital and those state-of-the-art implements were used to amputate both of her feet.
Despite being footless, she continued to work on the plantation until emancipation and died in 1901, at the age of 76.
The Collins were devote Episcopalians who built a church on the property, for the slaves. The Episcopal priests who served the church kept records of all of their enslaved parishioners, which is partly how Somerset has such good information on the enslaved population who lived there.
The tour started in the area where the enslaved workers had lived, and where two of the slave houses had been rebuilt. A row of 26 houses similar to the ones in the photo above had also stood along the tree line on the left. Unlike other plantations, Somerset slaves never lived where they worked. There were no cooks living above the kitchen or house staff in the owner’s house. All enslaved workers lived in the houses outside the owner’s compound.
The larger house in the photo is a recreation of Sucky Davis’ house: one of three 20′ by 40′ four room structures that had housed about 30 people. Sucky’s extended family of 19 lived in three rooms of the house, while an unrelated family lived in the fourth. Sucky was purchased from Royal Governor Gabriel Johnson in 1786 for £60 and worked as a cook/laundress.
The photo above shows what had happened to Sucky’s 131 descendants by the time emancipation came around in 1865. The four who were sold to a slave trader had been implicated in a plot to murder the overseer.
From 1990 to 2008, the director of Somerset Place was Dorothy Spruill Redford, the great-great-great grand-daughter of Peter and Elsy Littlejohn, who had been field workers at Somerset. She’s the one who started Somerset Place on the road to including the enslaved in the Somerset story.
In 1986, before she worked for Somerset, Redford had organized the first reunion of the descendants of Somerset’s enslaved workers, at Somerset. Two thousand people attended that reunion. It’s now an annual event.