Joshua Collins I eventually bought out his partners and the next three generations of Collins owned Somerset (named after Somerset, England, where Joshua I was born). It’s Joshua III who, after his marriage to Mary Riggs of Newark, New Jersey in 1829, decides to build a large house at Somerset Place and make it his family’s home.
Joshua III becomes a state senator and Joshua and Mary host lavish, multi-day house parties. An article about Joshua III on the North Carolina encyclopedia website says that he and his wife practiced an “aggressive type of hospitality.”
Tragedy struck the family in 1843 when two of Joshua and Mary’s six sons, along with the sons’ two personal enslaved child attendants, drown in a canal that runs in front of the house. Joshua I had been the one who had directed the building of the canal, to drain water from his swampy land. It took about 100 enslaved laborers (80 of them imported directly from Africa for that purpose) two years to dig the six mile canal, with many dying during the task. The death of the sons in the canal juxtaposed with the death of the canal laborers could be the plot of a southern gothic novel.
The site includes 31 acres and seven of the original buildings. All of the originals are located within the owner’s compound, surrounded by a fence. Former slaves, reminiscing in the early 20th century about their lives at the plantation, said that they weren’t allowed inside the fence unless expressly summoned.
The tour went into one of the original dependencies — the long building above. It had a kitchen on one side of a large fireplace, and a laundry room on the other.
The Collins house has been restored to the way it would have been in the 1830s, in Joshua III and Mary’s heyday. Most of the original furnishings were lost through the years, but some of it has returned as gifts from the Collins family or others. The rest of the furniture is of the period, but not original to the house.
The study floor shows nail scars where modern kitchen cabinets were pulled out during restoration.
House museums almost never allow visitors above the second floor (“fire code” restrictions is the usual excuse) so an unexpected part of the tour was seeing the third floor. It holds, as do many homes of the wealthy, the nursery and children’s area. Joshua and Mary employed a free woman of color, Charlotte Cabarrus, as a nursemaid. She became their housekeeper once the boys no longer needed her, and she died at Somerset in 1860. The Collins established an on-site boarding school for the boys and when they were old enough, the boys moved out of the house and into the school building.
Fun fact: the Collins, at one point, tried to established French as their family language. The effort, apparently, didn’t last long.
Joshua III died in 1863 and Mary, though money was tight, managed to scrape by at Somerset until her death in 1872. Without the means to support the property without free labor, the three remaining Collins children (a third son was killed young, in a riding accident) sold up and moved away. In 1939, the main house at Somerset and the few buildings remaining upright became state property. It became a state historic site in 1969.
The English couple, Mr. History Tourist and I were the only ones on the Somerset tour. The tours aren’t regularly scheduled — they just do them when people show up and are interested. Visitors can also wander the property on their own.
I usually like to do my own thing, but I’d highly recommend doing the Somerset tour. I’ve been to Somerset twice and both times, the guides have been exceptional. Mr. History Tourist declared that the young woman we had this time was his all-time favorite historic site guide and said that he enjoyed the tour. He has almost no tolerance for guided tours, so that’s saying a lot.