The Lake Company: Hunters discovered Lake Phelps, deep in the “Great Alligator Dismal Swamp” of Tyrell County, in 1755. In 1784 the North Carolina legislature authorized a company headed by W.R. Davie to drain the 1700 acre lake. At that time Edenton politician and land speculator Josiah Collins, Sr. (1735-1819) entered into an agreement with Dr. Samuel Dickinson and Nathaniel Allen, who were partners in the venture with Davie, to develop land near the lake. Collins named his group The Lake Company and apparently intended that it would compliment the Davie group’s efforts.
That original company, however, died out. In 1787, therefore, The Lake Company received legislative authorization to drain Lake Phelps. Instead, The Lake Company outfitted a guineaman, which they dispatched to Africa to obtain slaves. That new work force completed a six mile long, twenty foot wide canal to Lake Phelps the following year at a cost of $30,000. The company eventually built a series of still existing canals running north from Lake Phelps to the Scuppernong River. Rapidly, The Lake Company acquired almost 110,000 acres of land between Lake Phelps and the Scuppernong River to the north and east. With 113 slaves on site in 1790, The Lake Company had completed by 1794 two sawmills, a grist mill, and a rice machine along the canal, which today enters Lake Phelps on its north side, near the 1830 mansion built for Somerset Plantation.
The Lake Company focused at first on rice and wheat, with the canal furnishing irrigation in addition to transportation and water power for the mills. The company soon, however, turned to corn, lumber, staves, and shingles as its primary products. The 1800 census found the firm owning at least 73 slaves. Hugh Williamson, a confidant of Collins and pioneer historian of the state, estimated the value of The Lake Company in 1816 at $600,000.
Collins ignored Williamson’s advice that he not attempt to buy out his partners. Collins became enamored of the idea as both Allen and Dickinson built up debts to him to such an extent that he filed suit against them in 1794. Four years later, Dickinson “made over” one-half of his holdings, in other words one sixth of The Lake Company, to Francis Peyrinnaut. Within two years, Collins purchased that portion for $7764.50. In 1800 Collins acquired the remainder of the Dickinson portion of The Lake Company from the doctor’s estate for $5000. Allen held on to his third until 1816, when Collins acquired it for $10,000. With full ownership of The Lake Company tract, Collins renamed the property Somerset Plantation. Portions of it are now preserved as Somerset Plantation State Historic Site, Pettigrew State Park, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
For more information: William S. Tarlton, Somerset Place and Its Restoration (1954)
A.C. Menius III, “Josiah Collins, Sr.,” Dictionary of North Carolina Biography: Volume One, (Summer 1979)