Somerset Place was one of North Carolina's largest slaveholding plantations before the Civil War. Three generations of the Collins family owned the plantation over its eighty year tenure. More than 800 enslaved people, two free black employees, and around fifty white employees lived and labored on the 100,000 acre rice, corn and wheat plantation from 1785 to 1865. Josiah Collins III inherited the developed plantation in 1829 from his grandfather, Josiah I and his father, Josiah Jr. Josiah III became its first resident owner. He married Mary Riggs and of their union, six sons were born. Three of their sons, Edward Riggs, Hugh Daves, and William Kent Collins, died accidentally in their youth. Josiah IV, Arthur, and George Pumpelly Collins lived to reach maturity.
Somerset Place grew to be a prosperous plantation. The political debate over the issue of slavery however, threatened the future not only of Somerset Place and North Carolina as a whole but of all the southern states whose economies were dependent on enslaved labor. As northern and southern states struggled for political power to protect their interests, individuals such as Josiah Collins III, Washington County's largest planter, also took sides in the debate. After the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican whose party took an anti-slavery stance, Collins, naturally, declared himself a secessionist.
The Civil War began in 1861 and altered the lives of all Somerset residents. All three surviving sons enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. On May 26, 1861, Josiah IV was commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in the service of the Confederacy and Arthur Collins followed his brother and enlisted as a private in Co. M of the Bethel regiment. It wasn't until April 1, 1862, the last of the Collins sons, George, enlisted as a 2nd Lieutenant in Co. G, 17th Regiment. Later he was promoted to major and served with Pettigrew's Brigade for the duration of the war.
By August 29, 1861, federal forces had captured Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark, just over 100 miles from Somerset Place. Earlier in July, fearing just such an advancement of the Union forces, the Collinses, left Somerset Place to travel approximately 200 miles to Hillsborough in Orange County. Before leaving, Collins hid silver in the Overseer's House (which was never recovered), furniture in the enslaved community's homes, and left behind their enslaved people, their overseers George Spruill and Lloyd Bateman, and the plantation Episcopal minister, Rev. George Patterson to take care of the plantation and make reports to him.
Once in Hillsborough, they waited out the war behind Confederate lines along with other family members at the former Burwell School for young ladies. The school building was later purchased by other family members and was renamed "Beehive" because of all the activity surrounding the school due to the large number of people using it as a refuge. A few personal servants and Collins' coachman, Wellington Roberts, accompanied them to Hillsborough.
Meanwhile, back on the coast, the Burnside Expedition captured, Roanoke Island, located approximately 64 miles from Somerset on February 8, 1862. By the end of February, Union forces controlled all the nearby ports including Edenton and Plymouth. On July 21, and again on July 27, 1862, Union forces arrived at Somerset to seize supplies. Both of these visits were reported in great detail to Josiah Collins, III by Rev. Patterson.
These reports compelled Collins to purchase two tracts of land in Franklin County near his distant cousin, William A. Eaton. By the end of October 1862, Collins hurriedly moved 171 enslaved men, women and children behind Confederate lines to the newly-acquired plantation aptly named Hurry Scurry to keep them from running off after the Union Army. His cousin, Eaton, would serve as the general manager of Hurry Scurry. This action separated families which was one of the most feared events for the enslaved community. Around sixty members of Somerset's enslaved people, too ill or old to travel, remained at Somerset under overseer, George Spruill's watchful eye.
Most of the enslaved members, mainly women and children, were taken to Hurry Scurry in Franklin County accompanied by overseer, Lloyd Bateman. Collins contracted some of the men and younger enslaved boys out to work with Joseph Woods, a commissioned agent, as well as with the North Carolina Railroad Company. Later some of the enslaved men worked on the fortifications at Wilmington and 13 others worked at hospitals near Raleigh including, Pettigrew, Kittrell's Springs, Fairgrounds and Peace. All this further divided families.
By January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect, freeing only the slaves in the areas of the South still in rebellion. The slaves at Somerset Place were not immediately affected by the proclamation but a month later, Union Maj. Henry Bartholomew stationed near Plymouth visited Somerset Place and informed Josiah III's remaining sixty enslaved people that they were free and could leave; most stayed, except under their own rules. Over the next months, a great deal of damage and looting took place at Somerset, some conducted by former members of the enslaved community and some by local Unionists.
On June 1, 1863, five members of the enslaved community at Hurry Scurry attempted to run away and headed back to their familiar home at Somerset Place. Two young girls were captured near Tarboro and returned to Hurry Scurry. By June 12th 1863, Josiah Collins III died at the age of 55 in Hillsborough at the Burwell School (Beehive) leaving his wife Mary, who had suffered a stroke in 1860, to tend financial matters. Even though enslaved people were hired out to work during the war, the economic burden of relocation and survival during the war proved to be too much. During the war many members of the enslaved community at Hurry Scurry became ill, resulting in twenty deaths and thus, greater loss of revenue.
The Civil War and slavery ended by 1865 and completely altered Somerset Place. George Collins was the first member of the Collins family to return to Somerset after the war ended. He wrote several letters to his wife Annie explaining the uninhabitable state of the plantation. By May 1865, Arthur and Josiah IV reunited with their brother George at Somerset. Josiah IV and his family along with his mother, Mary Collins, moved back to the property at Somerset Place to live although efforts to revive Somerset Place and repay the debts Josiah III incurred, were not successful. The Collinses could not afford to pay wages to Somerset's newly freed enslaved community. The enslaved community reunited with family members and eventually moved on to find employment as farm laborers for yeoman farmers, loggers, and domestic workers. By 1870, the former enslaved community had all left the plantation.
George Collins later decided to manage Fairntosh Plantation owned by his father-in-law, Paul Cameron. George then moved to Tunica County, Mississippi to manage another Cameron owned plantation. Later on he settled in Hillsborough and worked as a businessman in Durham N.C. Josiah IV later moved to Hillsborough and resumed the practice of law. Arthur managed to retain the 1,450 acre tract of land on the plantation referred to as Weston Farm that he acquired earlier from a family deed. Arthur hired hands to help him on the farm and lived there for many years. Hurry Scurry was sold on January 12, 1867, with all proceeds to be used to clear up debts. Mary Collins was economically forced to auction all the estate's belongings after the war and transferred title to Somerset Place on February 12, 1867 to her nephew, William Shepard to clear more debts. Mary Collins was allowed to live at Somerset Place for the remainder of her life and died on April 29, 1872 in the Colony House, her sons' former boarding school. The institution of slavery that vitally supported the plantation's business ceased as a result of the war and paralyzed Somerset to function in its previous capacity as a productive and wealthy plantation.