In 1860 one of the largest and most successful plantations in North Carolina was Somerset Place. In the course of becoming one of the state’s most prosperous rice, corn, and wheat plantations, the plantation’s owner, Josiah Collins, became one of the largest slaveholders in the state.
Somerset Place covered as many as 100,000 acres and was home to more than three hundred enslaved men, women, and children of African descent. They worked in the fields, tending to the rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax, in the sawmills that turned trees into lumber, and in the main house as servants. In fact, “over the life of the plantation and through three generations of owners, around 50 white employees, two free black employees, and more than 850 enslaved people lived and worked on the plantation.”
When the American Civil War ended and President Abraham Lincoln signed the two executive orders known now as the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery ended in North Carolina. Given that the economy of the southern plantation system was founded on the “free” labor from slaves, Somerset Place collapsed as the newly freed slaves left the plantation.
Dorothy Spruill Redford is the descendant of some of those former slaves. Redford spent ten years tracing the lives of Somerset’s slave families and their descendants. Her research took her to county courthouses and state archives as well as the front porches of people who passed along their family stories that had been passed down from generation to generation.
The UNC Press published the paperback of Redford’s book detailing her journey of discovery, Somerset Homecoming, in 2000. Today Dorothy Redford was interviewed on WUNC’s “The State of Things” and spoke about her family history and her genealogical research and it’s place in North Carolina history.