The Lakes
By John Paul Lilly
Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept Soil Science
North Carolina State University
There are two natural freshwater lakes in the county. Lake Phelps is a clear, sand-bottom lake 16,000 acres in size and the second largest natural lake in North Carolina. Pungo Lake covers 2560 acres and is a blackwater lake. Lake Phelps is entirely within Pettigrew State Park and Pungo Lake is part of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Pungo Lake
Pung Lake Observation Deck
Lake Phelps forms the headwaters of the Scuppernong River and occupies the highest elevation of the general area. It is sustained almost exclusively by direct rainfall. The elevation of the Lake rim is about 14-15 feet above sea level, but somewhat lower on the north shore. Before development in the 1790s, water flowed over the north rim and through a cypress forest before reaching the Scuppernong River. Some old maps show a drainage way connected to the Lake, but this was probably a "slough" through the organic surface that disappeared as the area was cleared and the organic surface subsided. Edmund Ruffin (1860) estimated that the area north of the Lake had lost 3 feet of organic surface by the 1830s. The Lake is as much as 7 feet deep in places, but averages much less. The age of Lake Phelps is not known, but indirect evidence indicates that it has been relatively stable for many years. Indian dugout canoes found in the Lake have been dated to about 4000 years B. P. There is evidence that the Lake extended further to the west at some time in the past.

Lake Phelps was the focus for one of the earliest large-scale land development schemes in eastern North Carolina. After the Revolutionary War, investment interest turned to land development for agriculture (Pomeroy and Yoho, 1964). One of the easiest ways to obtain farmland was to drain a natural lake. A group of investors from Edenton realized that Lake Phelps (sometimes referred to as Lake Scuppernong) was higher than the Scuppernong River, and obtained permission from the state to drain and farm the lake bottom. Fortunately, before that was accomplished, they decided to use the lake as an irrigation source for rice to be grown north of the lake. In 1784 the North Carolina General Assembly authorized them to proceed and gave them seven years in which to complete the project (Tarlton, 1954). The investors, led by Josiah Collins, formed "The Lake Company" and acquired a total of nearly 110,000 acres of land. Collins also privately owned and additional 60,000 acres of land lying to the east of the Lake. These land holdings, covering about 170,000 acres, must have included much of what is now Washington and Tyrrell Counties south of the higher land along Albemarle Sound.

The enterprise was considered a great success. A ship was sent to Africa for slaves, a canal was dug from Lake Phelps to the Scuppernong River, land was cleared, and rice was planted. The story of these slaves and their descendants is told in Dorothy Redfern's book, "Somerset Homecoming". (Redfern, 1988). The canal was utilized for drainage, irrigation, waterpower, and navigation. Horizontal turbine water wheels (tub mills) provided water power for a sawmill and for grain handling and corn shelling. The production of cypress lumber was a lucrative accompaniment for the farming operation (Ruffin, 1839). Initially rice was grown, but within a few years attention turned to corn and wheat.

By the 1830s Collins had gained full control of the plantation and named it Somerset Place in honor of the family holdings in England. The success of Somerset Place attracted other investors to the swampland north of the Lake, most notably the Pettigrew family on their plantation called Bonarva. By this time, Washington County had been formed from Tyrrell County, and the original canal was used as the new county line. Thus the Collins family lived at Somerset Place in Washington County and the Pettigrews lived immediately next door at Bonarva in Tyrrell County. A wealth of information concerning the life of the plantations is contained in "The Pettigrew Papers" (Lemmon, 1771, 1988). When Edmund Ruffin visited the area in 1839, he found a total of about 5,000 acres in cultivation by five or six proprietors

The lake plantations continued in operation until the Civil War. The occupation of the area by Union Troops and the resulting disruption of plantation life have been well described in "War of another Kind" (Durrill, 1990). Most of the assets of a slave-operated plantation were tied up in the value of the slaves themselves, and the end of the war caused large losses of capital. For example, in 1860 Somerset Place had 328 slaves valued for tax purposes at $325,000. In 1869, a remnant of the plantation, some 4,428 acres, was sold to pay a debt of only $10,000 (Sharpe, 1961).

The property associated with Somerset Place has been divided and subdivided many times over the years. Immediately after the Civil War, much of the land was farmed by tenants. In 1937, the Federal Farm Security Administration acquired a portion of the land and incorporated it into the Scuppernong Farms Settlement project (Tarlton, 1954). This project was in response to the great depression of the 1920s and 30s. It was an attempt by the federal government to settle self-sustaining small farmers on small tracts of land. The Prosperity of the Second World War and changing social conditions, resulted in the failure of the Scuppernong Farms project, and the land was sold at auction in 1945. Today, the land is occupied by a prosperous community of family farmers.