LAKE PHELPS

April 27, 2021

Washington County, North Carolina

Have you ever walked through an old house filled with such character that you have wondered, “If only this house could talk, I wonder what tales it would speak?” Lake Phelps, located in Washington County, North Carolina and just seven miles south of Creswell off of US 64, is full of hidden tales and wonderment.

The lake was discovered in 1755 by Josiah Phelps. Not much is known about his life except what has been passed down through many Phelps generations. Family traditions place him in Ireland as a young lad and returning there not long after the discovery of the lake. He sailed back to America after a short stay in Ireland and lived out the rest of his life in North Carolina. Many Phelps descendants still live in Washington County. According to Phelps family members the discovery of the lake goes something like this. Josiah and his brother, Long John, were exploring a thick forest when they came upon a bear cub. Knowing that its mother could not be far behind they became very cautious and not to their surprise, the mother showed up not too friendly. They climbed a tree to avoid her attack and while up the tree they saw a lake. When they finally left the tree, Josiah ran to the lake and staked it as his claim. There are different versions of the story one of which has a Benjamin Tarkington up the tree and first spotting the lake. This goes to show that there are always two sides to a story.

Although Josiah’s discovery was the beginning of colonial development on the lake, it was home to many Native Americans thousands of years before. [1]In 1992 prehistoric dugout canoes were discovered on the lakes bottom. Of the thirty canoes discovered so far, nineteen have been radiocarbon-dated, the oldest dating back as far as 2430 B.C.  making it the second oldest dugout canoe in the nation. Two of the canoes are on display near the lake’s boat ramp. When you view these canoes you are amazed at how narrow the dugouts are. The longest canoe is 37 feet with most of its trunk hollowed out just wide enough for a person to stoop in.. Many artifacts were also discovered and archeological studies are continuing along the lake banks. The findings within the depths of this 16,000 acre lake may well release an understanding of the first inhabitants on the lake that we have not known before. [2]It is believed that the Algonquian Indians that once flourished here died of disease before the discovery by Josiah.

Once the lake was discovered it did not take long before the American colonists saw ways to utilize its natural wealth. Two prominent families that built plantations by the lake begin to stand out from this period. During the 1780-90’s Charles Pettigrew and Josiah Collins began to develop the land surrounding the lake. They each built canals to the Scuppernong River that eventually gave them shipping passages to the West Indies and New York.

Charles Pettigrew was the first bishop of the Episcopal Church of North Carolina. He also owned two plantations; Belgrade and Bonarva located at Lake Phelps. Charles had five children of which only one would live to adulthood. This child, Ebenezer, was a visionary and eventually made the plantation at Bonarva successful by shipping primarily wheat and corn by way of his own schooner to Charleston, Norfolk and New York.  He eventually ran for congress in 1835 serving one term.

Ebenezer had nine children and suffered the loss of four before adulthood. His son James Johnston Pettigrew became a general for the confederacy during the Civil War and fought at Gettysburg where he was wounded during the charge on Cemetery Ridge. He received a more fatal wound during the withdrawal at Gettysburg and died on July 14, 1863. Situated on Lake Phelps is the Pettigrew State Park which encompasses the lake, Somerset Place State Historic Site and part of the Bonarva plantation. The mansion no longer exists but the Pettigrew family cemetery can be visited during park hours.

The second plantation built along the Lake Phelps shores was called Somerset. This plantation was one of the largest in the State by the 1830’s. Josiah Collins began cultivating the plantation before the turn of the century which eventually became home to two generations of Collins. This ante-bellum plantation consisted of several out buildings such as; the kitchen, smokehouse, dairy, Colony House, slave quarters, hospital and main house. Many of these buildings are still standing and are open to the public. The main house is exceptionally well cared for and is filled with period furnishings including some from the Collins family collection.

Archeology has played a large part in understanding the life styles, culture and traditions of those that inhabited this ante-bellum plantation. Over three hundred slaves worked the plantation, dug the canals and built the many out buildings. Much of the archeology being conducted will eventually result in the recreation of several buildings in the slave community.*  Somerset Place is home to periodic reunions of slave descendants and Collins family members. The park is also used for many family reunions each year.

From its modest beginning when the Algonquin Indians fished the lake and hunted in the virgin forests, to the discovery by an Irish immigrant named Phelps, to the development of two plantations by men of vision, Lake Phelps has housed all of the secrets of the men and women that used its resources for thousands of years. As each year passes with new discoveries of the past what will it whisper to us?

I would like to leave you with a short passage from  “The Pettigrew Papers” written by Charles Pettigrew in a letter to John Leigh, June 29, 1790.” On my right is the Lake, which gives an extensive prospect, & presents me with a fine southern & western Horizon over the tops of a circular streak of woods… A vast plain of water fills the intermediate space, which, in respect to the time, & the manner of its formation into so large & beautiful a Reservoir, must ever be a subject of, conjecture only, as neither tradition nor history afford any assistance to the curious enquirer.”

Park Information

For more information on Lake Phelps visit the following web sites; North Carolina Discoveries, http://www.nando.net,  NC Archaeology: Phelps Lake Canoes, http://www.arch.dcr.state.nc.ussitesphelps.,htm.  Pettigrew State Park, http://ils.unc.edu/parkproject/pett.html.

Direct contact can be made to the park by calling; 919-797-4475

The park offers, hiking trails, picnicking, camping, fishing, boating and educational programs as well as the Somerset Place Historic Site


[1] Mark Wilde-Ramsing, Underwater Unit, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, reprint from the NEWSLETTER of the North Carolina Archaeological Society, Winter 1992, Volume 2, Number 4. NC Archaeology: Phelps Lake Canoes website, http://www.arch.dcr.state.nc.us/site/phelps;htm

[2] e-mail, Sid Shearin, Superintendent, Pettigrew State Park

[3] The Pettigrews of North Carolina, brochure by, Northeastern Historic Places Office, Historic Sites Section North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

[4] Somerset Place, An Insightful View of life on an Antebellum Plantation, brochure by North Carolina Historic Sites Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources

[5] Edited by Sarah McCulloh Lemmon “The Pettigrew Papers Volume I 1685-1818” excerpt from a letter written by Charles Pettigrew to John Leigh, June 29, 1790 page 89.

(c) 1998