CRESWELL, N.C. — More than two centuries after Josiah Collins and two partners started carving fields and farms out of the swampy wilderness of northeastern North Carolina, a visit to Somerset Place provides a glimpse of the human toll of plantation life.

Collins and his partners sent a ship to Africa's West Coast in 1786 and brought back 80 slaves with the expertise to grow rice. The slaves dug canals to drain the swampy land and to allow boats to ship harvests to the Albemarle Sound six miles north, then out to the wider world. The plantation eventually encompassed up to 100,000 acres — making it the state's third-largest slave-holding plantation — and produced rice, corn and wheat.

The plantation is one of 32 historic, cultural and natural sites spread across 15 northeastern counties that make up the Historic Albemarle Tour, a self-guided driving tour of the state's past. The region includes some of the state's most remote locations — the Outer Banks and towns around the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds.

The area's best known historic site — the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills — isn't on the tour. Instead, the path winds mostly through small towns like Windsor, Halifax, Corolla and Jackson — places that hope to entice vacationers heading back and forth from the Outer Banks to stop for a short visit and contemplate other aspects of North Carolina's past.

At Albemarle, infectious diseases were so prevalent that the plantation built its own hospital, with a full-time physician who treated residents of the slave quarters and the big house alike. Once measles or dysentery broke out, residents could die a dozen at a time, no matter their race or social class, said Dot Redford, who manages the state historic site located at the former plantation.

"Enslaved people were really a major investment on plantations like this," Redford said. "They were isolated in the hospital to prevent the infections from spreading throughout the enslaved community."

Other stops on the tour include Washington County's Plymouth, population 4,000. A pamphlet promoting Plymouth takes a deliberately modest approach, asking tourists to give the town a mere five minutes.

The short drive through Plymouth — founded in 1787 by four New England investors intent on harvesting the area's lumber, shingles and naval tar and turpentine — leads visitors past an 1832 United Methodist church and a home that retains bullet holes from the Civil War.

Those with more than five minutes to spare can check out the CSS Albemarle, a floating 63-foot replica of a Confederate ironclad that cruises the Roanoke River for a half-hour beginning at noon each summer day.

Plymouth was the site of a three-day Civil War battle in 1864 in which the 158-foot original ironclad helped drive Union forces from town, preserving a railroad supply lifeline from Wilmington, the only significant Southern port still in Confederate hands, to the South's capital city of Richmond, Va.

Going way, way back in time, the Aurora Fossil Museum, in the Beaufort County town of the same name, displays five rooms of fossilized bones, teeth, shells and coral pulled from the nearby PCS Phosphate mine.

On Hatteras Island, the Frisco Native American Museum & Natural History Center has a collection of artifacts and displays highlighting the culture of the island's original inhabitants and that of Indian tribes across the United States.

In Manteo, costumed actors copping a period English dialect explain the boredom, terrors and labors of mariners and colonists aboard the Elizabeth II. The vessel berthed in Roanoke Island Festival Park is a reproduction of a 16th century ship similar to one used to transport the first British colonists to North Carolina's shore in 1585.

The tour also features stops in Bath, the state's first town and haunt of the pirate Blackbeard, and Edenton, the state's second town and site of an important protest by Colonial women. In 1774, more than 50 of Edenton's leading ladies signed a pledge vowing they would not consume East India Tea, showing that Southern merchants were in line with Boston's revolutionaries in opposing British tea taxes.

At Somerset Place, the school groups and history buffs can see the former plantation's main house, built by Josiah Collins III around 1830. The house has expansive porches and high windows, a spacious lawn and formal garden, and was filled with pricey furnishings.

Seeing the antebellum graciousness enjoyed by the owners — while their slaves struggled to survive, kept in line by poor, white overseers — draws visitors off the beaten path through Creswell, a rural town of 280 where most new construction is mobile homes.

The plantation is eight miles south of U.S. 64, the main thoroughfare between Raleigh and the Outer Banks.

"We are on the way to and from the Outer Banks and we are a day trip from the Outer Banks," said Redford, the historic site's manager. "As the Outer Banks go, we go."


If you go. . .

Historic Albemarle tour: For information about the 32 sites on the Historic Albemarle Tour, visit www.albemarle-nc.com/hat or call 800-734-1117.

Somerset Place: 2572 Lake Shore Road, Creswell, N.C.; www.albemarle-nc.com/somerset/ or 252-797-4560. Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.