The life and death of Hardy Croom, first owner of Goodwood Plantation
His Body Was Lost, But His Legacy Lives on in Goodwood and the Law
The steam packet Home buzzed with activity as the passengers and crew readied for departure from New York City bound for Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 7, 1837. It was only the Home’s fourth such voyage. There were concerns the vessel wasn’t designed for ocean passages, but as a result of her reputation for speedy trips, excellent accommodations and the high character of her commander, Captain White, she carried a full complement of almost 90 passengers in addition to her crew of 43. Among her passengers were some of the East Coast’s most prominent families, including Hardy Bryan Croom, his wife Frances and their three children.
The normal pre-voyage excitement and gaiety may have been tempered somewhat for the Crooms due to an ongoing disagreement between the couple about where they would live. Hardy and Frances both came from wealthy North Carolina families and had lived in New Bern, N.C., since their marriage.
Frances divided her time between the social circles of New Bern, Saratoga, N.Y. and New York City, and their children were enrolled in the finest East Coast schools. Frances was not interested in changing any of these things. However, Hardy had sold most of his interests in North Carolina and bought several large plantations in the newly opened Florida territory. He had already transported all of his equipment and slaves to his new holdings and was ready for his family to join him.
In an effort to entice his wife, Hardy was planning to build a grand manor house on one of his plantations, Goodwood, located just a few miles outside of Tallahassee, the new capital of Florida.
A number of old planter families from Virginia and the Carolinas had already established themselves in the area, but Frances was not convinced. To her, Florida was a wilderness full of wild Indians and ruffians and she had no desire to relocate her family there.
They had compromised on Charleston, S.C., where Hardy could be closer to his plantations in Florida and Frances could participate in her East Coast lifestyle, but there was every indication Hardy still was planning to move his family to Goodwood.
As the Home steamed out of New York harbor that Saturday afternoon, Hardy and Frances Croom had no idea that their marital dispute over the family’s domicile would finally be decided by the Florida Supreme Court 20 years later.
Hardy Bryan Croom was educated at the University of North Carolina. He studied law and served for a short period in the state senate. His father was a wealthy planter who had started to invest in land around Tallahassee in the 1820s. When their father passed away unexpectedly, Hardy and his brother Bryan traveled to Florida to look after his estate. After they arrived, the brothers saw the value and potential in the rich red soil of the region, so they purchased additional land and established new plantations in Leon, Jefferson and Gadsden counties.
Sometime around 1832, Hardy Croom leased a plantation on the west bank of the Apalachicola River. The land directly across the river from this property was much different from the pine forests that covered so much of the Panhandle. Deep ravines cut through the high banks on the east side of the river and provided a unique ecosystem for many unusual species of plants.
Croom had a passion for botany, and while he was not formally trained, his interest and attention to detail led him to discover several new species. Among the species credited to Croom are the Croomia pauciflora, Baptisa simpliciflora, Taxus floridania and Torreya taxifloria. All were discovered in the cool, shaded ravines across the river from his plantation. Croom began to be recognized as a promising new talent in the world of botany and had several papers published in the American Journal of Science.
The steamer Home’s fourth voyage to Charleston got off to an inauspicious start as the vessel ran aground just outside of the Narrows while leaving New York. She was able to free herself around 10 p.m. and, with no apparent damage, got underway again. The first day at sea was uneventful, but by Sunday night the wind had increased significantly out of the northeast and the boat began to labor in the rising seas.
Without any warning, the Home had encountered a tropical hurricane that would become known as Racer’s Storm. Monday morning Captain White spotted Hatteras and turned the vessel out to sea in order to round the cape. The situation aboard the Home turned from bad to worse as the steamer began taking on water at an alarming rate.
John D. Roland, one of the passengers, later described the scene this way, “All hands during the time were at the pumps, and all passengers, women included, were bailing with buckets, pails, pans, etc.; the leak, however, increased constantly.” When Captain White felt he had finally cleared the Cape, he turned his vessel back towards shore. The Home was now in dire shape. As Roland described it, “… the water gained constantly. The boat worked and bent like a reed … and those best acquainted with her expected that she would break in two any moment — that she would go down and all on board would perish.”
By 6 p.m. Monday the rising water had reached the firebox and extinguished the fires, causing the engine to stop. Captain White ordered the sails set; he knew the only chance of saving his passengers and crew was to run the Home up on the beach. At about 10 p.m., the steamer struck the bottom a quarter mile from the outer line of breakers and began to come apart almost immediately.
The Home only carried three small boats. One had been stove in by the storm, another was swamped alongside before it could be loaded and the third, filled with passengers, capsized in the surf. At the time, steamboats were not required to carry life preservers and only two passengers on board had their own. Of the approximately 130 people on board the Home that night, only 39 survived. The entire Croom family perished in the sea.
Hardy Bryan Croom’s body was never recovered and, despite a letter to his brother stating that he had left a will in New York, none was ever found.
Following the wreck, the seaworthiness of the Home and the competence of Captain White were both brought into question. However, the actual cause of the disaster was probably due to the lack of accurate weather forecasting. Had Captain White known of the hurricane, he would have undoubtedly delayed his departure. The sinking of the Home with its tragic loss of life, combined with a growing number of steamboat disasters around the country, prompted Congress to pass the Steamboat Act of 1838, giving the federal government the right to inspect steamboats operating in the United States. The law was amended in 1852 to require, among other things, that these vessels carry a float or life preserver for every person on board.
Hardy Croom’s brother, Bryan, was waiting in Charleston where the Home was due to arrive from New York on October 10. Reports began to trickle in of a wreck up the coast, but it was not until the 19th that Bryan received confirmation that Hardy and his entire family had perished. Because no will was ever found, Hardy was considered to have died intestate.
The settlement of his large estate was going to be a long and complicated affair. Bryan Croom returned to Florida and, with the support of Hardy’s blood relatives, assumed the role of executor of his estate. Bryan took over the operation of Goodwood and completed the house his brother had started. He also had a monument erected in memory of Hardy Croom and his family at the southwest corner of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee.
Meanwhile, Frances Croom’s mother, Henrietta Smith, was made administratrix of Hardy Croom’s estate in North Carolina. The laws in Florida and North Carolina differed on the settlement of the estate of a person who died intestate, so the question of Hardy Croom’s domicile became the key to determining how his estate was to be divided. Mrs. Smith filed suit against the Croom family in Florida, contending that Hardy Croom’s domicile was, and always had been, New Bern, N.C., not Tallahassee.
North Carolina’s laws favored her and if she could prove that when Croom died he was still domiciled in that state, she would inherit the bulk of his estate. It took almost 20 years for the suit to be settled, but in the end the Florida Supreme Court found for Mrs. Smith. Ironically, the wreck of a steamboat named Home became the impetus for the landmark case in Florida law on determining domicile.
Croom’s memory lives on in the Tallahassee area in several ways. The marble obelisk memorializing the tragic loss of the Croom family still stands in the southwest corner of St. John’s church. The beautiful Goodwood house, built by Croom’s brother, is now surrounded by the city of Tallahassee and is open to the public.
And, most important of all, the unique ecosystems of the ravines on the east side of the Apalachicola River, with their rare and endangered plant species, are protected by the Torreya State Park and the Ravine Preserve. Modern day botanists and naturalists can walk in the footsteps of Hardy Bryan Croom and experience the same thrill of exploring such a beautiful and unique place.
Want to Know More?
There’s an entire book dedicated to Hardy Croom and his family, “The Croom Family and Goodwood Plantation: Land, Litigation, and Southern Lives” by local writers William Warren Rogers and Erica R. Clark. The trade paperback book is sold at the Goodwood Museum & Gardens gift shop.