plant, misspelled monument tell
dramatic tale of tragedy 100 yards from dry land
Botanist Hardy Bryan Croom drowned
with wife, three children, leaving
relatives to contend for his rich plantation land, slaves in Tallahassee
By Michael E. Abrams
In our modern day and age, hurricanes are well-charted by satellite.
Ships are warned and take action.
But there was no way to predict deadly hurricanes 170 years ago. Such a
storm struck a steamship and drowned most of its 120-130 passengers and
crew off the coast of North Carolina in October 1837, only a hundred
yards from shore.
Therein lies the story.
It is enshrined in Florida history. The tragic tale is also of a family
split asunder in a bid to inherit rich plantation lands near
The tale reaches those today who are curious to learn about a
little-known green plant
that survives from ancient flora which once spread from the Orient
America, or a large tree called the Torreya which has practically
A botanical gem, the bright-green plant,
four-leaved and about the size of a saucer, is named
for pioneer botanist and planter Hardy
Bryan Croom. He was wealthy North
Carolina slaveholder and prominent citizen of both North Carolina and
A successful planter, he grew cotton, sugarcane, corn and rice on land
had purchased land in Leon
County -- once granted to the Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette for
this country in the Revolutionary War.
Croom, an energetic investor, also owned
Marianna on the west bank of the Apalachicola River. This is where he
must have found this plant, while
exploring the banks and
beautiful ravines. On his
hundreds of acres nearby, slaves produced
healthy crops of cotton and sugarcane and barrels of molasses.
He was a product of the
Age of Enlightenment, where gentleman farmers, like Thomas Jefferson,
also botanists, geologists, architects, artists, inventors. It was an
age of such amazing versatility. Modern education in the United States
affords the opportunity, but our acquisitive culture and endless
witless amusements, from television to hip hop to sports
fanaticism, have mitigated against the full development of the
intellect and created generations of "consumers."
Croom discovered the
Torreya tree, Torreya taxifolia,
another rare species, and named it for for Dr. John Torrey, a
collaborator and well-known botanist in New York. This large tree, once
thriving along the river, has almost disappeared through what some say
is a fungal blight.
In return, Dr. Torrey dubbed Croom's herb
"the croomia." It is known only in Gadsden
and Liberty Counties in
Florida, and further north in Georgia and Alabama. It is rare in those
parts, too, found in niches that survived huge
changes in climate over millions
Related plants are
extinct except for pockets and scattered
Daniel Ward in Rare and Endangered
Biota of Florida. Croomia
pauciflora ('small flowers'
Latin) exists in
only three species, two in southern Japan and one in the Southeastern
U.S., he writes.
not enjoy living in Florida's summer heat. He did, however, relish
where he could
explore and botanize. He suffered from problems with his lungs,
and sought to move his family from New Bern, N.C. to Charleston, S.C.,
Florida lands. Charleston also afforded an intellectual
atmosphere equal to any city in the country, Croom wrote.
The Croom family
boarded the recently built steamboat "Home" in New York for
Charleston. In that day, there was no way to predict where hurricanes
might strike. This one, known as "Racer's Storm" had hit
Yucatan and Texas and crossed over the
southeastern United States, exiting in the Atlantic off the coast of
Croom and his wife Frances and their three children perished when their
down in the hurricane off Cape
Hatteras, N.C., in October, 1837.
He was 40 years old.
family's death at sea resulted in a fierce 20-year legal battle by his
remaining heirs, which eventually went to the Florida Supreme Court.
of which family member died last in the swirling waters became a matter
of speculation, debate and testimony. Florida and North Carolina laws
clashed on inheritance rules.
The outcome of the trial resulted in bad news for Croom's brother
eventually had to sell the plantation Goodwood.
The brother and wife
moved to Montgomery, Alabama, leaving behind what has been called one
of the classic ante-bellum homes remaining in the South. It is now
a landmark and attracts many visitors in Tallahassee. It passed through
many hands and has always been a social center for Tallahassee.
who is said to have translated a work of the French philosopher
Voltaire into English and presented the copy to the Marquis de
Lafayette, is pictured here, courtesy of
State of Florida Collection.
He is memorialized in North Florida
with a marker
at St. John's Episcopal Church in Tallahassee. The church was
established in 1829, eight years before he died, and the current
cornerstone was laid in 1838.
March, 1872, Dr. Torrey, 76, on a visit to Florida, came to Tallahassee
for four days. It
had been more than than 40 years after his good friend's death.
elderly man sat
by the obelisk-like monument at the Episcopal church and copied the
epitaph that visitors to the church may still read and marvel over. It
the epitaph of a person who bears emulation in our
with its slick promotion of false values and emphasis on cheap
himself, died within the year.
Like many educated men
living in the South, Hardy
Croom did not question the institution of slavery. It was accepted as
His thoughts, whatever they were, probably stood in contrast to
those of his friend Alvan Chapman (we have seen his first name spelled
"Alvin" also), the
surgeon and noted botanist from Massachusetts whose Yankee sympathies
were well-known in his home in Apalachicola. It
would be interesting to
know if they had conversations about such things. They botanized
flower, growing in Gadsden County.
Croom epitaph was
chiseled into the white marble. Perhaps Dr. Torrey did not notice,
wrote the Torrey Botanical Club, that his
friend's name on the monument was misspelled "Byran."Newspaper
obituaries, even in our day of computers, sometimes contain misspelled
Most families are quite upset when
incorrect information is put into an obituary. This is why
newspapers now rely on
the mortician for the information, rather than friends or the police,
for instance, and why, if the family wants to print a longer obituary,
they have to
submit it in their own words and pay for it by the inch. A
misspelled grave marker is much worse.
In the sadness, perhaps no one noticed. This misspelling may simply
have been a result of the way his name was pronounced in the deep
South. Such things, in abundance of kindness, may have been best
overlooked. Too, it was probably
expensive to order a change – perhaps a new monument. It is said that
the marble was given by
someone whose name remains a mystery. Was it possible the donor
was not present during the dedication?
Here are the words:
Episcopal Church in
Tallahassee and the marble
monument for Hardy Bryan
Croom, his wife and three
children who died with him in
1837 on the steamboat
"Home." It is said the
steamboat broke up in hurricane winds only a
short distance from shore. Survivors testified of the
horrific winds and waves that washed passengers into
was amiable without weakness, learned without arrogance, wealthy
without ostentation, and Benevolent without parade. He sought not the
world's admiration, but noiselessly pursued his path through life,
finding his purest early pleasure in the bosom of his family, the
society of his friends, and the companionship of his books. The best
tribute to his worth can be found in the affectionate
remembrance of those who having known him from boyhood, loved him while
living, and deplored him dead.'
The croomia was
growing in rich leaf
litter in a mixed forest in Gadsden
County, probably only a few miles from where Croom did his botanizing.
It was found growing in a couple of small shaded plots on a
probably about 8 inches in width, and the
flower is about the size of a button and dances in the breeze.
Sources: Bulletin of the
Torrey Botanical Club,
April-June 1986; The Croom
Family and Goodwood Plantation by William Warren Rogers and
Erica R. Clark, University of Georgia Press, 1999; Florida State
University Strozier Library Rare Manuscripts – Letters of Hardy Bryan Croom; thanks
to Leigh Brooks for alerting us to the plants in Gadsden County.
Photographs of plant and church, copyright M.E. Abrams. Readers may purchase
books related to the Crooms and Florida history by clicking below.
These are from Amazon.com and are priced very competitively. The
Goodwood book may also be found in the rare book collection at Strozier
Library at Florida State University.