In the 1600s the land that is
today Hofwyl Plantation was a tidal swamp of marsh, mud and dense
vegetation. Trees of cypress, along with gum and ash, grew in the tenuous
soil matted by impenetrable undergrowth of grape vines and briars. The damp
and puddled soil was part of the broad river delta of the Altamaha as it
flooded a wide plain on its way to the sea. The rich ground gave life to a
huge variety of plants and animals, which germinated and incubated in its
embrace. While the area teemed with life, human occupation had been long
delayed because of the damp, heat and pestilent mosquitoes and other
insects. The home of alligators and snakes, it was hostile to man.
In the 1600s, though, the land began to look different to the new breed of
men on the Atlantic shore. Farmers, they could not help but appreciate the
richness of regular alluvial deposits that perennially built new topsoil.
Initially uncommitted to a particular crop, these English immigrants
recognized the vast job of clearing and draining that must be undertaken if
the land was to be arable. And so, Georgia's coastal lowlands waited.
The colony of Georgia founded in 1733 was designed by English Trustees who
envisioned it as a source of crops that would favor Britain's balance of
trade worldwide. While silkworms and mulberry trees, grape vines and other
crops were hoped for, the environment of Georgia was not cooperative.
Further, the Trustees' limits of land grants to 50 acres and the prohibition
against slavery effectively prevented the development of early plantations
found in other Southern colonies. With these restrictions, then, Georgia
shrunk in population from 1737 to 1742. Recognizing the likely abandonment
of the colony, the Trustees removed the ban on slavery in 1749, lifted land
restrictions in 1750 and in 1757, gave up their charter. By 1754 the colony
was Royal and quickly began a rapid economic boom.
South Carolina had followed Virginia's unsuccessful attempt at rice
cultivation. While its early development is not clearly documented, it is
known that west coast African slaves were skilled in its cultivation, and
significantly, seemingly immune to malaria. Not until the 20th century did
medical research identify the development of genetic traits in blood cell
shape that caused the near-immunity. However, this same genetic adaptation
gave rise to sickle cell trait, still especially high in low country
African-American populations. South Carolina's planters had become rich from
rice. Now Georgia, too, could import large quantities of laborers and
acquire huge tracts of land. Quickly, the lands along the Savannah River
were converted to rice and aspiring planters repeated these successes along
the Ogeechee, Medway and Altamaha rivers. The wealth of the rice coast was
tied to the system of plantations and slaves to such an extent that the
first U.S. census in 1790 reported blacks made up 69.9% of the total
population of the rice coast, the largest concentration of slaves in the
South. Because the needed land and slaves required such a large capital
outlay, many initial planters were from South Carolina, as was William
Brailsford who initially created the Hofwyl-Broadfield rice plantation
between 1803 and 1806.
The unique rice culture evolved into a lifestyle limited to the low country
of Georgia and South Carolina. While characteristics of that life for white
planters and their families were similar to those of other plantation
aristocrats, the isolation and absentee landlordship which resulted from the
unhealthy climate did bring some variations. For the black population of the
rice country, the cultural differences were far more distinct and remain to
some extent even today. The development of the patois of Geechee-Gullah
dialects, the social and religious customs such as "The Shout" and other
cultural distinctions were the result of the isolation, numerical dominance
and continuous contact with new arrivals from west coast Africa. These
factors have resulted in the highest rating of African cultural retentions
in the United States' Negro population.
The lands along the South bank of the Altamaha which became the
Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation had initially been named by the Spanish, the
Guale territory, an area that ranged from the Savannah to the St Mary's
River. Peopled mostly by the Yemasee Indians and administered loosely by
Spanish garrisons and missions, the area became involved in the rivalry of
the Old World for the New. English colonists in South Carolina were
successful in gaining a fort to guard against Spanish threats, Fort King
George. The founding of Georgia, followed by English settlements at Darien
and Frederica, further established English claims. While the Spanish did not
cede these lands willingly, the 1763 Peace of Paris eliminated Spanish
claims to the St. Mary's River.
Georgia's Royal Governor James Wright successfully defeated South Carolina's
bid for the area after appeals to the Board of Trade. In October of 1763,
the area was annexed to Georgia. Prior to that, however, 56 petitions for
land grants had been made to South Carolinians. Only four attempted to
develop their claims, among these Henry Laurens of South Carolina and
Lachlan McIntosh of Georgia. These two maneuvered through buying, selling
and trading to gain three contiguous tracts from which the Hofwyl-Broadfield
Plantation would be created: Broughton Island, Broadface and New Hope.
Laurens and McIntosh remained involved in the development of the area,
Laurens planting Broughton Island in 1767 in rice and hemp. The next year,
he began to develop New Hope. McIntosh, busy with development of his
General's Island plantation, left Broadface undeveloped. The American
Revolution slowed down development, hurting both men financially. Unlike
Laurens, McIntosh never regained financial stability. After Laurens" death,
William Brailsford, third generation of Englishmen in Charleston, bought
some or all of Broughton Island.
Wealthy and married to Maria Heyward of the prominent South Carolina rice
plantation Heywords, Brailsford brought experienced slaves and hired an
overseer to cultivate Broughton Island in rice. The hurricane of 1804
devastated the island, drowning seventy slaves. The financial losses were so
great that a rough house was erected and moved into by the Brailsfords.
Feeling Broughton Island to be essentially unsafe, in 1806 Brailsford bought
the Broadface tract form the son of Lachlan McIntosh, Henry Laurens
Broadfield House was later described as a large two story home of tabby
and timber with large chimneys at either end.
After William's death in 1810, management of the indebted estate came to his
widow, Maria Brailsford, and her daughter, Camilla. High ground was planted
in cotton, low areas in rice. In 1813 or 1814, Camilla married James
McGilvray Troup, a doctor residing in Darien. Troup successfully managed the
Brailsford lands in addition to his own. Living in Darien and summering at
their home at Baisden's Bluff, the Troups were an integral part of the
political, social and economic community of rice planters in the region.
While the Brailsfords had been lively and lavish, the Troups were far more
formal, maintaining the deportment of reserved Charleston manners.
When Dr. Troup died, through inheritance, purchase and marriage, the large
estate included New Hope Plantation. Although owning 7,300 acres of land,
two tabby homes, one wooden house and 357 slaves, the estate was heavily
indebted at $70,000 to $80,000. In 1856 the lands were distributed among the
heirs. The 1858 deed divided Broadfield and New Hope into three portions.
The northernmost was Broadfield, held by J. Robert Troup, Matilda B. Troup
and Clelia Troup; the center section and northern New Hope were deeded to
Ophelia Troup and her husband, George C. Dent; the lower portion went to
Daniel Heyward Brailsford Troup.
Ophelia Troup had married George C. Dent in 1847 at the "old Broadfield
House." Until 1856, the couple lived at Dent's mother's plantation, Cedar
Hill, outside Darien, where he managed the properties. At that time the
couple moved to Broadfield and renamed the estate "Hofwyl" after Dent's
former school in Switzerland. The construction of Hofwyl House is vague.
Traditionally, it was believed to have been constructed in 1851 as an
overseer's house, and moved into by the Dents when Broadfield House burned
about 1858. Records show no employ of an overseer after 1850, nor do they
document the Broadfield House burning. At least one contemporary of George
and Ophelia Dent, Charles Wylley, stated the house was built by the couple
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, George Dent served in the Confederate
Army, his family moving to Ware County for the duration of the War.
Returning to the coast following the war, the Dents and Troups faced
uncertain ownership of their lands as well as destruction of plantations,
hydraulic systems and machinery. The greatest handicap was, however, the
lack of reliable labor. Despite these problems, Matilda Troup, the eldest
sister, took the task of restoring the family lands. Her able management
secured the families' survival and rice was again grown. But the old rice
culture would never recover.
Although rice was produced in the 1880s and 1890s, it was a combination of
factors that permanently displaced the crop. Certainly, the War's
destruction and end of slavery set the decline in motion. Other factors such
as crop failures in 1866, 1867 and 1868, combined with a lack of capital
were further complicated by a series of disastrous hurricanes, tropical
storms and freshets. And last, the Agricultural Revolution which developed
in the 1870s and 1880s led to fierce competition by Texas-Louisiana-Arkansas
rice growers which used heavy new machinery and a superior rice seed
imported from Japan.
During this inevitable decline, James Troup Dent became owner of Hofwyl.
Despite the economic decline, he secured all of the former Brailsford-Troup
river property except the lower part of New Hope, probably through mortgage
foreclosure. Having married Miriam Cohen in 1880, daughter of Soloman Cohen
and Rebecca Gratz, Dent had some resources. In Miriam Cohen Dent's name,
Hofwyl was secured in 1885, Broadfield in 1895. Upon her death in 1935, she
bequeathed one third of the properties to each of her children, Miriam,
Ophelia and Gratz. The final survivor, Ophelia Troup Dent (Gratz died in
1936; Miriam in 1953), retained 1268 acres, a substantial part of the Hofwyl
and Broadfield Plantations, until 1973. At that time, the property was left
to the Georgia Historical Commission, now a part of the Georgia Department
of Natural Resources. Under the Division of Parks and Historic Sites, the
property is maintained as an historic site today, preserving the heritage of
Georgia's rice coast for future generations.