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Gwinnett house history runs deep
St. Catherines dwelling adds to islands mystique
The original slave cabins were constructed from tabby. The ruins of two cabins still stand while these new cabins were built in 1929 modeled after the originals structures. Currently, these cabins house researchers during excavation projects - photo by Phgoto by Patty Leon

A tour of St. Catherines Island would not be complete without a visit to the plantation-style house known for once belonging to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and president of Georgia’s Revolutionary Council of Safety, Button Gwinnett.

"He called himself Button Gwinnett of St. Catherines Island," Island Foundation Superintendent Royce Hayes said as he gave the Courier a tour of the two story dwelling. "He always called this home, not Savannah."

The original dwelling, made of tabby material, is the standard size for a typical colonial-era farm house.

While Gwinnett may be the most famous person who lived in the house, he didn’t build the structure.

"He never really had the resources to build a house like this," Hayes said.

Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Savannah in 1733, granted Ossabaw, St. Catherines and Sapelo islands to the Indians in perpetuity for property rights to the tidewater region between Savannah and the Altamaha River. The Indians later granted the islands to Mary Musgrove, an interpreter, who was the daughter of an English trader and a Creek Indian mother. Musgrove and her husband Thomas Bosomworth established plantations on her three islands. The legal status of her ownership was protested by the Royal Trustees but the couple still built a home and planted fields on St. Catherines. Eleven years later, the case was settled and the couple were granted St. Catherines while Sapelo and Ossabaw were put up for public auction.

"Mary Musgrove lived here until her death and Gwinnett bought the island from her widowed husband," Hayes said.

Hayes said Gwinnett had obtained the island and a few slaves primarily on credit. When he failed to make timely payments the island was repossessed and returned to Bosomworth.

In addition to the house, Hayes said there were tabby-style slave cabins on the island.

"I was told that there were three rows of seven cabins," he said.

Hayes said that around 1929, six of the seven cabins were re-constructed, modeled after the original slave quarters. Ruins of two original tabby huts are still standing.

Currently, they house the research teams conducting excavation projects.

"They are like motel rooms inside with a bathroom and two beds," he said.

Also around 1929, the plantation house was expanded. The interior ceiling rafters and beams were constructed using cypress, which was brought to the island by barge. The house got a second facelift in the early 1970s.

"This wing was built in 1929 and people still recalled prohibition," Hayes said, opening a side passage door. "So, as you can see, they had a secret room where the liquor was kept."

The entire interior of the house is filled with a vast collection of antique furniture.

"This room has a 17th century bench and 18th century chair and a queen Anne chair," Hayes said. "All the furnishings were donated by our former Chairman of the board June Noble Larkin Gibson."

Opening the curtain, Hayes pointed to a field across the house.

"Recently, Dr. Kelly Vance from Georgia Southern University went through that area with ground penetrating radar and found that cemetery and it’s quite large," he said.

Currently, five tombstones can be seen marking the general location of the cemetery.

"Four of them are freed men and one of them is a carpetbagger," he said.

As for the final resting place of Gwinnett, historians hold different opinions.

Some claim Gwinnett was buried in Colonial Cemetery in Savannah, others say his remains are on St. Catherines.

Hayes recalled his fourth-grade Georgia history class.

"It was the first time I ever heard of St. Catherines," he said

Hayes said his history teacher told the class, "No one knows where Button Gwinnett is buried but if you listen to the winds blowing over the marshes of Liberty County in the winter time, you’ll hear the winds calling ‘Button where are your bones?’"

"And that is about as good a guess as anyone may have," Hayes said. "I was told by people who were here before me, who knew people who knew some of the freed slaves that were living on the island in the early part of the 20th century, saying their ancestors claim they brought his body over in a row boat and buried him over here, but no one really knows."

Hayes said it seemed more likey Gwinnett was buried at the nearest church to where he died.

"He died of gangrene and that is very odiferous," he said. "So you would think they would bury him as soon as they could. Or he may have asked to be brought back to the island to be buried and they would have done that."

Hayes said maintaining the plantation home and other dwellings on the island is a year-round project. Electricity lines were run to the island in the 1980s and they have all the modern amenities they need to live and conduct research, including Wi-Fi systems for their computers.

"It hasn’t changed a lot as far as the island itself," he said. "Some of the buildings have been upgraded, equipment has been upgraded and people have come and gone but it’s a fascinating place to be."

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