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Myth of Button Gwinnett House
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Editor, The Coastal Courier’s June 14, feature on St. Catherines Island perpetuates the myth that Button Gwinnett lived in the house that today bears his name.  As the story goes, it claims that he lived in the tabby house that was built in the Colonial style by Mary Musgrove. The house inherited by the Rev. Thomas Bosomworth after the death of his wife, Mary Musgrove, was sold to Gwinnett in 1765. Button Gwinnett is said to have lived in the Musgrove house after he purchased the island. He most certainly inhabited the Musgrove home but it was not the house that is part of the myth. There is abundant evidence that the “Button Gwinnett house” was build by in the 1800s by Jacob Waldburg as part of his island plantation.
A map published in 1780, three years after the death of Gwinnett, shows a mark on St. Catherines Island that indentifies the spot where the Bosomworth house was built. There is no mention of Gwinnett. In fact, it was not until 1929, when C. M. Keyes and colleagues purchased the island from the estate of Jacob Rauers, that there was the first mention of the existence of the Button Gwinnett house. John Toby Woods, who was superintendent of St. Catherines from 1960 to September 1982, and his father, John Toby Woods Senior, who preceded his son as superintendent from 1929 to 1960, says that when the Keys began their renovation, they planted the seed that spawned the myth by referring to it as the Button Gwinnett house.  
According to Gladys Woods, John Woods’ wife who lived with the local black population on St. Catherines in the 1920s and1930s, they never referred to the house as being the Button Gwinnett house. At that time, it was mostly referred to as the hunting house or the “old house” and it’s where the hunters who were guest of the Rauers stayed while hunting deer and the other wildlife.  
In 1905, an article in the Atlanta Constitution (May 12, 1905, page 8) displayed pictures of what is now called the Button Gwinnett House. The caption reads, “Overseer’s Residence.” The article goes on, “The old Waldburg home, constructed of tabby, was relegated to the use of the islands overseer after the estate was obtained by Mr. Rauers, and the new owner built a handsome house at the north end of the island, and had beautiful grounds laid out by a landscape gardener.”
Charles Francis Jenkins, in his biography of Gwinnett published in 1926, laid the groundwork for the myth when he visited St. Catherines in search of Gwinnett’s dwelling. Jenkins writes, describing the “old house,”
It is not if this dwelling was the home of Button Gwinnett, but it was undoubtedly the location of his home. There are no dates on the buildings and no one apparently knows when they were constructed.  Most of the buildings look old enough to date back to Gwinnett’s time, and in absence of proof to the contrary, it is the writer’s opinion that this was, at least, the site of Gwinnett’s home on the island of St Catherines.  
Looking “old” and “absence of proof to contrary” are not valid methods for making that assessment. In addition, Jenkins may not have been an objective observer. He had collected one of the few complete set of autographs of the signers of the Declaration of independence. On his Germantown estate in Pennsylvania, he developed one of the largest collections of hemlock species and in his garden he had developed the Signers’ Walk, which included a stone from the home of each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Jenkins was especially interested in getting a memorial from Button Gwinnet since it was the last stone needed for the walk.  
The myth was reinforced by an announcement prepared by Wayne Cunningham, the agent who sold the property to the Keyes group, sent to the Savannah Morning News for its Sunday edition published April 7, 1929.  Cunningham interestingly refers to the “old house” that “ … now standing dignified in proportion and in its lovely setting on Waldburg Creek is the link connecting the present day with Button Gwinnett.”
The New York Times (Sept. 7, 1930. Page 7) spread the myth nationally when they reported how “men weary of the city crowds” sought the solitude of island life. The Times presented an idyllic image of how “Mr. Keys arrives by plane to his own landing strip and lives in Button Gwinnett’s remodeled house, putting his guest in converted slave quarters.” Interestingly, the Keys never built a landing strip and Button Gwinnett never lived in the house that bares his name. Guests stayed in cabins built in the style of slave quarters. C.M. Keyes and his wife reinforced the myth that the big house on St. Catherine’s belonged to Button Gwinnett when they had the house restored in 1929-1930. The renovation began shortly after the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a renewed interest in Button Gwinnett.   
There is archeological evidence that suggest the “old house” was built after the Gwinnett era. Marmaduke Floyd, an authority on tabby, in “Certain Tabby Ruins on the Georgia Coast” published in Georgia’s Disputed Ruins (E.M. Coulter, editor) cites the report of Miss Julia King, who lived on Colonels Island until 1935 or 1936, across from St. Catherines. She said her uncles were frequent guests of Mr. Waldburg and often visited the “Mary Musgrove house.” They were interested in “its unusual construction” of wattle work and lime plaster with wide piazzas that stood until about 1860.  Miss King relates that Waldburg “was positive in his identification of that house, as well as of numerous other places of historical interest on the island” and there was never mention a Button Gwinnett house.”  
Floyd (page 46) in Georgia’s Disputed Ruins states that most of the tabby construction on St. Catherines dates back to the Waldburg ownership. As late as 1829, the Musgrove-Bosomworth house was still standing, according to George White who in 1849 wrote, “Twenty years since, the mansion in which Bosomworth and his queen resided was standing.  It was singular in its construction and appearance, being wattled with hickory twigs, and plastered within and without with mortar made of lime and sand and surrounded by spacious piazzas.”
There are structural inconsistencies that would argue against Button Gwinnett having built the house that now bears his name. John Woods says that “the rafters in the big house are the same style as the ones in the tabby horse barn and the wall-to-wall support rod that spans the width of the big house are the same as in the Cotton Gin building.” These links suggest that these buildings were constructed during the Waldburg era.
Our conclusion is shared with Robert Groover who wrote a history of Liberty County. In 1991, Groover wrote in the Coastal Courier (June 19, 1991, edition) that the myth began in this century that the big house on St. Catherine’s belonged to Button Gwinnett. Frank McCall who was from Moultrie (who was famous for restoring old houses in Georgia) was the architect on the big house when it was restored in the early 1970s. He told John Toby Woods that the house did not date back far enough to belong to Button Gwinnett.  
Even with the evidence that Button Gwinnett did not live in the Button Gwinnett house, will it change how his alleged ownership of the house is viewed?  We are not likely to see an abandoning of the myth.  We have unimpeachable sources that there are no likenesses of Gwinnett and his picture that were originally labeled “an artist conception” or “suppositive portraits” (Robertson 1946) have now somehow become “authentic.” Just as the portraits of Gwinnett have become authentic, the house that he never saw will remain the “Button Gwinnett House.” That is how history is written and rewritten.

George J. Armelagos
Goodrich C. White Professor of
Anthropology, Emory University
John Toby Woods
former superintendent
St. Catherines Island
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