Dressed in overalls and a brown floppy hat with a wide brim, the man playing the role of John Whitley stepped on to a tour bus full of Buckhead Heritage Society patrons for the Mansions, Gardens and Ghosts: Buckhead History and Secrets Tour in April.
In his hand was a gun, the kind many of us have seen hanging over the mantle of a fireplace at a farm, or perhaps in a museum. With a long, heavy-looking barrel and a short wooden stock capped with a brass butt plate, it had a cap lock firing mechanism. Beneath the barrel hung a newer-looking wooden rod.
One would assume it was a prop, like the overalls and the hat, something to complete the look of a person who lived in Buckhead in the 1830s.
But it was the real McCoy.
Many people, including many knowledgeable historians involved with the heritage society, believe it is the actual gun that felled the buck for which Buckhead gets its name.
When exactly that happened, we do not know. We do know the Georgia General Assembly made the first official reference to Buckhead in 1840. At the time, the area was known as Irbyville for pioneer settler and farmer Henry Irby. He settled in the area in 1838.
John Whitley is credited by many with killing the Buckhead buck. A neighbor of Irby’s, he, too, came to the area in the late 1830s. Originally from North Carolina, Whitley in 1842 purchased 40 acres in “Upper Vinings” and built a log cabin. If the Whitley story is to be believed, he shot the deer before he moved.
The Vinings cabin is the key link. Several newspaper articles from the 1940s through the 1960s feature interviews with Jim Whitley, John Whitley’s grandson, who was born in the cabin in 1873. He died in 1962.
He lived there until the Georgia Department of Transportation purchased his land for Interstate 285. Jim Whitley said he would give the state the old squirrel gun his grandfather used to kill the Buckhead buck if they’d let him keep his cabin. It can be seen hanging over the fireplace in many pictures of the cabin. His supporters also tried to have the historic cabin made into a historic site.
The story has a bit of a happy ending. One of Whitley’s friends moved the cabin and its contents to a backyard in Buckhead. The gun went with it. Whitley moved to a new construction home in Smyrna, but he still cooked his meals in the fireplace despite the modern kitchen.
The gun itself bears some clues. It bears the name “Leman.” Henry Leman was a gun manufacturer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, known for making inexpensive quality guns used in trading with Native Americans. He sold his first guns — a lot of 250 — in 1834, and continued to achieve success selling guns in the Northwestern Territories.
Those dates coincide with Whitley killing the buck with a Leman gun between the time he moved to the area in the late 1830s and then moved to Vinings in 1842. The gun manufacturer was certainly around at that time.
Whitley allegedly killed the deer at a natural spring either at the present-day St. Regis Hotel or near the Atlanta History Center. I’ve heard and read both. He field dressed it, which required hoisting the animal’s head onto a tree branch and then removing the hide and the meat. Unlike today, the antlers were of no value.
The head and antlers remained up on that tree branch long enough to become a landmark.
Henry Irby’s tavern was on the other side of what today is West Paces Ferry Road in the vicinity of Whole Foods. West Paces Ferry was then known as Peachtree Trail connecting Standing Peachtree to Gwinnett County. The buck’s head would have been across Peachtree from Irby’s store.
Buckhead Heritage board president John Beach, who shared just about all of this with me, said in an interview that we would likely never know whether the gun killed the buck. The only thing history can show is that it didn’t. In other words, if this particular make of the Leman gun wasn’t available at the time, then we could say definitively that it is not.
Given the oral history and the public record, it seems likely it is. If that is the case, it’s much more than a prop. It is arguably the most important historic artifact in modern Buckhead. As such, every step should be taken to acquire it and place it under glass so generations 100 years down the road can learn the story of how the area got its name.