Wright Mitchell over the last two years has spent his free time investigating Buckhead’s name, and has learned that most anecdotal accounts don’t match up with the facts.
Mitchell set the record straight in advance of the community’s 175th anniversary celebration. There will be a ceremony at the Buckhead Theater on March 1.
Mitchell said he always wondered about the origins of the moniker affixed to Atlanta’s most affluent community.
“It kind of perplexed me growing up,” Mitchell said. “The more I’ve gotten into this, there didn’t seem to be a commonly accepted version of how Buckhead got its name.”
Mitchell poured through records and interviewed descendants of the parties credited with the story behind the name.
The most commonly accepted version, which is featured on the community’s Wikipedia entry, is that in the 1830s a farmer, Henry Irby, ran a general store and tavern at the intersection of Peachtree, Roswell and West Paces Ferry roads. The story goes like this: Irby shot a prize buck and put its head on display, leading to the iconic name.
Mitchell discovered two errors in that story: Irby didn’t own a tavern, at least not in the sense we think of one today, and he didn’t kill the deer. The deer slayer’s name was John Whitley.
“Whitley lived in a cabin in Vinings,” Mitchell said. “He posted the head of a buck on a small stake about two or three feet high. It was on a stream there when they developed that property. [The stream] comes out on the Smith family farm at the Atlanta History Center. The general store was two feet west of there.”
That general store was what is commonly misinterpreted as Irby’s tavern, Mitchell said. He said Irby did sell liquor there, but it wasn’t the 19th century version of “Cheers.”
“It was a gathering spot,” Mitchell said. “People hung out there. It wasn’t, at least according to his grandson, a tavern as much as a general store.”
The first official reference to Buckhead is contained in an 1840 act of the state Legislature designating Irby’s house as an election district.
So there it is, the whole truth: one man killed a deer, the other man got the credit and in the process the community got a name that stuck.
Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, said nailing down those details aren’t just some amateur historian’s whim. Facts matter and the more people mistakenly peddle misinformation, the truth becomes harder to reveal.
In Hale’s mind, the matter is settled. But given that the whole thing is based on a hunter bragging about bagging a buck, it’s entirely possible new information will come out. That’s OK, Hale said.
“We think we have at least for now until new information comes forward the definitive history,” Hale said. “That’s the great thing about history because there’s always the opportunity for more information to come to light.”