Button Gwinnett was born in 1735, the son of the Rector of Down Hatherley Church, Samuel Gwinnett, and his wife Anne. He was baptised in St Catherine’s Church in Gloucester on 10 April 1735.
It would appear that Button Gwinnett got his unusual first name from the Button family of Glamorgan, S. Wales. An item in the Down Hatherley Parish records indicates that the elder brother of Button, also called Samuel, after his father, married Emilia Button of Cotterell, Glamorgan, S. Wales in 1755. At that time Samuel jnr, was the curate of St Nicholas church, near Cotterell. The Gwinnetts must have known the Buttons before that event, though, for Button Gwinnett to have received his unusual first name. Emilia Button was a descendant of Sir Thomas Button, a noted sailor and explorer, who explored the area around Hudson Bay, Canada, in the early 17th Century. There is a Button Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay and a Button Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba, named after him.
On coming of age, Button became a merchant in Bristol and moved to Wolverhampton in 1755, where he married Ann Bourne in 1757. The couple had three children – Amelia, Ann and Elizabeth Ann.
In 1762 the Gwinnetts left Wolverhampton and moved to America. Gwinnett lived for a while as a merchant in Charleston, South Carolina but the venture failed and he sold his business and moved to Savannah, Georgia, in 1765, where he purchased St Catherine’s Island and set himself up as a planter. Gwinnett initially prospered as a planter and rose to prominence among the local community, being elected to the Commons House of Assembly in 1769.
By 1773 Gwinnett was again in financial difficulty and sold most of his property, although he remained an active member of the community. The Revolutionary crisis brought him back the forefront of Georgia politics. He formed a coalition of backcountry farmers and radical coastal dissidents, bringing him into conflict with the Whig party, which represented the wealthier merchants and shipping interests in Savannah.
After the revolutionary War began in 1775, Gwinnett became commander of Georgia’s troops fighting in the British Continental Army. However, to appease his political opponents he resigned from this post and became instead one of the five men elected by Georgia to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was replaced as commander of the Georgia troops by Lachlan McIntosh, who was later to become his bitter enemy. Gwinnett arrived in Philadelphia in May 1776 and voted for the US Declaration of independence on July 4. Gwinnett’s signature (see illustration above) appears on the Declaration of Independence. Wikipedia reports that Gwinnett’s signature is one of the most valuable in the world and examples have sold for as much as $150,000. This is a result of the rarity of the signature, combined with the desire of top US collectors to acquire examples of all the signatories of the Declaration of Independence.
Gwinnett returned to Georgia after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and became involved in bitter disputes with Col Lachlan McIntosh, the military commander of the Georgia patriots, over how to resist the British. McIntosh preferred a cautious approach to resistance over Gwinnett’s aggressive stance and, in May 1777, their political differences led them to fight a duel. Both were wounded. McIntosh recovered from his wound but Gwinnett died three days later, on May 19 1777, at the age of 42. There is a monument in the Colonial Park cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, to mark the grave of one of the most colourful characters in Down Hatherley’s history. The exact location of the grave was unknown for many years. However, in the 1950s a grave was located which was thought might be Gwinnett’s. A skeleton in the grave revealed a shattered leg bone with the break in the same location where Gwinnett was wounded. The possible location of Gwinnett’s final resting place was reported in the New York Times of 2nd June, 1057. 40 years after his death the state of Georgia honoured Gwinnett’s memory by naming Gwinnett County, Georgia, after him.