Button Gwinnett was among the eight signers of the Declaration of Independence who was born in Great Britain. He was born in Down Hatherly, Gloucestershire, in 1735, to the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and Anne Emes Gwinnett.
Gwinnett became a merchant in Bristol, and was a trustee of the Charity Blue Coat School, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, where he was married in the Collegiate church to Anne Bourne, April 19, 1757.
Lured to Georgia by reports of the rich coastal section of the colony, which already had a flourishing trade with the West Indies and with the northern colonies, Gwinnett first settled in Savannah, where he operated a mercantile business. In an advertisement which appeared in the Georgia Gazette, October 7, 1765, Gwinnett stated that his goods had just been imported and included a wide range of commodities. Listed among the more than forty items were fine beer and cider. This business venture was of short duration. His next undertaking was the purchase of St. Catherines Island on credit from the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth, who came to Georgia as a clerk to William Stephens in 1741 and left the following year for England, where he was ordained a minister of the Anglican church. He then returned to the Georgia colony and married Mary Matthews, the former Mary Musgrove, a half-breed Indian who served as an interpreter to James Edward Oglethorpe. For this service, the Bosomworths were granted St. Catherines Island. It is an interesting fact that Lyman Hall of Sunbury witnessed the lease and deed of this transaction.
The island had already been through a fascinating and turbulent period in history when Spain, France and England fought for possession of the Atlantic Seaboard. It was on St. Catherines Island that the first child in Georgia was born, and where the first book was written on Georgia soil, a catechism, translated into the Indian language.
The Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, brought soldiers and missionaries in 1565 to the island and gave it the name Guale, after an old Indian chief he found living there. The coastal region became known as Guale and was claimed by the Creek Indians.
During the course of almost two hundred years, many Indian uprisings, skirmishes and harassments by French and English pirates occurred. After the establishment of Spanish missions on the island, it became known as Santa Catalina and later as St. Catherines. When the Bishop of Cuba visited Santa Catalina, and the other Georgia missions, he reported that more than a thousand Indians had been converted to the Franciscan Order.
Sassafras grew in abundance on St. Catherines Island and was gathered by the French, who used it to ward off illness. Later it was used as a perfume base. The English settlers used the plant for tea until they began importing tea from China.
Thirty years before the Treaty of Paris was signed Great Britain had a stronghold on the rich Georgia coast, and Gwinnett was not the only Englishman who came to seek a fortune. His failure as a planter was not due to the lack of land. In addition to St. Catherines he had acquired 3,700 acres by a grant from the province. Whether his failure was due to circumstances or mismanagement as a business man, Gwinnett became heavily in debt and claims were made against him by merchants in Liverpool, Bristol, Pensacola, and St. Croix. This resulted in the sale of St. Catherines under the direction of Alexander Rose of Charleston and Robert Porteus of Beaufort, South Carolina, who purchased the property for £5,250 and used the proceeds to payoff Gwinnett's debts.
The island continued to be the home of Gwinnett and his family. He now turned to politics and became involved with affairs in the parish and in the colony. He became active in the revolutionary movement against England. He was chosen speaker of the Georgia Assembly, served as a member of the Council of Safety, and was president of the Executive Council. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Button Gwinnett signed the Declaration of Independence with the other two signers, Lyman Hall and George Walton.
Historians agree that Gwinnett possessed unusual intellectual ability and have credited him with framing the Georgia Constitution, which was adopted in 1777. In writing about Gwinnett in 1829, Charles A. Goodrich described him as "tall and of noble and commanding appearance - in his temper irritable - in his manners polite and graceful."
After Gwinnett became president and commander-in-chief of the State of Georgia in 1777, he and General Lachlan Mcintosh disagreed over Gwinnett's failure in a military operation to capture East Florida. On the floor of the Assembly, General Mcintosh called Gwinnett "a scoundrel and a lying rascal." The famous duel followed May 16, 1777, with both men struck in the thigh. McIntosh recovered but Gwinnett died several days later from an infection. McIntosh blamed Lyman Hall and James Wood for attempting to deprive him of his command in the army. In a letter written by Lachlan McIntosh to Colonel John Laurence, military secretary to General Washington, he blamed an unskilled doctor for Gwinnett's death. He further stated: "Mrs. Gwinnett, I am informed, has entered a prosecution against the doctor who seems to be generally blamed for the death of her husband."
Gwinnett's burial place remains unknown, although in 1964 a marker was unveiled in the Colonial Cemetery in Savannah. There was certain evidence supporting the theory that the remains unearthed here are those of Button Gwinnett, but that contention has not been established beyond a reasonable doubt.
Gwinnett appointed Thomas Savage and Lyman Hall as executors of his will. At a public auction held at Sunbury August 14, 1777, Gwinnett's effects were sold. Lyman Hall purchased a set of Blackstone's Commentaries. A flock of sheep was bought by the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth. Levi Sheftall purchased Beggars Benison with the schooner's tackle and furnishings. Thomas Mills bought Gwinnett's phaeton and a pair of geldings for £490. At a later auction, Mrs. Gwinnett bought the remaining household furnishings. At this sale, the riding horse, Chickasaw, was sold.
Gwinnett's only surviving daughter, Elizabeth, had married Peter Belin of Charleston, South Carolina. She died about 1780. Gwinnett's two other daughters died young.
Gwinnett was the second of the signers to die. John Morton of Pennsylvania was the first and Charles Carroll of Maryland the last. In recent years Button Gwinnett's name has become well known throughout the country as the result of a growing number of collectors of autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the exorbitant prices paid for them. There are forty-six Gwinnett signatures known to exist and one unsigned specimen of his handwriting. The record price of $28,500 for a single Gwinnett signature was paid by Frederick Peck of Providence, Rhode Island. The top price in America for a manuscript is $51,000 and includes the signatures of six of the signers, all of whom were members of the Marine Committee. They were Button Gwinnett, John Hancock, Robert Morris, Francis Lewis, George Read, and Arthur Middleton.
It is incredible that many of the documents containing Gwinnett signatures were of transactions made at Sunbury and involved Sunbury residents. Yet there is no known Gwinnett autograph in Liberty County, and there is only one in Georgia, which was found in the Georgia Archives by Miss Ruth Blair, State Historian.
Historic markers to Button Gwinnett and Lyman Hall are located on the grounds of the Midway Congregational Church, Midway, Georgia.
From "Liberty County - A Pictorial History"; Page(s) 33-34; Used by the permission of the Liberty County Commissioners Office