During the many centuries that man has lived here, this area has been rich in culture, ripe for war and primed for opportunity. History often reveals itself like individual threads of a blanket, weaving together the various elements of a story until the entire, unique pattern of the tapestry becomes clear.
Let’s begin with a look at how Gwinnett County came to be and why the name “Gwinnett” is so important and so highly sought after.
The “Mammoth” Counties
In 1784, there were 10 mammoth sized counties that made up Georgia, essentially dividing the former British colony into regions. The area that is now Gwinnett County was once part of a very large area known as Franklin County. It covered most of Northeastern Georgia, from what is now the southern county line of Gwinnett County all the way to the South Carolina state line – and, oddly enough, it included a small portion of land in what is present day South Carolina.
The reason – or at least part of the reason – that the vast area was named Franklin County was due to a debt owed Benjamin Franklin.
Prior to the American Revolution, the provincial government of the Colony of Georgia had engaged Franklin to represent the commercial interests of the colony in Europe. Having little cash, the colony agreed to pay Franklin in land – approximately 1,000 acres – in exchange for his services.
But Franklin was never paid.
So, on February 25, 1784, in recognition of his services to the new country as one of the Founding Fathers as well as that of the former colony’s representative in Europe, the Georgia Assembly established the ninth of these large counties and named it Franklin. On that same day, the state legislature established the 10th – and last - supersized Georgia county, naming it Washington County - after Revolutionary War general, “Father of Our Country” and soon to be president, George Washington.
The legislature would soon start dividing these exceedingly large counties into smaller, more representative and manageable counties.
In fact, just two years later, the legislature took a large part of Franklin County and established Jackson County - named for Revolutionary War general, James Jackson, who would go on to become Georgia’s governor in 1798. Then in 1818, Jackson County was divided and some of the land was made into three additional counties named for the three Continental Congress delegates from Georgia who signed the Declaration of Independence – George Walton, Lyman Hall and Button Gwinnett.
A Signer, a Merchant, a Planter – and a Failure?
Button Gwinnett’s biggest claim to fame may very well have been the fact that he was a signer of the Declaration, but his life story is interesting, to say the least.
Button Gwinnett was born to Welsh parents - the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and his wife Ann (née Button) Gwinnett - in 1735 in Down Hatherley in the South West England county of Gloucestershire. Gloucestershire encompasses some of the most beautiful rural landscapes in England; the soft, rolling Cotswold Hills and the lush Forest of Dean that was once the exclusive royal hunting grounds of the Tudor Kings, thus, a source of food for the Royal Court – and only the Royal Court. Through the heart of Gloucestershire and along the western edge of the town of Gloucester, where Gwinnett is believed to have been born, runs the River Severn, the longest river in Great Britain.
This area borders Wales and is adjacent to the Welsh county of Gwent - which may have been the origin of the family name, Gwinnett.
It’s generally believed that Button Gwinnett’s birth was in the spring, though no birth records exist, only a church record indicating the baptism of Button Gwinnett on April 10, 1735 in St. Catherine’s Church in Gloucester.
After finishing his education, Gwinnett planned to become a merchant. But in 1757, at age 22, he had met and decided to marry Ann Bourne in Wolverhampton.
Five years later, the young couple decided that the vast horizons of the new colonies offered endless opportunity, especially to a hard working merchant such as Gwinnett. So, they moved to America, landing in Charleston, South Carolina where Gwinnett immediately set up his business. Three years later, they moved to Savannah, Georgia. This is where the accounts of some aspects of Button Gwinnett’s life seem to vary.
It’s widely accepted that, for a period of time in Savannah, Gwinnett was involved in the general trade business; dealing in a wide variety of merchandise. But after a few years, some historians believe that Gwinnett decided to change careers by returning to his boyhood roots and becoming a planter. To that end, many believe he simply sold all of his merchandise, raised enough money to purchase a tract of land on a coastal island south of Savannah - known today as St. Catherines Island - and started a plantation.
Most of these same historians claim that Gwinnett prospered as a plantation owner, and that his success, coupled with his outgoing and winning nature, vaulted him into politics by 1769 - resulting in Gwinnett becoming a member of the House of Commons. There are even accounts of his successful coastal island plantation operating as such for nearly a century before Union soldiers took control of it during the Civil War.
But others believe Gwinnett’s decision to become a planter was the result of bad business practices as a merchant.
In his book, Gwinnett: A little above Atlanta, author Elliott E. Brack says that Button Gwinnett was found to be “wanting as a merchant” and “a failed businessman.” According to Brack, there was even “evidence that he was sued for not paying his bills.” Some even disagree with the accounts that would have Button Gwinnett as a landowner, claiming he merely leased the acreage on which his plantation was built.
Like roughly half of the colonists, Gwinnett initially opposed breaking away from England – that is, until 1775. That was the year that a growing faction living in St. John’s Parish, which included his home, threatened to secede from Georgia and, subsequently, England. But secession wouldn’t happen for another 85 years when Georgians, and, indeed, most Southerners, felt to need to seek their independence from, yet, another country – the United States of America.
Some say Gwinnett changed his political views from "loyalist" to "revolutionary" under pressure. But others say that as a member of the House of Commons - though just in an advisory role from the colonies - he came to understand the way the Crown thought of its colonial subjects. What’s more, having grown up near the Forest of Dean, where, for two centuries prior to his birth, no one but the King and his huntsmen could take from the land, he might have felt a kindred spirit with all tillers of the soil under a king's rule, which could have played a role in Gwinnett changing his position on the issue of independence.
A man well known for making his views known and standing by them with a firey passion that wasn’t above becoming violent, Gwinnett began to speak out publicly against the Crown, advocating a complete separation from England – an act of treason in itself. Soon, Gwinnett found himself as one of only three men representing Georgia at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia by the summer of 1776 - during the convened body's most defining hour. Along with fellow Georgians Walton and Hall, Gwinnett placed his name on the parchment that would change the course of world history – while placing the signers in grave danger.
A Bitter and Deadly Rivalry
Gwinnett was a great friend and admirer of fellow delegate Lyman Hall – his closest political ally. But Gwinnett's chief political rival was Lachlan McIntosh, a fellow member of the Georgia Assembly back in Savannah.
In February 1777, Gwinnett was a delegate to the state constitutional convention meeting in Savannah. He is credited with writing the first draft of the new constitution for the new State of Georgia, using ideas from none other than John Adams as a guide. It was also during this time that Gwinnett became the Speaker of the Georgia Assembly and held that position until the death of Governor Archibald Bulloch, on March 4, catapulted Gwinnett to the office of governor. In May, Gwinnett sought re-election as governor, but a bitter despute over a failed military expedition involving McIntosh caused Gwinnett’s rival to denounce him in the harshest of terms.
Speaking before the Georgia Assembly, McIntosh was said to have called Gwinnett a “scoundrel and lying rascal.” The insult enraged the often hot-headed Gwinnett who immediately challenged McIntosh to a duel.
So, on May 16, 1777, Gwinnett, McIntosh and their Seconds met just east of Savannah, in a small town appropriately named Thunderbolt. Some present at the duel reported that, back to back, the men stepped off 12 paces, while others say they only stepped off four paces before they turned and fired on each other. The witnesses all agreed that the men fired almost simultaneously – each striking his opponent in the leg.
While McIntosh survived his leg wound, Gwinnett’s leg wound developed into a fatal case of gangrene. Gwinnett died three days later, on May 19, 1777 at the age of 45, never to see the colonies win their independence from England.
The Mystery of a Lost “Button”
Button Gwinnett was said to have been buried in the Old Colonial Cemetery, which is now Colonial Park in Savannah. A monument to Gwinnett is still there.
However, in 1848, the Signers Monument in Augusta was built and dedicated, honoring the three men from Georgia - Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton - who signed The Declaration of Independence. The bodies of Hall and Walton were removed from their original graves and re-buried at the Signers Monument. But when it came time to move Gwinnett’s remains, his grave in Savannah could not be located.
So, the merchant, turned planter, turned politician who would be one of only a handful of men to put their lives, fortunes and “sacred honor” literally on the line by putting quill to parchment, would not rest beneath the monument honoring his patriotic act.
What’s in a Name?
In the many years since, Button Gwinnett as become highly south after – well, at least his signature has. There were never many signatures of Button Gwinnett’s in existence to begin with, save for a few official documents and, of course, his signature on the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, due to the very limited number of known signatures by the signer, his autograph is now said to be worth as much as $150,000 or more – nearly the value of such notables in history as Julius Caesar and William Shakespeare.
Even though Gwinnett County bears his name, there is no evidence that Button Gwinnett ever traveled this far west, remaining for most of his adult life in Savannah, Charleston or Philadelphia.
In Part Two of our series, The History of Peachtree Corners, we explore the Creek Indians that called present day Peachtree Corners “home” and look at their bitter rivalry with the Cherokee nation just across the Chattahoochee River in present day Johns Creek.