Signer of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia. Born in Gloucestershire, England, he was named Button in honor of his godmother, Barbara Button. When in his early twenties, he married Ann Bourne and went into business as a merchant. Talking with the sailors who carried his goods to America, he became so interested in the colonies that in 1764, he and Ann decided to move to America, settling first in Charleston, SC, and then later moving to Savannah, Georgia, where he became a merchant. Not doing as well as he hoped, he decided to become a farmer instead, and purchased St. Catherines’ Island off the Georgia coast, where he set up a plantation. Unfortunately, he did not do well as a farmer either. In 1769, he was elected to the Georgia Assembly, and in the Second Continental Congress, from 1776 to 1777. Born and raised in England, he was undecided about the issue of independence until 1775. It is generally believed that Dr. Lyman Hall convinced him to side with those who favored independence. After signing the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Georgia, where he was elected speaker of the Georgia Assembly, and helped to write the state constitution in 1777. For a brief period, he served as acting governor of Georgia in 1777. What he most wanted to do was to lead troops in battle, and when General Lachlan McIntosh, a seasoned soldier, was selected to lead the Georgia soldiers, Gwinnett began to feud with him. In the spring of 1777, Acting Governor Gwinnett led an expedition to seize British held Florida, limiting General McIntosh’s role in the expedition. When the attack failed, the people blamed Gwinnett and he was defeated for election as governor on May 8, 1777. Both men were called before the Georgia Assembly to explain the expedition’s failure, and Gwinnett was able to place the blame on McIntosh. McIntosh, angry at being blamed for the expedition’s failure, called Gwinnett “a scoundrel and a lying rascal” in front of the Assembly. Gwinnett then challenged McIntosh to a duel, to avenge his honor. On the outskirts of Savannah the morning of May 16, both men took part in a duel, firing just twelve feet from each other. Both were wounded, but while McIntosh recovered from his wound, Gwinnett died just three days later. During the war, the British seized the Gwinnett estate on St. Catherines Island, and both his wife and only daughter died before the war’s end.
Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson