Who’s Got Button’s Bones?

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A vain and overbearing man, Button Gwinnett would be thoroughly pleased by the attention and controversy he has attracted since his death. Amateur historians have tried for decades to locate his grave and to find an authentic likeness of him. The first important public controversy over Cwinnelt occurred in 1927, when the state of Georgia filed suit in New York Io recover Gwinnett’s will, which, the suit charged, had been stolen from the Georgia archives some fifteen years earlier. Georgia lost the suit, and the will, with its valuable signature, is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

In 1957 a retired Savannah school principal began the sleuthing that was to keep Button Cwinnett and a number of live Georgians in the news for almost seven years. Arthur J. Funk, the principal, had been researching Gwinnett’s historv ever since 1943, when, walking through the National Archives building in Washington, he had stopped before a mural called The Declaration of Independence . Twenty-six signers of the document were pictured, but not Button Gwinnett. Funk asked why not, and was told that no one really knew what Gwinnett looked like. As a Savannahian, Funk was interested in Gwinnett, and he thought something should be done to give him a face.

Back in Savannah, Funk began poking around in Gwinnett memorabilia, reading every authentic document that he could lay his hands on. He found no authenticated portraits but, by 1957, he was ready to find the man himself. Funk went to the Chatham County courthouse in Savannah, and found there the original accounting of the executor of Button Cwinnett’s will. Among the items in the accounting was “…Sexton 49 [shillings] 6 [pence],” and there was also an entry for “erecting a monument for the deceased.” In 1777 the only sexton in Savannah was the one at Christ Church, which in 1895 transferred the title to its burying ground to the city: it had been renamed Colonial Cemetery. Funk rejected old talcs of burial on St. Catherines Island, since by the time of Gwinnett’s death, the British had chased patriot sympathizers off the island. He also discounted reports of burial at Sunbury, thirty miles south (“that would have meant a two-day trip with the body in hot weather”), and so he headed straight for Colonial Cemetery.

“I went to looking,” recalls Funk, “and I found him seven paces from Archibald Bulloch, the first president. I found a brown stub of stone, broken off at ground level. I got the park department’s permission, and I started pawing at that stub and poking it with a steel rod.” Removing the soil carefully from the sides of the stone, Funk was able to distinguish a few characters on one face. They included a G or C , a T , and the number 7, which to Funk could only mean Button Gwinnett and the year of his death, 1777. A New York archaeologist was in the Savannah area at the time, and he came to the cemetery for a look at the evidence. “Don’t hesitate at all,” he told Funk. “Open the casket to see if the leg is broken above the knee.” But Funk decided to let experts take over; he asked the Georgia Historical Commission for help. The commission sent archaeologist Lewis H. Larson, Jr., to excavate the grave site and examine the remains. Savannah, a historically minded city, waited eagerly for the results.

Larson found a poorly preserved skeleton of a person five feet six and a half inches tall. He also found “a small quantity of light-colored, hair-like material” beneath the skull and, “perhaps the most significant aspect,” a left femur that “exhibited an area of damaged bone in the area immediately above the intercodyloid line of the antero-lateral surface,” that is, above the knee. Funk was jubilant, but Dr. A. J. Waring, a Savannah physician and an authority on Indian archaeology, began downgrading the discovery. This was flimsy evidence, Waring said, wholly insufficient to establish the remains as those of Button Gwinnett. No doubt he was somewhat piqued by the thought that, after so many years of searching, Gwinnett could be found so easily.

With Funk’s concurrence, Waring sent the damaged femur to the Smithsonian Institution. Funk says that he was seeking an opinion only on whether the femur fracture could have been caused by a pistol ball. Instead, to his dismay, a report was received saying that the bone was almost certainly not that of Button Gwinnett. Smithsonian archaeologist Marshall T. Newman, who examined the femur, concluded that “neither the surface appearance of this crushed area nor the x-rays…show any indication of trauma during life” but indicated, rather, damage after burial. The report continued: “In all probability the femur belonged to an adult woman rather than a man.” It went on to state that because of its short length, the femur was that of a person five feet, four inches tall. This last opinion delighted Funk’s Savannah opponents, who pointed out that in John Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence , Gwinnett is described as being “about six feet tall.” “In summation,” wrote Newman bluntly, “it is highly unlikely, if not fully impossible, for this bone to be that of Button Gwinnett.”