Colin Sharp got a shock in the late 1990s when an aunt came to visit him and casually mentioned a family tie to one of the men who broke the American colonies away from British authority.
Sharp, a British citizen who lived in Virginia and worked for the British embassy at the time, had been unaware that he had any ties to American history. A newspaper clipping in a British newspaper, however, prompted his aunt to share a forgotten bit of family history.
Sharp is distantly related by blood to Declaration of Independence signer Button Gwinnett.
“It came as a surprise because I knew nothing of him before she mentioned it,” said Sharp, whose middle name is Gwinnett.
The news from Sharp’s aunt led him to take an in-depth look at his ancestor in the early 2000s. That in turn eventually led Sharp to write a book, “Button Gwinnett: Failed Merchant, Plantation Owner, Mountebank, Opportunist Politician and Founding Father,” which was published in the U.K. by Youcaxton Publications last year. The book is on sale on Amazon.com.
Sharp reached out to the Daily Post about his ties to Gwinnett, and his book, after a friend at the Georgia Historical Society contacted him about a recent article the newspaper published about Gwinnett County’s namesake.
Sharp is not a direct descendant from the famous Georgian. No one alive today is directly descended from him, in fact.
Gwinnett had three daughters and two of them died young, before he immigrated to America in 1762. The third daughter did get married, but she died not long after her parents and never had children of her own.
Sharp isn’t related to Gwinnett through any of his siblings, or his father or uncles either. Instead, it’s Gwinnett’s grandfather who serves as the common ancestor for the founding father and the modern day author.
Sharp searched records in Georgia and the U.K., working on this side of the Atlantic with groups such as the Georgia Historical Society to dig into his relative’s story. He knew some basics about the Gwinnett family, such as its origins in Wales, and that it fled to the Glouchester area during the protestant purges conducted during the reign of Queen Mary I.
He also knows that Gwinnett is a common name in England, albeit in various forms such as Gwynett, Gwynnett and Gwyneth. He said a Gwinnett once served as mayor of Wolverhampton — where Button Gwinnett briefly lived before moving to America.
Sharp came to a conclusion that many people who looked at Button Gwinnett’s story before him had reached: Gwinnett lived large — far larger than what he could afford.
“His whole life in the 1770’s was spent living on the edge of financial ruin,” he said. “He was taking in loans to pay off other loans he had already taken and he probably owed a lot of people a lot of money by the time he died.
“Within a few days of his death, all of the contents of his house were taken and put on sale in Sunbury. I imagine it was done to get funds to pay off all of the debts he owed. It took one of the executors of his estate, Lyman Hall, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, four years to settle his debts.”
It may seem unlikely that someone with a blood tie to a famous historical person would do anything but speak glowingly about his relative, but Sharp pulls no punches in how he describes Gwinnett.
Then again, how easy can it be to paint a rosy picture of a man whose political feuds led to him getting shot in a duel with a rival, and later dying when the wound got infected?
“He was ambitious, duplicitous. He was rash, intemperate. These are the qualities that got him as far as he was able to go in life,” Sharp said. “They were also the cause of his downfall.”
Sharp even suspects Gwinnett was involved in the disappearance of a juror in a 1775 case where he was a defendant. There are few surviving records of the trial, he said, so it isn’t clear what the case was about or why the juror disappeared. A newspaper clipping showed the juror was fined four British pounds for not showing up for the trial.
“The case couldn’t continue because one of the jurors didn’t show up,” Sharp said. “Did Button Gwinnett pay him to not show up? Who knows, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.”
Sharp said that, given the true story about Gwinnett, its interesting to see how much interest in him has emerged in recent years, including a recent rap performance on Stephen Colbert’s late night talk show.
Last weekend, North Carolina-based Brunk Auctions sold a copy of a portrait of Gwinnett for $18,000. The portrait, which had hung in a bank in Savannah until the 1950s, was only expected to go for as much as $15,000. The painting it was based on was made by Nathanial Hone. Another copy of it hangs in the Gwinnett County commissioners’ office in Lawrenceville.
Similarly, Gwinnett’s autograph is worth a lot. It’s estimated to be valued at more than $700,000 because of its rarity.
“He’s developed into a bit of a folk hero, mainly because he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence,” Sharp said.
Colbert’s rap surprised Sharp, though.
“It was bit bizarre,” he said. “Button Gwinnett slips off the tongue sort of rapidly, so I suspect that’s why they did it. They did get most of the facts right though.”
He later added that Gwinnett alienated himself from George Walton, one of his fellow Declaration signers from Georgia, by taking sole claim for getting the Continental Congress to appropriate money for the new state. In Sharp’s eyes, Gwinnett was less of a do-gooder and more of a do-nothing.
“To be practical about it, he didn’t do much to push independence forward,” Sharp said. “The question that I have is: What would have happened to him if he hadn’t died? I think he would have faded into the political wilderness.”
Gwinnett’s legacy now seems largely to live on in Gwinnett County’s name, any number of streets in Georgia named for him, a statue on top of the Mall of Georgia in Buford and the Button Gwinnett Course at Cottrell Park Golf Club near Cardiff in Wales.
There was even one occasion where he helped Sharp deal with a pesky Kentuckian, whom he described as a “firebrand” who liked to mock British people living in America on the Fourth of July and the anniversary of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.
He called Sharp frequently when the Brit worked at the embassy.
“Once I found out I was related to Button Gwinnett, I was able to get back at him the next time he called, and I never heard from him again,” Sharp said.
But, after researching his famous relative and writing about his life, the story of Button Gwinnett is still incredulous and somewhat surreal to Sharp. He’s still trying to wrap his mind around Gwinnett’s ability to achieve what he did given where he came from and his personality traits.
“For him to rise up and become a state politician, he must have been a convincing orator,” Sharp said.