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The Button Name and Lineage

by Edith Steenson

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1970, Volume 15, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Among the people in Britain who bear the name of Button there must be many who are descendents of Admiral Sir Thomas Button, the discoverer of Manitoba. Sir Thomas was twice married and had many children. During his own lifetime his sons and grandsons gave promise that his name would be multiplied in succeeding generations. When he died in 1634, the survival of his name seemed assured through many male descendents. Collateral lines, founded by his daughters and granddaughters, also joined his progeny though not his name to some of the great families of Britain - dynasties in themselves - which produced a long line of loyal servants of the Crown.

There were, of course, a few black sheep, as there are bound to be a few black sheep in all families of ancient lineage. Among the Buttons were two particular worthies who strayed far from the family's close ties to the Crown, One, an indirect descendant, was a soldier and parliamentarian in Britain. The other, a direct descendant, was a merchant and legislator in America. The former is well known to every student of British history as a regicide. The latter is unknown even to most students of American history as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The regicide was Oliver Cromwell. The signer of the Declaration of Independence was Button Gwinnett.

The name of Button, though common in Britain, is uncommon in Canada. There is only one Button, for example in all the towns, villages, and hamlets listed in the Manitoba Provincial Telephone Directory. There are none in the Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver directories. There are but six in the City of Winnipeg directory. All are related, and all, by ancient family tradition, claim descent from Admiral Sir Thomas Button.

The Buttons first went to Britain from France during the reign of Henry II (1133-1189). Henry II inherited Normandy from his grand-father Henry I. Thus, through the common sovereignty of England and Normandy (and other parts of France) at the time, the way was open for the free flow of citizens from one part of the country to another. The Buttons come from Bethune in Normandy, and that is how their name (Bethune) was spelt at one time.

The original spelling seems to have been De Button, but when the family from which Sir Thomas was descended settled in the Parish of Bitton or Button in Gloucestershire, it had been reduced to Button, a form which appears to be much closer to the Middle English Boton than the Old French Boter. In generations past the name has also been spelt Bucton and Byton, and some branches of the family have been known as Le Grand, Grant, or Gaunt. In Scotland the Buttons, as Bethunes, cut a wide swath through highland history, raised up brave sons to lead kilted regiments in England's wars, and in company with their southern kinfolk, the Mansells and St. Johns (all Buttons) made significant contributions to the realm.

Tracing the lineage of one particular family through such a patrilineal maze is difficult, but the search is still going on to re-establish the links which bind Sir Thomas to the Manitoba Buttons. This connection has been passed down in our family by word of mouth for over three hundred years. In the time of my great-great-grandmother, our line of descent was attested by legal instrument. Following her death, however, the deeds to Sir Thomas Button's estate and other family papers disappeared. A search for them in the cottage where she had lived alone for many years failed to uncover them. Subsequent searches there and elsewhere by agents employed by the family were no more successful.

After Sir Thomas Button's original landfall at Nelson in 1612, the next of his kin to reach North America came as colonists to Georgia. One of them, Button Gwinnett, signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the State of Georgia. He was born in 1735, the third child and second son of the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and his wife Anna Eames. Anna was a cousin of Barbara Button, fifth in line from Sir Thomas, and so her son, Button, holding the family surname as his own Christian name, was a direct descendant of Sir Thomas on his mother's side.

Before sailing for the New World, Button Gwinnett was a merchant in Bristol. He then became a merchant in Charleston, South Carolina, later taking up the same trade in Savannah, Georgia. Later still, when he bought St. Catharine's Island, Georgia, he took up farming. He was at one time President and Commander-in-Chief of the State of Georgia. In January 1776 has was appointed a representative in Congress by the Provincial Assembly of Georgia. He was re-elected to this office in October of the same year. It is said that it was he who wrote the articles on which the Constitution of Georgia is based. He died on 16 May 1777, following a duel. I wonder what it was all about?

The other Button to come to America is my father, and his story follows.

Page revised: 20 July 2011

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