Kennedy Resident Proud Owner Of Authentic George Washington Inaugural Button
For the past two decades, a very rare memento of an iconic moment in American history has resided in the private collection of a Chautauqua County resident.
Roger Bish of Kennedy is the proud owner of an authentic button commemorating the first inauguration of the United States’ first president George Washington in 1789. And the best part? He found it in a nearby cornfield.
“I found it while was out arrowhead hunting here in Chautauqua County on June 2, 1995, and it was a stormy day,” Bish recalled. “It was laying on top of the ground, and I picked up thinking it was an old belt buckle. I actually threw it back down and walked away a few steps but then thought ‘I’d better take it with me.’ I brought it to work with me the next day and washed it off and that’s when I saw the initials on there.”
“I had it on my desk and one of my co-workers came in and recognized it,” he continued. “He said ‘Where in the hell did you find that? Do you know what this is? It’s a George Washington inaugural button.’ He’d seen one at the Smithsonian (Institution in Washington, D.C.). Two weeks later I was talking with the curator of antiquities at the Smithsonian, and he told me it was authentic and how it got here. I was quite excited when I found out what it was.”
There were several variations of George Washington inaugural buttons, which were made of a brass-bronze mixture sometime in 1789 prior to the ceremony itself. At the time of the nation’s first inauguration, military officers wore the buttons to show support for Washington. Only the elite could afford the buttons, which cost about six months’ salary. Today, they are even more valuable, especially as a set.
Bish said the button in his possession was part of a set of four which, along with a silver belt buckle, went with a single coat. The coat that the button came from was given by Washington to the famous Seneca war chief and Wolf Clan diplomat Chief Cornplanter at the inauguration ceremony on April 30, 1789. Cornplanter was also joined at the ceremony by three other Seneca chiefs from the region: Farmer’s Brother, Little Billy and Red Jacket.
He also said his button’s design was the rarest of the variations and, as of 1995, only two are known to remain in existence — though he expects there are probably more out there. Appearing on the button are the initials G.W. and a worn header reading “Long Live the President.”
Bish keeps his button as part of a display in his home, which also contains collections of various arrowheads and other Native American antiquities he has unearthed in his explorations through the years. Appearing in the display alongside the button is a rendering of Washington’s inauguration ceremony, a photo of Chief Cornplanter’s burial monument on an Indian Reservation near Corydon, Pa., a Smithsonian article regarding another of the buttons in the museum’s collection, and a picture and description of Chief Cornplanter.
Born sometime between 1732 and 1746, Cornplanter was a half-breed, the son of a white man and an Indian royaneh who was a member of a Seneca noble family and a hereditary matron of the Wolf clan. He was often referred to as one of the most valiant warriors of his tribe.
He first fought with the British during the war as chief of the Seneca Nation, but when his people were deserted by their British allies he took part in Indian treaties with the American government. For his help during the ensuing Indian war he was given land in several locations.
In 1789, the recommendation was made that Chief Cornplanter be given a grant of 1,500 acres of land in western Pennsylvania. The final gift, an area of about 700 acres, was the Cornplanter Grant, located in Warren County about three miles below the southern boundary of New York state. There were three separate units in this grant, Planter’s Field and the town of Jennesedaga on the mainland along the Allegheny River, and two adjacent islands, Liberality and Donation. This land was a partial recognition to Cornplanter for his services to the state, and he settled on the grant with his family, remaining there until his death in 1836.
As for his priceless find, Bish said he intends to hold onto it for the time being but may give it a more prominent home someday.
“I might put it in a museum, but I haven’t decided quite yet,” he said.