The majestic Charter Oak tree no longer stands in Connecticut, but its memory lives on as a symbol of independence and the preservation of the rights of 17th century colonists.
The large white oak also produced tens of thousands of souvenirs. Those include canes, picture frames, wooden nutmegs and a wooden baseball for the Charter Oak Base Ball Club of Brooklyn. Desks and chairs from the tree are displayed at the state capitol. The Green Woods Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution proudly featured a photo of its gavel made from the tree in a 1902 report. The Daughters noted they included it “without any desire to produce envy in the hearts of other ‘Daughters’.” (Believe that if you will.)
Mark Twain noted the Charter Oak produced enough souvenirs “to build a plank road from here to Salt Lake City.”
King Charles II granted Connecticut Colony its charter on April 23, 1662, establishing the rules under which the colony was to be governed. Up until then, Connecticut colonists had negotiated titles for ownership with indigenous people.
English law set the boundaries for the charter’s power. Connecticut could create new laws, but couldn’t exceed the limits or contradict the English government rules.
Charles’ successor, King James II, consolidated all the New England colonies, New York and New Jersey into the Dominion of New England in 1686. He appointed Sir Edmund Andros governor. The much-hated Andros then asked the colonies to return their charters. Actually, he demanded them.
Andros showed up in Hartford on October 26, 1687. He met with the colony’s leaders at an inn owned by Jeremy Adams to demand the charter. It lay before them on a table. During heated discussions the candles that lit the room were blown out.
Capt. Joseph Wadsworth stood outside the tavern. Someone, according to legend, handed the charter to him through the window. He then spirited it away to a hollow in the giant white oak, forever after known as the Charter Oak.
The Charter Oak
The tree, then hundreds of years old, was already the subject of lore. It stood on the estate of Samuel Wyllys, an early settler who cleared much of his land. A delegation of Indians asked him to save the tree, as their ancestors had planted it for the sake of peace. The Indians told Wyllys,
It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries as to the time of planting our corn; when the leaves are the size of a mouse’s ears, then is the time to put the seed into the ground.
Wyllys didn’t chop it down.
The Rest of the Story
Andros was sent packing in the Boston Revolt of 1689, as was James in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
A violent storm blew down the Charter Oak on August 21, 1856. Requests then poured in for pieces of wood from the tree to make into souvenirs. The owner of the Charter Oak, I.W. Stuart, did his best to honor the requests.
An image of the Charter Oak is on the back of the Connecticut quarter. And as every traveler through Connecticut knows, the Charter Oak Bridge is a way to avoid traffic bottlenecks in Hartford. A number of Connecticut businesses and products have borne the name Charter Oak, including a brewery, a racetrack, a credit union and premium vinyl siding.
This story last updated in 2023.
Images: Charter Oak Lawn Mower ad, Boston Public Library via Flickr CC BY 2.0. Hiding the charter Image from page 68 of “Intermediate history of the United States, for use in the fifth and sixth grades of Catholic schools” (1915).