What Is the Charter Oak?
Though never fully proven as fact, the "Charter Oak incident" remains one of the most exciting stories in Hartford and Connecticut history.
Thanks to the diplomacy of Gov. John Winthrop Jr., the General Court of Connecticut won a charter from King Charles II on Oct. 9, 1662. Among other things, the document legitimized all existing settlements in Connecticut, set the boundaries of the colony, and—most importantly—perpetuated the rights laid out in the Fundamental Orders, allowing the colonists a high degree of self-government. (Here's the text of the charter.)
But by the time James II assumed the throne 25 years later, England wanted greater integration of the New England colonies—and more centralized control. Sir Edmund Andros, assigned by the king to rule New York and all of the New England colonies in a single "Dominion of New England," demanded return of Connecticut's charter. After trying various strategies for accomplishing this, he finally marched to Hartford with an armed force to seize it. The following is legend:
On October 27, 1687, Andros' party met with Gov. Robert Treat and other colonists at the public meeting house. Andros again demanded surrender of the charter; Treat responded with a long speech in defense of the colony. The debate went on for hours. Eventually, candles had to be lit—darkness fell early at that time of year. With the Charter on the table between the opposing parties, the room suddenly went dark. Moments later, when the candles were re-lighted, the charter was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth is credited with swiping the document and hiding it nearby, in the trunk of a giant white oak before the home of Samuel Wyllys, one of the magistrates of the colony.
"This secreting of the charter in the great Charter Oak tree soon grew into one of Connecticut's cherished traditions," historian Albert V. Van Dusen wrote. "Whether or not the charter ever was actually put there, even for a few hours, is a matter of conjecture. It does seem fairly certain, though, that the charter actually was spirited away under cover of darkness." He noted that 28 years later, in 1715, the colony paid Wadsworth 20 shillings for "securing the Duplicate Charter of this Colony in a very troublesome season."
Despite all the drama of that night, the colony effectively surrendered to Andros, who named Treat and John Allyn to his council and made various other Dominion appointments before leaving. Van Dusen observed, though, that Andros "undoubtedly felt vexed at his failure to obtain the charter." Moreover, the colonists had only recorded that he was taking control; they never made a positive vote of submission.
Andros' reign did not last long anyway. The spring of 1689 brought news of the Glorious Revolution in England. James II had fled to France; in Boston, Andros was arrested. Connecticut colonists convinced James' successors, William and Mary, to confirm the 1662 charter.
The tree itself lasted another century and a half as a cherished landmark. According to historian Ellsworth Grant, its base eventually reached a circumference of 33 feet. When a windstorm finally toppled it in 1856, the marching band belonging to gun maker Samuel Colt played funeral dirges on the site. In 1907, the Connecticut Society of Colonial Wars erected a monument at the corner of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place, near the spot where the tree stood. The monument remains.
In tribute to the Charter Oak legend, Connecticut designated the white oak as the state tree.
- Arnold, Robert H., "Hartford: Yesterday and Today," Farmcliff Press, 1985.
- Grant, Ellsworth S., "The Miracle of Connecticut," The Connecticut Historical Society.
- Grant, Ellsworth Strong, and Grant, Marion Hepburn, "The City of Hartford, 1784-1984," Connecticut Historical Society, 1986.
- Van Dusen, Albert E., "Connecticut," Random House, 1961.