Categories: Colonization and Settlement, Folklore, Hartford, Imagining Connecticut, Politics and Government

The Legend of the Charter Oak

Charles De Wolf Brownell, Charter Oak
Charles De Wolf Brownell, Charter Oak,1857, oil on canvas – Connecticut Historical Society

This Charles D. Brownell painting from the mid-1850s epitomizes the incredible importance that the Charter Oak tree held in the hearts and minds of Connecticut citizens over time. It was, and remains, a symbol of our enduring tradition of representative government and self-rule.  The legend behind the tree begins in 1662 when King Charles II of England granted the Connecticut General Assembly a Royal Charter guaranteeing the colony the right to self-govern and ability to elect its own officials without interference from the crown.  This liberal charter served as the state’s highest law for approximately 25 years. In 1687 King James II attempted to include Connecticut in a “Dominion of New England,” which was to include the New England colonies as well as New York. James appointed Sir Edmond Andros as the new governor of this region. When Andros arrived in Hartford to take control of the government and confiscate the charter Governor Robert Treat refused to surrender the treaty. As a result, the King called for a meeting between the two opposing sides.  The meeting was most likely held on Halloween in a Hartford meetinghouse that stood on the site that the Old State House occupies today. According to legend, the candles were blown out in the midst of the debate, and when they were relit the charter was gone. It was supposedly given to Captain Joseph Wadsworth and hidden in a large hollow oak tree on the nearby Wyllys estate.  Although Andros returned to Britain without the charter, that did not stop James from seizing control of Connecticut.  His rule, however, was short-lived. When William and Mary became King and Queen in 1689, they reinstated many of the provisions included in the original charter, and the document served as our State Constitution until 1818. Due to the preceding events, the tree became known as the Charter Oak, and was revered as a symbol of freedom and Yankee shrewdness.  In August of 1856, the great tree fell during a lightning storm. It was thought to be over 1,000 years old and approximately 21 feet in circumference.  A large funeral ceremony was held for the tree upon its falling.  A flag was draped over the tree, people gave speeches in honor of it, the Colt band played dirges, church bells throughout the city tolled, and a parade was held to honor the Charter Oak.  Finally, in order to preserve the wood of the famous tree, many artifacts were carved from its wood.  Those memorabilia can be seen in various locations throughout the state, including in the State Senate Chamber, which houses the “Charter Oak Chair.”

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