October 31: The Charter Oak, Connecticut’s Greatest Legend, Happened Today…. or Did It?

 

One of the most important symbols in Connecticut history is the Charter Oak: The giant, gnarled oak tree that represents Connecticut’s “steady habit” of self-rule and resistance against tyranny.  Depictions and namesakes of the Charter Oak are plentiful throughout the state: schools, streets, social organizations, parks, Connecticut’s state quarter, and even a brewery proudly bear the Charter Oak name.  But how did a tree come to symbolize such lofty, quintessentially American ideals?

The dramatic episode that created a state legend and gave the tree its name allegedly took place on October 31, 1687.  Two years earlier, James II had come to power as the new King of England after the death of his brother, King Charles II — the monarch who had granted Connecticut its own royal charter that allowed the colony to elect its own government, largely free from British intervention.  Connecticut’s charter was so liberal in its character that even after the American Revolution compelled most other states to draft new written constitutions, Connecticut merely eliminated any references to British royalty from its charter and essentially continued governing itself as it had before.

A frieze on the exterior of the State Capitol building in Hartford depicts Joseph Wadsworth hiding the charter in the Charter Oak. (Library of Congress, Carol Highsmith photo collection)

With the ascension of James II to the throne in 1685 however, Connecticut soon found its comfortable practice of self-governance under threat.  In order to make the British colonies in North America easier to govern, James II wished to combine New York, New Jersey, and all the New England states into one centrally-governed colony: the Dominion of New England.  Colonial Connecticans vehemently opposed the idea and initially refused to surrender their charter to royal authorities.  Finally, King James II ordered Sir Edmund Andros to Connecticut with a company of armed troops to personally seize the colony’s charter.  On October 31, 1687, Andros and his men met with leaders of the Connecticut colony at Sanborn’s Tavern in Hartford.  There, a lengthy and reportedly heated argument took place between the two parties, with the charter laid out on a table between them.  The argument continued until dusk, when an exasperated Andros demanded possession of the charter.  Suddenly, the candles in the room were extinguished.  After they were relit, the charter had disappeared — in the midst of the chaos, someone in the room was said to have handed the charter to Joseph Wadsworth, who proceeded to run across town and hide the document in the hole of a giant oak tree.  Andros and his troops were forced to leave Hartford having failed their mission of obtaining Connecticut’s royal charter.

In the short term, the lack of a physical document did nothing to stop King James II from moving forward with his plans; he took control of the government without further resistance.  (Recent research even argues persuasively that the hiding of the charter never actually happened.)  Nevertheless,  the dramatic tale of resistance against the arbitrary usurpation of Connecticut’s sovereignty that took form in the years immediately following Andros’ short regime (he was sent packing less than 2 years later) was forevermore associated with the venerable oak tree that had kept the royal charter from British authorities.

A depiction of the Charter Oak by Charles De Wolf Brownell, circa 1857. The blue onion dome of the Colt firearms factory can be seen in the background.

The legend of the Charter Oak experienced a resurgence in the late 18th century, when the American colonies were once again fighting against British ‘villains’ who threatened their way of life.  By the early 19th century, the Charter Oak itself had become a tourist attraction as a powerful symbol of Connecticut’s centuries-old commitment to liberty and independence.  Even after a fierce wind storm finally felled the great tree in 1856, the lore and iconography of the Charter Oak persisted, and can still be found throughout the state today.  A legend for the ages was born, on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

The Legend of the Charter Oak,” connecticuthistory.org

Dave Corrigan, “Hiding the Charter: Images of Joseph Wadsworth’s Legendary Action,” connecticuthistory.org