In the early morning hours of August 21, 1856, the Charter Oak — the ancient living symbol of Connecticut’s most cherished values and icon of its core identity — crashed to a ground-shaking death amid the fierce winds and blinding rain of an overnight summer storm.
The giant white oak had stood atop a hill in Hartford for at least 250 years before it fell; Dutch explorer Adriaen Block had noted a distinctively large tree in the same area during his exploratory trip up the Connecticut River in 1614. The tree obtained its nickname after an alleged incident that took place in 1687, when British authorities attempted to confiscate Connecticut’s original royal charter of 1662. According to legend, Connecticut patriots hid the parchment in a cavity in the oak tree to prevent it from falling into the hands of British officials, and the entire episode served as a symbol of Connecticans’ fierce love of liberty and their willingness to defend it at any cost.
By daybreak on August 21st, the news had already spread across the city of Hartford, and throngs of shaken Connecticans gathered at the scene to view the fallen tree in disbelief. The demise of the mighty tree was viewed as a grave tragedy, and the city of Hartford responded by entering a state of mourning for days. At noon the following day, the Colt Armory band played a dirge at the site of the fallen oak, and at sundown, church bells tolled across the city. Calls immediately went up to erect a monument on the site where the tree stood, although it would take nearly fifty years before one was constructed (it was dedicated in 1905 and can be seen today at the corner of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place in Hartford).
Timber obtained at the site was fashioned into scores of secular relics large and small; two of the most notable constructions made from Charter Oak wood include a chair in the state capitol used by the Senate President and an elaborate frame that houses Connecticut’s original Royal Charter of 1662 inside the Museum of Connecticut History. Other Connecticans endeavored to make sure the story and legacy of the Charter Oak endured by planting “scions” (acorns) of the great tree throughout the state, several of which were marked with special plaques and can still be seen today. Thousands of Connecticans paid their respects to the mighty Charter Oak, whose legacy lives on, today in Connecticut history.
Walter W. Woodward “The Unlikely Legend, and Even More Unlikely History, of the Charter Oak,” Gratingthenutmeg.libsyn.com
“The Charter Oak Fell,” connecticuthistory.org
“Charter Oak Monument, Hartford,” ctmonuments.net