The Legend of the Charter Oak: Connecticut's Official State Tree

The Story Behind the Famous Tree, Plus More CT Official Symbols

The Charter Oak by Charles de Wolfe Brownell
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Charter Oak is the official Connecticut State Tree. An image of the celebrated Charter Oak was selected to be emblazoned on the back of Connecticut's state quarter, minted in 1999. What is the story behind this famous tree, gone from the landscape but very alive in significance?

In May of 1662, Connecticut received its Royal Charter from England's King Charles II. This important legal document granted the colony its rights to self-government.

A quarter century later, King James II's royal representatives attempted to seize the Charter. Well, Connecticut residents were not about to take that lying down, even more so after the Brits threatened to split the state and divide its lands between Massachusetts and New York.

On October 26, 1687, Sir Edmund Andros, who had been appointed by the Crown as governor of all of New England, arrived in Hartford to demand the Charter. Nice try. What exactly happened during that evening's showdown at Butler's Tavern may never be ascertained, but the upshot is that, in the midst of heated debates between Connecticut leaders and the royal entourage over surrendering the Charter, the room was plunged into darkness when the candles that illuminated it were overturned.

Was it merely an accident, or a crafty maneuver carefully plotted by the feisty defenders of Connecticut's rights? We may never know, but what we do know is that one passionate Nutmegger, Captain Joseph Wadsworth, who was positioned outside the tavern, found himself in possession of the Charter during the ensuing chaos in the darkness. Wadsworth took it upon himself to hide the charter safely inside a majestic white oak tree on the Wyllys estate in Hartford. The stately tree was already more than 500 years old when it served its spectacular role as a hiding spot for the precious document. Wadsworth's bold move served to preserve not only the document but the rights of the colonists.

Thus, the tree earned its nickname: the "Charter Oak." The venerable tree stood as a proud Connecticut symbol for another 150 years until it was toppled during a storm on August 21, 1856. Its circumference, by then, was 33 feet. The symbol lives on thanks to the U.S. Mint's state quarters program and state efforts to commemorate the tree.

The Charter Oak Lives On

If you're visiting Hartford, you can see the Charter Oak Monument at the intersection of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place, near where the tree once stood. The monument was dedicated in 1905.

What happened to the wood from New England's most notorious tree? It was carved into many mementos including the Charter Oak Chair. On free weekday guided or self-guided tours of the Connecticut State Capitol building, you can see this ornate seat, from which the state's lieutenant governor presides over senate sessions.

If you're really up for a tree treasure hunt, travel the state in search of the Charter Oak's offspring. Connecticut's Notable Trees maintains a list of oaks believed to be descendants of the Charter Oak. Tree lovers visiting Hartford County will also want to make a pilgrimage to the suburb of Simsbury to see the Pinchot Sycamore: Connecticut's largest tree and the largest sycamore in New England.

More Official Connecticut Symbols with Interesting Stories

  • Connecticut's State Hero and Heroine both have historic sites that tell their stories. At the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, you'll meet the young, brave American spy remembered for allegedly saying, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," when he was captured by the British in 1776. The Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury (currently closed for renovations) honors the founder of New England's first school for African-American women.
  • The Connecticut State Fish, American Shad, is celebrated each spring with a variety of fun events including a festival in Windsor and tours of the Shad Museum in Haddam.
  • Connecticut's State Flagship, the Freedom Schooner Amistad, is a replica of La Amistad, which was towed to New London following a revolt by the slavery-bound Africans aboard. The ensuing battle for their freedom was America's first civil rights case heard by the Supreme Court, and the events inspired the Steven Spielberg movie, Amistad.
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