In the hidden history of Connecticut’s Charter Oak

my colleague Doug Still and I uncovered several things: the facts, the legend, and then the legacy.

Doug and I had fun producing an episode about it all for his podcast This Old Tree.

You can tune in to the podcast here:

Oaks get pretty famous all over the world. Austin, Texas, has the Treaty Oak, supposedly already standing when Columbus got to America. A crazy spurned lover poisoned the tree in 1989 but it was saved by dedicated arborists and continues to stand proudly behind a chain link fence downtown.

Edwinstowe, in Nottinghamshire, England, has its own oak, the Major Oak, now a purported 1,000 years old, which made a pretty sweet hideout for Robin Hood and his merry band, if the story is real.

But only Connecticut has the Charter Oak. The Connecticut oak, I was to find, has a lot of admirers throughout the State. It does appear on the Connecticut Seal and at least one postage stamp, after all.

The state tree is a white oak, and there is a reason for that. The Charter Oak was a white oak.

Now, here are the facts. King James II tried to revoke the royal charter issued to Connecticut in 1662. Sir Edmund Andros met with colonial leaders in a Hartford tavern on a dark night (it was a dark and stormy night) in 1687 to get it back. Suddenly, all the candles in the place blew out. When the lights came back on, the parchment had vanished. Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid the charter in an old white oak on Wyllys land and saved the day.

Enough history for now? I guessed as much. Keep in mind that the tree was already venerated by local Indians, written about by Dutch explorer Adrian Block in his log of 1608. It constituted so important a symbol that the local Eastern Woodlands tribe known as the Sauklog called it the “peace tree” and actually met with the landowner to insist he never take it down. Counting rings is famously imprecise, especially for a tree with a big hole in the middle, but the standard estimate suggests that the tree dated back to the 12th or 13th century. Really?

What interested me in working on the podcast with Doug is the mythology of the tree. The mysticism surrounding it.

Back in the day, the oak became imbued with a certain magical aura. Jack Hale, the chair of the Hartford Tree Advisory Commission, told us that when it blew down in 1856, a funeral was actually organized. People wept, a band played dirges, church bells tolled. And then they began gathering up the bits and pieces, some bigger than others, to sell or hoard or craft into hundreds of different artifacts.

Upon visiting Hartford, we saw some of these relics in the Museum of Connecticut History, right next to the state Supreme Court. All around us, high on the walls, was a parade of the great white men who had served as governors. On the floor beneath us, an inlay of the state seal.

On the wall, the Charter itself.

The famous Charles Brownell painting of the tree, with its remarkable branching. And in display cases all around, artifacts such as a whiskey label, a brand of sewing thread. An ad for the Charter Oak Six Plex. A State Fair poultry prize.

Do a little digging and you’ll find Charter Oak Cigars, Charter Oak Venetian Blinds, Charter Oak baseballs. The State Senate Chamber houses the “Charter Oak Chair.”

Mark Twain, longtime son of Hartford who knew everything about most things, delivered this rather snarky bit about the Charter Oak:

Anything that is made of its wood is deeply venerated by the inhabitants, and is regarded as very precious. I went all about the town with a citizen whose ancestors came over with the Pilgrims in the Quaker City – in the Mayflower,I should say — and he showed me all the historic relics of Hartford. He showed me a beautiful carved chair in the Senate Chamber, where the bewigged and awfully homely old-time Governors of the Commonwealth frown from their canvasse overhead. “Made from Charter Oak,” he said. I gazed upon it with inexpressible solicitude. He showed me another carved chair in the House, “Charter Oak,” he said. I gazed again with interest. Then we looked at the rusty, stained and famous old Charter, and presently I turned to move away. But he solemnly drew me back and pointed to the frame. “Charter Oak,” said he. I worshipped….

Thank you, Mr. Twain, you may return to your comfortable study now. By the way, did you know that feeling of warmth when you occupy a seat occupied by another individual just before you is among the least pleasant sensations known to humans? The Japanese have a term for it.

Another son of Hartford, Samuel Colt, made his fortune coterminously with the tragic felling of the Oak, and his story and that of the icon became intertwined. After sending his crew to the tree to gather up the lumber, Colt had a lot of it made into stuff. Idolatry of the Colt name became synonymous with awe of the Charter Oak, as he had it made into a wooden revolver, and other icons.

In the Wadsworth Athanaeum you can see a lavish cradle Colt commissioned from the Oak’s wood in 1857.

When I had my child a good friend presented us with a handcrafted wooden rocking cradle complete with an inset decoration carved of apple wood from our orchard. Talk about iconic. The cradle at theAthenaeum features figured satin and big chunks of Charter Oak Wood.

A chair made for a bigwig mayor the year after the great tree fell.

Something I really liked was the meta quality of some of the pieces – you see a frame around a painting of the Charter Oak that is itself made of wood from the Oak, which is in turn carved into oak branches, leaves and acorns. Meta meta! I was kvelling to see it all.

I spoke with Allan Fenner, a consulting arborist, and Christopher Martin, the State Forester, both of whom raved up the white oak’s strength, its beauty, its stately qualities. Martin told me it’s no accident that the state fashions park picnic tables out of white oak. It’s that durable.

Durable and enduring. Doug and Jack and I ventured around town to see the important Charter Oak locations. The intersection of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place in South Downtown, where the original tree stood.

It is now marked by an obelisk put up in 1907 by the Connecticut Society of Colonial Wars.

The more specific, actual site is a few yards away, now occupied by an apartment building that sports a stone plaque.

All well and good, but what about the living legacy in Hartford? Well, that exists in spades. If you go to Bushnell Park – we did, of course – you’ll find the Hoadley Oak, which is a scion of the original, planted here only a few years after the Charter Oak fell, the product of one of its many acorns, which were also scooped up by eager Hartfordians or possibly Colt employees.

We visited after one of the big storms that we now have so many of courtesy of global warming. Ida did damage in the park, requiring a certain tree company’s services. But the Hoadley oak seemed unhurt. The scions themselves are ancient now!

Just up the path from the Hoadley Oak stood an even more magnificent specimen, another scion of the original, this one planted in 1871.

The plaque beneath its 50-inch diameter trunk brags on its history.

We admired the mulching, the care the city had taken with it. The roots had been air spaded several years back, and the tree looked great. Look up, as I always like to do when given the chance, and you could see its muscular habit. It is an extremely handsome tree.

In the 1970s, during bicentennial fervor, the State of Connecticut distributed seedlings that were descendants of the original to municipalities who requested one. There were quite a few propagated at that time, and you can go on line to find out where they are – from Avon to Windham —  and then go pay homage to the Charter Oak’s power, beauty, longevity. And, of course, its importance as a symbol of sturdy colonial independence, representative government and self-rule. All things we cherish in trees and in life in general. In our high tech society, a natural being still matters to so many people – that was my central takeaway from the experience of investigating this arboreal footnote of American history. Can a community learn to love a tree? Yes.

It is likely that you will not be able to pay homage to the Hoadley oak much longer. The same tree company we saw in Bushnell Park recently assessed its health, and recommended its removal. In our risk-averse society, a cavity in a tree no longer represents a wonderful place to hide a historical document but instead makes the thing a hazard to be destroyed.

I wonder if there will be a funeral.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

One response to “In the hidden history of Connecticut’s Charter Oak

  1. anngine

    So – wh

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