Deep-rooted in the historic tradition of Connecticut, the Charter Oak is one of the most colorful and significant symbols of the spiritual strength and love of freedom which inspired our Colonial forebears in their militant resistance to tyranny. This venerable giant of the forest, over half a century old when it hid the treasured Charter in 1687, finally fell during a great storm on August 21, 1856. Two English kings, a royal agent, a colonial hero and a candle-lit room are the figures and backdrop in one of the most thrilling chapters of America's legend of liberty. The refusal of our early Connecticut leaders to give up the Charter, despite royal order and the threat of arms, marked one of the greatest episodes of determined courage in our history.

On October 9, 1662, The General Court of Connecticut formally received the Charter won from King Charles II by the suave diplomacy of Governor John Winthrop, Jr., who had crossed the ocean for the purpose. Twenty-five years later, with the succession of James II to the throne, Connecticut's troubles began in earnest. Sir Edmund Andros, His Majesty's agent, followed up failure of various strategies by arriving in Hartford with an armed force to seize the Charter. After hours of debate, with the Charter on the table between the opposing parties, the candle-lit room suddenly went dark. Moments later when the candles were re-lighted, the Charter was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth is credited with having removed and secreted the Charter in the majestic oak on the Wyllys estate.


The colonial governor was born in London, England. He became governor of the newly created Dominion of New England (including Massachusetts, Plymouth, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire) in 1686. His aristocratic manner and Anglican sympathies alienated the Bostonians and he was overthrown in a citizens' revolt in 1689.


In 1687, King James II revoked the Connecticut charter. Royal Governor Sir Edmund Andros attempted to seize the charter, but Joseph Wadsworth stole away with it. Tradition says it was hidden in the hollow of an oak on Samuel Wyllys's property. This "Charter Oak" became a famous landmark.

During King Philip's war, the colonists of Connecticut did not suffer much from hostile Indians, excepting some remote settlers high up the Connecticut River. They furnished their full measure of men and supplies, and their soldiers bore a conspicuous part in that contest between the races for supremacy. But while they were freed from dangers and distress of war with the Indians, they were disturbed by the petty tyranny of Governor Andros, whose advent in New England and New York has been noticed.

Seated at New York, Andros claimed jurisdiction as far east as the Connecticut River. To the mouth of that stream he went, with a small naval force, in the summer of 1675, to assert his authority. Captain Bull, the commander of a small fort at Saybrook, permitted him to land but when the governor began to read his commission, Bull ordered him to be silent. Andros was compelled to yield to the commander's bold spirit and his superior military power, and in a towering passion he returned to New York, flinging curses and threats behind him at the people of Connecticut in general, and Captain Bull in particular.

For more than a dozen years after this flare-up of ambition and passion, nothing materially disturbed the public repose of Connecticut. Then a most exciting scene occurred at Hartford, in the result of which the liberties of the colony were involved. Andros again appeared as a usurper of authority—the willing instrument of his master King James the Second, who had determined to hold absolute rule over all New England. On his arrival in New York, as we have seen, Andros demanded a surrender of all the colonial charters into his hands. The authorities of all the colonies complied, excepting those of Connecticut. The latter steadily refused to yield their charter voluntarily, for it was the guardian of their political rights. To subdue their stubbornness, the viceroy proceeded to Hartford with sixty armed men, to demand the surrender of the charter in person. On his arrival there on the 31st of October (O. S.), 1687, he found the General Assembly in session in the meeting-house. The members received him with the courtesy due to his rank. Before that body, with armed men at his back, he demanded a formal surrender of the precious document into his own hands.

It was now near sunset. A subject of some importance was under debate, and the discussion was purposely continued until some time after the candles were lighted. Then the charter, contained in a long mahogany box, was brought in and laid upon the table. A preconcerted plan to save it from the grasp of the usurper was now instantly executed. As Andros put forth his hand to take the charter, the candles were all snuffed out and the document was snatched by Captain Wadsworth, whose train-bands were near to protect the Assembly from any violence which the royal soldiers might offer. Wadsworth bore away the charter, the crowd opening as he passed out, and closing behind him, and hid it in the hollow of a venerable oak tree on the outskirts of the village. When the candles were relighted, the members were seated in perfect order, but the charter could not be found. This was the same Captain Wadsworth who afterward silenced Governor Fletcher.

So, again, the tyrannical purposes of Andros were foiled in Connecticut. Wisely restraining his passion at that time, he assumed the control of the government declared the charter annulled, and Secretary Allyn wrote the word FINIS after the last record of the Journal of the Assembly. From that time until he was expelled from the country in 1689, he governed Connecticut as an autocrat—an absolute sovereign. Then the charter was brought out from its place of concealment, in May, 1689; a popular Assembly was convened; Robert Treat was chosen governor, and Connecticut again assumed the position of an independent colony. The tree in which the document was hidden was ever afterward known as the "Charter Oak." It remained vigorous, bearing fruit every year until a little after midnight in August, 1856, when it was prostrated by a heavy storm of wind. It stood in a vacant lot on the south side of Charter street, a few rods from Main street, in the city of Hartford.

About six years after Andros was out-generaled at Hartford, his successor in office Benjamin Fletcher, was foiled, at the same place, in his attempts to exercise control over the militia of Connecticut. From that time, during the space of about three-fourths of a century, the history of Connecticut is intimately woven with that of the other colonies planted in America by English people. The inhabitants of Connecticut, by prudent habits and good government, steadily increased in numbers and wealth. They went hand in hand with those of other colonies in measures for the promotion of the welfare of all and when, in the fullness of time, the provinces were ripe for union, rebellion and independence, the people of Connecticut were foremost in their eagerness to assert their rights as a free people.

Charter Oak
The Charter Oak

THE Connecticut colonists worked in harmony as brethren or the same nation and creed until their fusion into one commonwealth in 1665. They managed their private and public affairs prudently and were prosperous. Troubles with the Dutch, concerning territorial boundaries, were amicably settled with Stuyvesant when he visited Hartford in 1650; but the mutterings of dissatisfaction which fell from the lips of the neighboring Indian tribes gave them some disquietude, and made them heartily approve and join the New England Confederacy formed in 1643 The following year the little independent colony at Saybrook, at the mouth of the Connecticut River, which had been formed in 1639, was annexed to that of Connecticut at Hartford, and was the precursor of the final union of the three colonies about twenty years afterwards.

The repose of the colonists was broken in 1653, by a war between England and Holland. An alarming rumor had spread over New England that Ninigret, an old, crafty and wily sachem of the allied Niantics and Narragansets, who had spent part of a winter at New Amsterdam, had made a league with Stuyvesant for the destruction of the New England colonies. The majority of the commissioners of the New England Confederacy believed the absurd story, and decided to make war on the Dutch. The Connecticut people were specially eager for war, for they were more immediately exposed to the effects of such a plot than the other colonists. But Massachusetts refused to furnish men and arms for an aggressive war, before an investigation of the matter. Messengers were sent to Ninigret and his associate sachems for the latter purpose. These were questioned separately, and all concurred in the solemn assurance that they had no knowledge of such a plot. Ninigret, who went to New Amsterdam for medical treatment, said with emphasis, in his denial, "I found no such entertainment from the Dutch governor, when I was there, as to give me any encouragement to stir me up to such a league against the English, my friends. It was winter time, and I stood a great part of a winter day knocking at the governor's door, and he would neither open it, nor suffer others to open it, to let me in. I was not wont to find such carriage from the English, my friends."The story of the Dutch-Indian plot appears to have been a pure invention of Uncas the crafty sachem of the Mohegans, who was a foe of Ninigret, and was extremely jealous of the supposed friendship between that sachem and the English. It caused the frightened Connecticut colonists, when Massachusetts refused to join them in war upon the Dutch, to ask Cromwell for aid. The Protector sent four ships-of-war, but before their arrival a treaty of peace had ended the war between England and Holland, and blood and treasure were saved in America.

On the restoration of monarchy in England, in 1660, the Connecticut colonists had fears regarding their future. Their sturdy republicanism and independent action in the past might be mortally offensive to the new monarch. The General Assembly of Connecticut, therefore, resolved to make a formal acknowledgment of their allegiance to the crown and ask the king for a charter. A petition was accordingly framed and signed in May, 1661, and Governor John Winthrop bore it to England. He was a son of Winthrop of Massachusetts, and was a man of rare attainments and courtly manners, and then about forty-five years of age. He obtained an interview with the king, and was received with coolness. His name and the people over whom he was the chosen ruler were associated with radical republicanism, and the king received the prayer of the petitioners with disfavor. Winthrop left the royal presence, disappointed but not disheartened, and sought and obtained another interview.

The "merry monarch" was now in more genial mood. He chatted freely with Winthrop about America—its soil, productions, the Indians and the settlers—yet he hesitated to promise a charter. Winthrop, it is said, finally drew from his pocket a gold ring of great value, which the king's father had given to the governor's grandfather, and presented it to his majesty with a request that he would accept it as a memorial of the unfortunate monarch, and a token of Winthrop's esteem for, and loyalty to King Charles, before whom he stood as a faithful and loving subject. The king's heart was touched. Turning to Lord Clarendon, who was present, the monarch said: "Do you advise me to grant a charter to this good gentleman and his people?" "I do, Sire," responded Clarendon."It shall be done," said Charles, and he dismissed Winthrop with a hearty shake of his hand and a royal blessing.

The governor left Whitehall with a light heart. A charter was issued on the first of May, 1662. It confirmed the popular constitution of the colony, and contained more liberal provisions that, any yet issued by royal hands. It defined the boundaries so as to include the New Haven colony and a part of Rhode Island on the East, and westward to the Pacific Ocean. The New Haven colony reluctantly gave its consent to the union, in 1665, and the boundary between Connecticut and Rhode Island remained a subject of dispute for more than sixty years. That old charter, engrossed on parchment, is among the archives in the Connecticut State Department. It bears the miniature portrait of Charles the Second, drawn in India ink by Samuel Cooper, it is supposed, who was an eminent London miniature painter of the time.

Two English Kings, a royal agent, a colonial hero, and a candle-lit room are the backdrop in one of the most thrilling chapters of America's legend of liberty. The refusal of our early Connecticut leaders to give up the Charter, despite royal order and the threat of arms, marked one of the greatest episodes of determined courage in our history.

In 1639, the Fundamental Orders were produced, binding the first three Connecticut towns—Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield—into a colonial entity. These Fundamental Orders are considered to be the first constitution in the history of the world, which is why Connecticut is called the Constitution State. The Connecticut Charter recognized the Connecticut Colony by the English Monarchy. On October 9, 1662, the General Court of Connecticut formally received the Charter won from King Charles II by the suave diplomacy of Governor John Winthrop, Jr., who had crossed the ocean for the purpose.

In 1687, twenty-five years later, James II ascended to the throne. This spelled trouble for Connecticut. King James wanted to revoke Connecticut's Charter. The people of Connecticut, however, did not want their Charter taken away because it entitled them to certain rights under British Law. Sir Edmund Andros, His Majesty's agent, followed up the failure of various strategies by arriving in Hartford with an armed escort to seize the Charter.

After hours of debate, with the Charter on the table between the opposing parties, the candlelit room went suddenly dark. Moments later, when the candles were lighted again, the Charter was gone. Captain Joseph Wadsworth is credited with having removed and secreted the Charter in the majestic oak on the Wyllys estate.

Liberties and Legends

Connecticut's history of constitutional government dates back to the seventeenth century and two significant documents: the 1639 Fundamental Orders, which bound the three original towns of Windsor, Wethersfield and Hartford into a colonial entity, and the Royal Charter of 1662 granted by Charles II. Twenty-five years later, when agents of James II attempted to seize the charter, it was spirited away and hidden in a majestic oak tree on the Wyllys estate in Hartford, thereby preserving the charter and the rights of the colonists.

For over a hundred and fifty years, the "charter oak" was a prominent and widely recognized Connecticut landmark. When it was toppled during an 1857 storm, acorns were collected as keepsakes, as were a considerable amount of twigs, leaves, branches and lumber.

The Museum exhibit "Liberties and Legends" tells the story of this venerated icon. The exhibit includes numerous souvenirs made from wood of the original charter oak, including a Colt revolving pistol, picture frames and miniature furniture. Today, several "descendants" of the charter oak are to be found on the grounds of the State Capitol and in Hartford's Bushnell Park. The original charter, preserved in an ornate frame made of "charter oak" wood, is prominently displayed in the museum.

Also on permanent display are the State Constitutions of 1818 and 1964 and Connecticut's copy of the United States Bill of Rights.

1687 Bibliography