This Old Tree with Doug Still
The Charter Oak (Transcript)
Season 1, Episode 9
Published January 30, 2023
Doug Still: [00:03]
There's no mistaking the original site of the historic Charter Oak in Hartford, Connecticut. Jack Hale from the Hartford Tree Advisory Commission took me and my friend, Jean Zimmerman, there recently.
Okay, Jack, where are we right now?
Jack Hale: [00:19]
We are at the corner of Charter Oak Avenue and Charter Oak Place, which is the location where the Charter Oak was planted.
Doug Still: [00:29]
I guessed that.
Jack Hale: [00:31]
Doug Still: [00:31]
Funny that they named it that.
Down the block is the Charter Oak Cultural Center, the Capital Spirits Charter Oak Liquor Store, and Charter Oak Memorial Park. In fact, there are probably hundreds of businesses across the state with 'Charter Oak' in the name, from a state college to a credit union to a brewery. It's even on the Connecticut state coin. What is this phenomenon?
Jack Hale: [00:54]
Yeah, if you look at the wall of that apartment building, there's a plaque there to that effect.
Doug Still: [01:03]
The Charter Oak Place Apartments.
Jack Hale: [01:06]
Jean Zimmerman: [01:07]
And that's the Obelisk?
Jack Hale: [01:09]
The Obelisk is a memorial to the tree, but the actual location of the tree was where the apartment building is.
Doug Still: [01:20]
I mentioned Jean Zimmerman. She's an arborist and author of seven books, who is currently working on a book about America's complicated love affair with our forests. Jean joins me in this episode to help get to the bottom of the Charter Oak legend and how it became part of the founding myth of Connecticut. I'm Doug Still, and you're listening to This Old Tree.
[This Old Tree theme]
Doug Still: [02:02]
First off, I'd like to recognize the land in and around Hartford as once belonging to a confederation of indigenous tribes of the Algonquin people. In fact, the name Connecticut comes from the Algonquin word 'quinnetukut,' meaning "Long Tidal River." These peoples included the Podunks, the Poquonocks, the Massacoes, the Tunxis, the Wangunks, and the Saukiogs, where Hartford itself is located. Now, I'd like to welcome Jean Zimmerman to the show.
Hi, Jean. How are you doing today?
Jean Zimmerman: [02:37]
I'm doing fine, Doug. How are you?
Doug Still: [02:39]
I'm doing great. I'm doing great. We met about six weeks ago when you submitted a Tree Story Short to the program.
Jean Zimmerman: [02:47]
That's right. Uh-huh. Absolutely.
Doug Still: [02:49]
It was a great one. That was on a beech tree that you grew up with.
Jean Zimmerman: [02:54]
A copper beech tree called "The Elephant Tree."
Doug Still: [02:56]
That was a great story. I loved it.
Jean Zimmerman: [02:58]
Doug Still: [02:59]
Afterwards, we started chatting about historic trees, and somehow, we got on to talking about the Charter Oak in Connecticut.
Jean Zimmerman: [03:08]
Right. Well, the Charter Oak is a famous tree for Connecticut people, but also for other people, I think.
Doug Still: [03:14]
Yeah. Neither of us are from Connecticut. I'm from Rhode Island.
Jean Zimmerman: [00:03:17] And I'm from just north of New York City.
Doug Still: [03:20]
I remember neither of us really got why this tree was so important to Connecticutters.
Jean Zimmerman: [03:25]
Right. I guess we wanted to know more, and we thought we would pursue it. We did some quick searches, of course, on the Internet, and we found a basic outline of the story of the Charter Oak.
Doug Still: [03:38]
Yeah, there's like a general narrative out there that you read over and over.
Jean Zimmerman: [03:42]
There's a general narrative, and some people in Connecticut know some of it and some know some other part. It's interesting though, the background.
Doug Still: [03:51]
Yeah. Maybe you could give us an outline of the story.
Jean Zimmerman: [03:54]
Absolutely. It was in the 1660s, pre-revolution, in what was to become Connecticut, and the Charter for the colony of Connecticut was given by the king of England. The colony was relatively self-governing. But along about 1687, the new king decided that the number of colonies should be merged into one larger colony. So, he wanted to revoke Connecticut's charter. So, he sent a henchman to Hartford to come take it back.
Doug Still: [04:29]
Oh, boy. So then, this leads to the big legend.
Jean Zimmerman: [04:34]
On October 31, 1687, there was a meeting with state dignitaries in a local tavern in Hartford. The charter was sitting on a table between all of the players here. At one point, amazingly, all the candles blew out at the same time. That's the- [crosstalk]
Doug Still: [04:52]
Jean Zimmerman: [04:53]
-right. It was miraculous. And when they were relit, the charter was gone. So, who knows where it went? Well, apparently it later came out that it had been whisked out of the room by somebody and brought to an old white oak tree that grew nearby. This is the tree that became known as the Charter Oak because the charter was hidden inside a big hollow in the trunk. Well, what happened next is the king's men couldn't retrieve the Charter. They couldn't find it, they didn't know where it was. And voila, Connecticut's rights were saved. And that's the story.
Doug Still: [05:32]
Yeah. I think that's what most people know. Like, if you were to ask somebody in Connecticut, that's what they would describe or something along those lines.
Jean Zimmerman: [05:42]
Right. They might not know the name of the king, or they might not know the name of the land it was on, but they do know something about the Charter being rescued.
Doug Still: [05:55]
It's a great story. I love it, but it kind of seems a little bit far fetched.
Jean Zimmerman: [06:00]
Yeah, I mean, it does seem hard to believe, especially the candles blowing out. I think you and I agree that's kind of a crazy detail.
Doug Still: [06:08]
It's amazing that this story has been passed down for hundreds of years. What do you think its power is? We had no idea, not being from Connecticut.
Jean Zimmerman: [06:19]
I don't know. I think it's good to ask why there's such veneration for this particular tree and why is there even this mysticism surrounding it. I'd love to find out more.
Doug Still: [06:32]
Yeah. Why this tree? And do people still care?
Jean Zimmerman: [06:35]
Absolutely. It sounds as though they do, but I'd just like to get down and find out more about it.
Doug Still: [06:41]
Well, we both had the chance to interview some wonderful people to find out some of these questions, and we got to meet each other in Hartford. How fun was that?
Jean Zimmerman: [06:51]
That was really fun, and it was a great day.
Doug Still: [06:53]
Well, to start things off, I met separately with Robert Storm to get the best description of the actual events that I could find. He is a lawyer and a historian who also holds the title, Honorary Governor General of the Society of Colonial Wars of the State of Connecticut. Do you have any idea what that means?
Jean Zimmerman: [07:15]
It sounds important, but no.
Doug Still: [07:19]
[laughs] Well, I didn't either, but let's find out.
Doug Still: [07:31]
Hi, Robb. Welcome to the show.
Robert Storm: [07:33]
Thank you, Doug.
Doug Still: [07:34]
What is the Society of Colonial Wars and how does one get to be a member?
Robert Storm: [07:40]
Ah, interesting questions, both of them. The society was founded in the early 1890s in New York, and in 1893, founded in Connecticut. It's comprised of men who are descended from men who fought in a colonial war. That is anything between 1607 and April 19th, 1775, when the revolution broke out. Or they have an ancestor who was distinguished in the civil life of the particular colony through which they are claiming membership.
Doug Still: [08:19]
Like a governor or a town selectman or something?
Robert Storm: [08:23]
Yes, governor, a member of the colonial legislature, perhaps a judge.
Doug Still: [08:28]
Robb described a couple of his ancestors who fit this description and then went on to say that there's a parallel organization for women called The Daughters of Colonial Wars.
What kinds of things do you talk about at the meetings?
Robert Storm: [08:41]
Those topics are wide and varied, and that's one of the chief pleasures of belonging to the Society of Colonial Wars.
Doug Still: [08:47]
Are they top secret?
Robert Storm: [08:49]
Of course, never to leave the table. [chuckles] We talk about everything from politics to visual aesthetics to the latest romance of one of the members. But for the most part, it's a society that has an intense history and an intense interest in history.
Doug Still: [09:08]
Has the Charter Oak ever come up?
Robert Storm: [09:10]
On rare occasions, but early in the last century, it was a primary focus of the group. In fact, the monument that was originally placed at the site of the Charter Oak itself, which blew down in a horrendous storm back in the summer of 1856, that was remembered by the society early after its establishment. We put up a large stone monument on the site of the old Charter Oak in, if I remember correctly, 1910.
Doug Still: [09:42]
The Obelisk, Jean, Jack and I found earlier. Then, I asked Rob to set the stage for our story prior to 1687.
What was the Connecticut Charter who issued it, and what did it mean for the colony of Connecticut?
Robert Storm: [09:57]
Connecticut has an extraordinary colonial history. Most of the 13 states, original states, were founded as individual colonies. Connecticut was founded as three separate colonies.
Doug Still: [10:10]
And they were Puritans, meaning Protestants who felt that the Church of England hadn't sufficiently reformed and become Protestant enough. In England, King Charles I, had been beheaded in 1649 in a Civil War. Oliver Cromwell ruled as a de facto dictator until he died in 1658. And In 1660, Charles's son, Charles II, became king and restored the monarchy.
Robert Storm: [10:37]
Parliament decided to invite Charles II, the second son of the beheaded deposed king, to come back to England and rule.
Doug Still: [10:47]
He was hiding, or he was in Europe.
Robert Storm: [10:48]
Yes, he was in exile, principally at the French court. Charles came back very happily. But the irregular situation in which Connecticut found itself showed the Connecticut colony that theirs was a tenuous position to hold. So, they commissioned an agent to seek a charter-- a Royal charter, of course, at the time there was nothing else a Charter from the king, and he succeeded in getting it in 1662.
Doug Still: [11:25]
Did other colonies seek charters as well?
Robert Storm: [11:29]
For the most part, other colonies already had charters, but Connecticut was an outlier. With its charter though, it had a legal existence basically as a corporation. Unlike most colonies, the physical location of the charter was here in America, in Hartford. In most colonies, the charter remained in London. When in 1685, Charles II's successor as king, his brother James II ascended the throne, part of James' attempt to make the colonies more governable was simple. He seized the colonies charters worked for, Massachusetts, for example--
Doug Still: [12:17]
They already had them.
Robert Storm: [12:17]
Exactly. But he didn't have and couldn't get the Connecticut Charter. He wanted to make what he called "Dominion of New England," which wasn't simply New England, but soon thereafter also New York. So, you had the colonies of New England, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, plus New York governed as a single entity by a royally appointed governor. It was Sir Edmund Andros who caused the most trouble for Connecticut.
Doug Still: [12:51]
He was the one appointed as the dominion governor.
Robert Storm: [12:54]
Exactly. For a very brief period, there was a predecessor who proved unable to do what James wanted done. So, Andros repeatedly asked Connecticut to surrender its charter because under English law at that time, and the same law that had existed by precedence since the Middle Ages, without the physical charter, there was no legal authority.
Doug Still: [13:28]
The people of Connecticut were being cagey. They did not want to give up their limited democracy. And as devout Puritans, they were very concerned about the religious beliefs of King James.
Robert Storm: [13:43]
James, however, had converted to Roman Catholicism, the great boogeyman of the Reformation. So, the colonists in Connecticut feared, and perhaps with some cause, that surrendering the charter and establishing the Dominion of New England would be only the first step of putting in again an ungodly, unbiblical government, not only in the civil sphere but also in the sphere of faith.
Doug Still: [14:16]
So, here comes Sir Edmund Andros.
Robert Storm: [14:19]
But Andros decided he would take action and came down from Boston, the capital of the Dominion and still, of course, as the leading city of New England. He came down with a ceremonial guard who in fact were really armed soldiers determined to help him take the charter by force if necessary.
Doug Still: [14:43]
And how many of them were there?
Robert Storm: [14:44]
We don't really know, but some people have guessed about 30. Connecticut had no standing army. It had a ready militia in forms of what were called trained bands. These were men who had to be called up for service and to have done that, to have opposed the unexpected ceremonial guard would have been a way of probably inciting a rebellion, if not a riot.
Doug Still: [15:17]
We're going to take a brief pause. When we come back, Rob Storm tells us what happened when Sir Edmund Andros arrived in Hartford with one major goal, to confiscate Connecticut's charter. You're listening to This Old Tree.
Robert Storm: [15:38]
He arrived late in August of 1687, ostensibly to visit the government in session, the General Assembly of Connecticut. But clearly, everyone knew he was going to ask for the charter, and he did demand it. "Well, we need to get it, we need to find it, we need to--" The actual surrender was delayed until evening.
Doug Still: [16:07]
Where are they meeting?
Robert Storm: [16:10]
That's a good question. Nobody knows for sure, but the legend usually has them in Standards Tavern which was about the place that the old State House stands now. So, a good three or four blocks away from the location of Charter Oak.
Doug Still: [16:27]
So, they met in a tavern?
Robert Storm: [16:29]
That's what we think, that it was upstairs in the tavern. Now, it's nightfall, necessary to light the candles. The box containing the charter, probably a long box square at the ends, that's put in the middle of the table with the assemblymen on one side and Andros and his retinue on the other side. They're discussing in order to make sure that certain questions are answered, that everything's done in good form, that everything happens just as it should. The assembly comes to the point of almost agreeing with everything that Sir Edmund had said that he wanted. It remains only for him to physically take possession of the charter.
Doug Still: [17:18]
So, it's looking like they're going to capitulate.
Robert Storm: [17:21]
Indeed, indeed. But then suddenly, the legend handed down in my family, some of my mother's ancestors were assemblymen at the time, is that the window was opened and a sudden gust of air came in from the night sky.
[air gust sound]
All the candles are extinguished. Well, they're quickly relit. It couldn't have taken more than a minute or two to have done that. But the table has nothing on it, except the candles. The box containing the charter has disappeared. Now, who took it? We don't really know. But the Wadsworth family has a constant legend that their ancestor, Captain Joseph, was the one who had taken it away in that very brief period in which everything was extinguished.
Doug Still: [18:17]
I see. I mean whenever I read about the legend, Joseph Wadsworth whisked away the charter, but you're saying that it started probably with the Wadsworth family in their oral history?
Robert Storm: [18:30]
Well, that's probably the case, but we don't really know. Captain Joseph is as good a possibility as any other. We do know that the governor and the deputy governor were still there at the table. We do know that some of the assemblymen still were there, but Captain Joseph might not have been the only one who was absent when the lights were relit.
Doug Still: [18:57]
In addition to being from a prominent Hartford family, Rob explained that Wadsworth was also a militia leader.
Robert Storm: [19:04]
Captain Joseph had his military title from being active in the trainband of Hartford.
Doug Still: [19:12]
So, he was the captain of a trainband?
Robert Storm: [19:14]
Exactly. The Militia Company of Hartford.
Doug Still: [19:17]
While at the Connecticut State Library, I did a little research on Joseph Wadsworth. One source was a Wadsworth family history from the 19th century, which gave him this description.
"Joseph was an impetuous, aggressive, courageous, and resolute young man, and an early leader among the younger set of Hartford. He sounded like a tough guy, so I had to ask, was he there to show some force for the Connecticut side."
And were they present or nearby during this night?
Robert Storm: [19:50]
I doubt sincerely that the militia were out at the time, and they were not uniformed, so there wouldn't have been any clear distinction for him to have had. But everyone on the Connecticut side would have known that he was a captain in the trained band.
Doug Still: [20:07]
Was he present in the room during most of the discussions?
Robert Storm: [20:11]
Well, again, that's what the legend says.
Doug Still: [20:14]
Would his presence have been seen as a threat to Sir Andros?
Christopher Martin: [20:21]
Probably not. Again, although the guards accompanying Sir Edmund were uninformed, and the trained bands of Connecticut did not have uniforms, so they would not have known who he was.
Doug Still: [20:36]
But he would have been somebody who had the courage.
Robert Storm: [20:39]
Exactly. Now, it's commonly believed that all of this was engineered in advance, that everyone knew that the candles would be extinguished. Who came up with the idea? I don't know, but it would have been Wadsworth or somebody like him who would have taken it out. Probably a good sprinter, if nothing else.
Doug Still: [21:00]
We don't know how he got it out of the room. He didn't jump through the window, right?
Robert Storm: [21:05]
Right. What I imagine is that there was a single staircase leading up to the second floor of the tavern and that the charter was on the end of the table nearest the staircase.
Doug Still: [21:20]
And so, what happened then when he left the building?
Robert Storm: [21:25]
Again, the legend. He ran with the box under his arm, I don't doubt, to the Willis Estate. That was what had been their farm-- was still the farm of Samuel Wyllys, again just a few blocks away.
Doug Still: [21:41]
Hartford at this time was still a small town with home lots for about only a few hundred people.
Robert Storm: [21:47]
The home lot was sufficiently big, two, three, four acres, that much of it retained a rural character, including this tree, which had been held as quasi-sacred by the Indians who had sold the land to the settlers two generations earlier.
Doug Still: [22:07]
Why do you think it was quasi-sacred?
Robert Storm: [22:10]
Again, this is a legend that's come down in the Wyllys' line, and it might not be entirely accurate, but most family legends in New England, I dare say, are based on truth. The legend is that the Indians, sometime after the sale of the land, came back to visit, and of course, the settlers allowed them to visit. There was no problem with that. Some of them then told Samuel Willis that this tree had been planted at the time that the tribe had originally entered what now is Connecticut, which would have been probably 300 years, 400 years before the sale of the property in the 1630s. So, the tree marked peace between tribes. It also was a marker for them of the settlement by the Indians of Connecticut.
Last of all, it continued to be a guide to them for when they should plant corn. The story is that when the leaves budded and reached the size of a mouse's ear, which would be roughly the size of your little fingernail, that was the time to plant corn.
Doug Still: [23:29]
That's interesting that within their oral history, the tree was planted, it wasn't just a remnant tree.
Robert Storm: [23:36]
The Wyllys family and its descendants continued for some time to call it the Peace Oak or so again this family story goes. But it did get the new name not long after the encounter with Sir Edmund Andros.
Doug Still: [23:51]
So, that tree already had an aura around it of history and importance.
Doug Still: [24:03]
It was quite old and had a big hollow, obviously.
Robert Storm: [24:09]
Exactly. It had already begun to rot, I'm afraid.
Doug Still: [24:14]
And the charter was in a box, so it had to have a cavity, it must be 3ft long. They'd put it in a tree in case one of their homes-- if they put it in a home, their home could have been searched.
Robert Storm: [24:29]
Doug Still: [24:31]
Who was Samuel Wyllys? Why was he important?
Robert Storm: [24:35]
Well, he was one of the leading members of the colony. His father had been governor. He was, by colonial standards, well to do. The home lot was substantial. The house was substantial, and the farm apparently was a very productive farm.
Doug Still: [24:53]
And clearly, it was on a hill, I visited, which probably had quite a view.
Robert Storm: [24:57]
Oh, yes. That, I think, probably was another reason for choosing the Charter Oak. First, it had a hollow. Second, it was far enough away from the tavern that it would not be under immediate suspicion. Thirdly, the house probably had windows on each side, so any attempt of anyone to come up to the house would have been seen with enough time to be able to make sure that the charter itself was safe.
Doug Still: [25:27]
What are the earliest records of this incident? In my research, I found A History of Connecticut by Trumble that was written in 1815, where this story, this legend, was recorded. But what are the earliest records of that?
Robert Storm: [25:46]
I've not seen what I'm about to mention, but I have on good authority from a cousin who died at the age of 101 with her memory fully intact that there were family letters within months of the incident, not detailing it but saying something to the effect of Sir Edmund had come down with his armed guard from Boston, demanded surrender of the charter. But the charter was spirited away right before his eyes. Well, we know that couldn't have occurred unless it were dark. So, the extinguishing of the candles makes sense in that regard. Apparently, in the early 1700, it was pretty common knowledge also that the incident had occurred.
Doug Still: [26:33]
So, these letters may still exist in someone's private collection?
Robert Storm: [26:38]
They may well, and I hope sincerely that they do. My cousin, Ellis, my grandfather's cousin who told me this, was speaking in the 1960s. And at that time, she was speaking as though the letters were definitely still existing.
Doug Still: [26:57]
Well, if anyone finds them, we'd love to know .[laughter]
And so would the Museum of Connecticut History, Robb described one descendant of Joseph Wadsworth within his society who passed away in 2020, Frank Wadsworth. I asked if there are any descendants of Samuel Wyllys.
Robert Storm: [27:15]
There are. I'm not the only one.
Doug Still: [27:18]
You're one of them?
Robert Storm: [27:19]
I am through my mother's side. The family itself, sadly, no longer exists with the name of Wyllys.
Doug Still: [27:28]
Now, my fifth great-grandmother was Phoebe Wade of the Wade family. They lived in Lyme, Connecticut.
Robert Storm: [27:38]
It's a good Connecticut name.
Doug Still: [27:39]
Robert Storm: [27:40]
Its ancestry definitely goes back into the colonial period. So, if an armed guard shows up on your doorstep [Doug laughs] some time and says, "You must join the Society of Colonial Wars," you know what.
Doug Still: [27:50]
So, I can join, right?
Robert Storm: [27:53]
Doug Still: [27:54]
Well, from a historical perspective, it was looking more and more like the legend was real, or mostly so. But Jean and I wanted to see what parts of the legacy can still be found. So, we met in Hartford on a mild December afternoon. We started at the Connecticut State Library, an impressive, echoey building located across the street from the state capitol. It houses the state library, the Connecticut Supreme Court, and the Museum of Connecticut History. It was the museum we wanted to see because we learned that it holds the renowned charter that Joseph Wadsworth hid back in 1687.
Doug Still: [28:30]
Jean Zimmerman: [28:31]
Doug Still: [28:32]
This place is incredible, and there's nobody here.
Jean Zimmerman: [28:34]
And the floors are gleaming. Somebody takes very good care of this place. And we're surrounded by portraits of men.
Doug Still: [28:39]
Jean Zimmerman: [28:41]
I don't know who these men are.
Doug Still: [28:42]
All white men.
Jean Zimmerman: [28:43]
All white men, and many of them in the Napoleonic pose with their hands in their coats.
Doug Still: [28:52]
Yes. The patriarchy. [laughs]
Jean Zimmerman: [28:55]
With the patriarchy. I'm assuming that these people are all perhaps past governors of the state. I'm not sure.
Doug Still: [29:03]
It appears to be, but I was told that the charter is on the far wall. Let's take a look.
Jean Zimmerman: [29:13]
You're standing on it, sorry, Doug. You're standing on the Charter Oak right now. [Doug laughs] I wish we could show a picture of this.
Doug Still: [29:19]
Well, I'll take a picture. It's inlaid brickwork with the oak, the Charter Oak.
Jean Zimmerman: [29:24] Mm-hmm.
Doug Still: [29:25]
And then straight ahead is the Royal Charter of 1662. And it's in a wooden frame. It says, "Only the crest of the frame is thought to be of Charter Oakwood."
Jean Zimmerman: [29:43]
What's beautiful about it is that it's a kind of meta-statement, because it's carved of the Charter Oakwood, and it is also a sculpture of the Charter Oak leaves and acorns.
Doug Still: [29:57]
That's right. It's quite lovely, actually. Then, it says in 1893, the framed Charter was moved to the state library where we stand, which occupied what is now the State Senate chamber in the Capitol. Apparently, John Kinney, an editor of the Hartford Courant and a collector of historical relics, purchased the original frame and apparently had many smaller frames veneered with Charter Oak wood made from it.
Jean Zimmerman: [30:27]
Doug Still: [30:28]
That just seems wrong to me. I'm sorry.
Jean Zimmerman: [30:29]
[laughs] Do you don't think that seems possible? How many frames could be made?
Doug Still: [30:36]
I don't know, but I bet we'll find some around the state.
Jean Zimmerman: [30:39]
Also, if you look above this particular framed Charter, you'll see another portrait of the Charter Oak on the wall.
Doug Still: [30:47]
Yes. You want to read what it says about it?
Jean Zimmerman: [30:49]
Sure. It says, Charles de Wolf Brownell, "In 1856, he executed the painting of the Charter Oak, which hangs above the Charter vault, done from an 1855 pencil sketch. The painting hung for many years in the office of the president of the Charter Oak Bank." It says the artist, Brownell, chose to depict the tree with, as he said, its remarkable branching, which extended south toward the Connecticut River. "The Brownell view was later used on the postage stamp and half a dollar commemorating Connecticut Tercentenary in 1935."
Doug Still: [31:26]
Jean Zimmerman: [31:27]
Doug, I'd love to know your idea as an arborist about the branching aspect of this tree.
Doug Still: [31:32]
Jean Zimmerman: [31:33]
Is it extraordinary?
Doug Still: [31:34]
It seems to be very asymmetrical, which I think that you would find in a very old tree. It extends away from the fence line to the fence line. I saw another etching of this from the other side, which would be interesting to compare. It extends over - looks like Samuel Wyllys's land. And then there's some dieback.
Jean Zimmerman: [31:59]
Yeah, I see the deadwood.
Doug Still: [32:01]
And I see the branches kind of curving and moving. I've seen some 400-year-old white oaks, and that's what they do. So, I think it's pretty realistic, actually. The tree fell in 1856. It says this was taken from a pencil drawing from 1855. So, it most likely is pretty spot on.
Then, we moved on to the relics of the Charter Oak and the memorabilia. There was a lot of it. So, we're looking at a display case full of the names of Charter Oak businesses and old photographs over the years.
Jean Zimmerman: [32:43]
What I said is there's nothing so low to have the Charter Oak name. [Doug laughs] Nothing so low or so high. It goes everything from Charter Oak Venetian Blinds [Doug laughs] to the Charter Oak First Prize Ribbon for Poultry 1921 at the state fair.
Doug Still: [32:59]
Yes. Charter Oak Coffee Roasting Company.
Jean Zimmerman: [33:03]
Charter Oak Trucking Company.
Doug Still: [33:06]
Soon, we learned about another important piece of Hartford history, that Samuel Colt, the firearms manufacturer, was a prominent figure at the same time the Charter Oak was lost in the 1856 storm. There's an entire room dedicated to Colt in the Connecticut State Museum. Their histories are intertwined.
Jean Zimmerman: [33:25]
This is what I've actually really wanted to see, which is the Colt revolver. That's a famous one. It's made out of wood.
Doug Still: [33:33]
Yeah, There's a whole room of Colt Firearms.
Jean Zimmerman: [33:36]
Oh, okay. And all made from wood, though. This one is carved from Charter Oakwood. It's a wood revolver which I guess makes sense. I don't think I've ever seen a wood revolver before.
Doug Still: [33:49]
That is a blending of Connecticut history right there.
Jean Zimmerman: [33:53]
Colt and Charter Oak.
Doug Still: [33:57]
And another cool find.
Jean Zimmerman: [33:59]
Here is a photograph of Charter Oak.
Doug Still: [34:02]
Incredible. I didn't realize that there was a photograph of it.
Jean Zimmerman: [34:07]
We don't have a date on this photo, but it also is framed in wood from the Charter Oak. So again, it's meta upon meta.
Doug Still: [34:17]
We can see an iron fence around it and the city growing around it that I can see. We were just getting started. Jack Hale, who you met briefly at the beginning of this episode, was kind enough to show us other Charter Oak sites in Hartford, and we learned so much from him.
Okay, could you just maybe say your name so I have it?
Jack Hale: [34:39]
I'm Jack Hale. H-A-L-E.
Doug Still: [34:42]
Thanks. You've agreed to show us around Hartford a little bit and dig up some Charter Oak history and paintings and relics. Where are we right now?
Jack Hale: [34:54]
We're in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Doug Still: [34:58] I knew that because I walked in and just bought a ticket.
Jack Hale: [35:01]
So, did I get it right?
Doug Still: [35:04]
Yes, it's right. And what are you going to show us here?
Jack Hale: [35:07]
We're going to show you a couple of things that were made out of the wood of the Charter Oak after it fell, and also a painting of the Charter Oak.
Doug Still: [35:20]
He first told us a little bit of what happened after the tree fell in 1856.
Jack Hale: [35:26]
Doug Still: [35:28]
Yeah, I mean, they were [Jack chuckles] crushed, I guess.
Jack Hale: [35:31]
Oh, yeah. It was a tragedy.
Doug Still: [35:34]
it's a [crosstalk]. It was in the newspaper.
Jack Hale: [35:37]
Well, they actually held a funeral for the tree, and Sam Colt, who by that time had made his way as a gun manufacturer, was obsessed with the tree. And so, he did everything he could to get as much of the wood from the tree as he could possibly get.
Doug Still: [36:00]
And who's Sam Colt?
Jack Hale: [36:02]
Sam Colt invented the revolver and he was an international arms dealer.
Doug Still: [36:12]
Yeah. He was based right here in Hartford.
Jack Hale: [36:14]
Right here, yes.
Jean Zimmerman: [36:14]
We actually saw one of those wood revolvers that he made in the State Library Museum, just now.
Jack Hale: [36:21]
Yeah, you can see evidence over there.
Jean Zimmerman: [36:24]
He was important enough by that time that what he said sort of went in terms of, "I'm going to collect all of this wood from the tree."
Jack Hale: [36:33]
Well, I don't know that influence is what was involved there. He was just one hustler guy. [Doug laughs]
Jean Zimmerman: [36:40]
Jack Hale: [36:41]
If he decided he wanted something, he went after it. He was a businessman and a hustler, an entrepreneur.
Doug Still: [36:50]
Then, we went upstairs. Okay, what are we standing in front of, Jack?
Jack Hale: [36:55]
This is a famous painting of the Charter Oak. You can see it says here it was painted in 1857, which was right after it fell by Charles De Wolf Brownell. We're talking about Colt. Here's the top of the Colt Armory right here.
Doug Still: [37:17]
Jack pointed at the painting, and a guard came up.
Jean Zimmerman: [37:19]
Sorry, we were just--
Guard: [37:20] Get down.
Jack Hale: [37:21] Oh, sorry.
Guard: [37:22] Sorry. Don't touch the pictures.
Jack Hale: [37:26]
And-- it's a frame.
Doug Still: [37:28]
It's a gorgeous frame. And the painting is lovely.
Jean Zimmerman: [37:31]
But you know, one thing, again, that I love about this is when something is made from the oak, and it depicts the oak like the frame here again, we have carvings of the Oak branches and leaves, and I think that's particularly beautiful.
Jack Hale: [37:46]
There is another painting which is perhaps even more historic than this one that was done by Frederick Edwin Church. It's at the Griswold Museum.
Doug Still: [38:03]
What else do you have to show us?
Jack Hale: [38:03]
That's the tree. Let's walk around the corner a little bit.
Doug Still: [38:06]
Jack Hale: [38:07]
Now, this chair, I mean, you can read the label on there, but this chair was made for the Hartford City Council. They commissioned it, but they didn't want to pay the bill. So, Sam Colt bought it and it came here as part of the collection that was left to the Atheneum when Elizabeth died.
Jean Zimmerman: [38:34]
According to the description on the wall, this was actually carved in the same year the tree fell. This was 1857.
Jack Hale: [38:44]
Doug Still: [38:45]
And there's a small painting right next to it that's lovely by George Francis called Charter Oak and Willis House. This is circa 1858. So, it'd have been two years after the tree was gone by then.
Jack Hale: [39:00]
Jean Zimmerman: [39:01]
However, Willis was an earlier resident. It says here that he actually died in about 1645. At the time of the Oak, when all of the stuff transpired about the Oak, it was owned by someone named William Stewart.
Jack Hale: [39:18]
Jean Zimmerman: [39:19]
And, it says that William Stewart allegedly had thousands of objects carved from its branches, from thimble cases to pianos.
Doug Still: [39:27]
We were far from the first tourists to take in all that is Charter Oak. Here's Mark Twain from 1868 after a trip to Hartford.
Mark Twain: [39:37]
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 the citizen whose ancestors came over with the pilgrims in the Quaker City in the Mayflower, I should say. He showed me all the historic relics of Hartford. He showed me a beautifully carved chair in the Senate Chamber, where the bewigged and awfully homely old-time governors of the Commonwealth frown from the canvas 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 worshiped.
We went down to Wadsworth's Atheneum and I wanted to look at the pictures, but he conveyed me silently to a corner and pointed to a log rudely shaped somewhat like a chair and whispered, "Charter Oak." I exhibited the accustomed reverence. He showed me a walking stick, a needle case, a dog collar, a three-legged stool, a bootjack, a dinner table, a ten-pin alley, a toothpick. I interrupted him and said, "Never mind, will bunch the whole lumber here and call it Charter Oak," he said. Well, I said, "Now, let us go and see some Charter Oak for a change." [chuckles] I meant that for a joke, but how was he to know that, being a stranger? He took me around and showed me Charter Oak enough to build a plank road from here to Great Salt Lake City.
Doug Still: [41:44]
We then left the museum, and Jack brought us a few blocks away to show us some living descendants of the Charter Oak.
So, Jack, where are we now?
Jack Hale: [41:54]
We're in Bushnell Park in Downtown Hartford, the oldest municipally sponsored park in the United States.
Doug Still: [42:01]
Jack Hale: [42:02]
Doug Still: [42:03]
And why are we here?
Jack Hale: [42:04]
It's got a couple of scions of the Charter Oak. We're standing in front of one of them. It's called the Hoadley Oak.
Doug Still: [42:11]
This is the Hoadley Oak that we're standing right next to?
Jack Hale: [42:14]
Yeah. The gate we just came through is the Hoadley Gate, and it's a memorial too.
Jean Zimmerman: [42:26]
Was the park built around this tree or was this tree planted after the park was put in?
Jack Hale: [42:34]
So. This park was built in 1857, so I don't know how long after that this oak was planted, but there it is.
Doug Still: [42:50]
Any idea how they took cuttings or acorns or how did they propagate the descendants of the Charter Oak?
Jack Hale: [43:00]
I know some of it was done with acorns, but there may also be some done with cuttings.
Doug Still: [43:09]
There might have been a nursery that was growing them nearby and they planted this from the nursery?
Jack Hale: [43:15]
Or just an interested person who decided to propagate the tree.
Doug Still: [43:21]
Bad timing. A tree crew was nearby, and the sound of chainsaws disrupted some of our conversations.
The leaves of this white oak are still hanging on the tree. They're persistent. So, clearly, it's a white Oak.
Jack Hale: [43:34]
Yeah, pretty standard.
Doug Still: [43:36]
I'd say it's about 32 inches in diameter. I'm going to guess.
Jack Hale: [43:45]
I should have brought my D-TAPE with me.
Jean Zimmerman: [43:48]
We just had the big storm, apparently one of the storms of the century a few days ago. So, they're still cleaning up. I can see a lot of branches on the ground, but it doesn't look as though this particular oak, this white oak, had suffered much damage.
Jack Hale: [44:03]
Well, it's got some deadwood in it, but it seems to be in pretty good shape.
Doug Still: [44:08]
Where are you taking us to next?
Jack Hale: [44:10]
We're going to take you to the big one.
Doug Still: [44:13]
Next, Jack brought us to an even bigger descendant of the Charter Oak, a 50-inch diameter white oak that didn't have a name. It was in perfect condition and well cared for. Jack told us about a tree map of all the known scions, which is available online from a website called Connecticut's Notable Trees, which is sponsored by the Connecticut Botanical Society, the Connecticut College Arboretum, and the Connecticut Urban Forest Council. We then got into a discussion about how these descendants were propagated. I guessed acorns germinated at a nursery and grown into saplings. But Jean met with Christopher Martin from the State's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to get his perspective.
Jean Zimmerman: [44:56]
So, first of all, let's start out, just tell me, just for the record, your name, your title, and what you do.
Christopher Martin: [45:05]
Sure. I'm Chris Martin. I'm the state forester for Connecticut. That's a dual role. I'm also the director of the Forestry Division within our Bureau of Natural Resources. The bureau covers the fish and wildlife of Connecticut, the marine fisheries, and then within different divisions. And then, a division of forestry that we really focus on the trees and forests of Connecticut and the different ownerships, the private lands, the water company lands, the state lands. We do Smokey Bear and forest protection and firefighting and then urban forestry work also.
Jean Zimmerman: [45:48]
Okay. Are you a long-time Connecticut person?
Christopher Martin: [45:52]
I was born in Southwestern Connecticut, yeah. Grew up in Beacon Falls, New Haven County.
Jean Zimmerman: [45:57]
Okay, let's just dive right in. When you were growing up, did you know about the story of Charter Oak?
Christopher Martin: [46:06]
Umm, I didn't. I knew the nickname for Connecticut was the Charter Oak Staters A State Tree. I was heavily involved in Boy Scouts, so I've always enjoyed the outdoors and camping. So, hearing about Charter Oak on and off, yeah, I acknowledged it, but I didn't really understand it. Of course, in my position, I've become more familiar with it. But the original Charter Oak was this huge monster white oak tree well over 400 years. And this is like colonial times when the Europeans first came over and the indigenous populations recognized this tree that overlooked the Connecticut River, really in an outstanding location, as an area of gathering. The indigenous folks approached a new landowner, it was sold. The property was sold with the tree, and they pleaded with the landowner not to cut it down, let it grow, really important to them, and he agreed to that.
Jean Zimmerman: [47:13]
Let's just jump ahead then, in terms of passing along the stories and the importance of the seedlings and the acorns. What I've heard is that the acorns were gathered at the time the storm blew the tree down. Is that what happened? And who gathered? Was it Samuel Colt or how did that happen?
Christopher Martin: [47:34]
Yeah, I've heard the same, that acorns were gathered. The acorns themselves were distributed. The one that we are the most assured is a descendant in Bushnell Park in Hartford, a descendant of the Charter Oak. So, over time, when the agency, the state of Connecticut, wanted to propagate more Charter Oak trees, they would collect the acorns from underneath this one tree in Bushnell Park.
Jean Zimmerman: [48:03]
So, that is the tree we visited the other day. They have a plaque underneath that says the scion, right? And so, that tree was planted-- Let me look at my note. I don't have it down, but that tree was planted in 1868 or something like that, right?
Christopher Martin: [48:19]
Jean Zimmerman: [48:22]
Right. So, the other scions are from the acorns, from that particular oak?
Christopher Martin: [48:28]
The trees that the state of Connecticut distributed in ‘60s and the ‘70s were from that oak in Bushnell Park.
Jean Zimmerman: [48:38]
Okay. Was there something that happened in the ‘60s or ‘70s that precipitated that interest in distributing the seedlings?
Christopher Martin: [48:46]
I'm not sure about it was ‘60s, the ‘70s, 1976, it was kind of a bicentennial-- part of our national Bicentennial celebration. So, there was a concerted effort to give as many people as wanted-- the towns that wanted a descendant of the Charter Oak tree.
Jean Zimmerman: [49:05]
And were those acorns distributed, or is there a nursery in Connecticut, like a state nursery, where the seedlings were propagated?
Christopher Martin: [49:16]
At the time, there were a couple of different nurseries, one in Griswold and then in the Windsor area that the acorns were planted and germinated and cared for into a small sapling stage. Those facilities no longer serve that purpose.
Jean Zimmerman: [49:34]
Good to know. I wonder what they did way back when they first propagated those trees from the first acorn crop from the original tree [crosstalk]
Christopher Martin: [49:43]
They probably just stuck them in the soil and put a fence around that keeps the deer or other animals from eating them. [laughs]
Jean Zimmerman: [49:49]
Yeah, right. And grew a few trees.
Doug Still: [49:52]
Jean spoke to several people around the state about Charter Oak including Allan Fenner, a consulting arborist. He had a story about a piece of the Charter Oak showing up after one of his jobs.
Jean Zimmerman: [50:03]
So, now tell me the story about the Charter Oak, the piece of the oak that you said your client gave to you. How did that come about?
Allan Fenner: [50:13]
Well, I was doing kind of a tree-related job for a client after Storm Sandy. It was someone who had called me. She couldn't get a hold of anyone to do any kind of work, and there were portions of trees all down on her property. So, I came out there to help and take care of her. My two sons and I went out there and we took care of the property. After we were finished, she presented me with a piece of oak and said-- the woman was about 80 years old, and she said it was given to her by her grandfather and was supposedly related to a portion of the tree of the Charter Oak. It was a small, about three inch by two-inch thick piece of definitely oak. Definitely white Oak. Right now, I have it on my desk, and it serves the purpose of holding down paper very well.
Jean Zimmerman: [51:20]
[laughs] As it should. Okay.
Doug Still: [51:22]
Robb Storm also had his own story about a piece of the Charter Oak.
You mentioned that there was a relic of the Charter Oak in your family.
Robert Storm: [51:32]
There was probably. My three great grandfathers obtained a large, round section thick from-- I would guess not the trunk itself, but one of the lower branches. That was proudly displayed in the front parlor of my mother's family home, which had been in the family for generations in Vernon Center. Unfortunately, my mother's parents fell on hard times with the Depression. So, they opened what they called the Early Dawn Inn. Big rambling, old late colonial farmhouse with only two children. So, there were plenty of rooms to let out tourists, especially during the leaf-peeping period, the autumn, which, as is gorgeous here in New England.
Doug Still: [52:24]
Robert Storm: [52:26]
Unfortunately, one morning after the guests had left, they found that this big, round section had left also. Very sad, and it is still bemoaned when members of the family get together.
Jean Zimmerman: [52:45]
The Charter Oak isn't the only important oak out there, okay? There are a lot of oaks historically that matter a lot to people. One of them is the Treaty Oak in Austin. Supposedly, a spurned lover poisoned a live oak there in 1989. But that tree supposedly stood since before Columbus, Comanches hammered out agreements there, and it still stands downtown behind a chain link fence, and it's treasured by the public. By the way, you can buy seedlings for that tree if you want to plant one in your own yard for $79.95. Also, there's a tree called the Major Oak in England that also had a hole, and supposedly that was a hideout for Robin Hood and his Merry Band. They say that it's almost a thousand years old.
We often think that oaks are important for various reasons, and you can find other really famous ones around. Am I the first person that's approached you about this story recently, or do you get any other interest in it?
Christopher Martin: [53:56]
Periodically, there's an interest. The Hartford Courant ran an interest story on it a few years ago. When you talk about Connecticut history or anyone that wants to delve into Connecticut's history and do write an article about Connecticut, it's hard to skip the importance of the Charter Oak and how it's our signature to many folks when they think of Connecticut, they think of the Nutmeg State, the Constitution State, and, "Oh, yeah, that famous Charter Oak." So, it kind of goes hand in hand when you're reflecting back on Connecticut's history.
Jean Zimmerman: [54:29]
As a forester, what's your feeling about the white oak? Is that a tree that you like particularly, or is it significant that this was a white oak?
Allan Fenner: [54:41]
That's a great question, and I have a lot of admiration for white oak trees. They are strong, sturdy, long lived. They can grow in a variety of habitats. They can be used for a variety of purposes. The mast, the acorns themselves are incredibly valuable for wildlife, a variety of wildlife species, and even insects and butterflies. These are areas that we're managing the forest for wildlife habitat, or we're cleaning up after a storm, and we really hate to waste wood. So, we'll turn it into a usable, durable product.
Doug Still: [55:19]
Near the completion of this story, Jean and I received some difficult news from Jack. The Hoadley Oak, the descendant of the Charter Oak, which the three of us visited, is one of five trees in Bushnell Park that were subject to extensive analysis because they appeared to be declining. The result of the study is that this historic oak is now scheduled for removal because it was determined to be high risk, essentially due to a column of decay deep within its trunk. The assessment was conducted by an outside consultant. But the removal decision has been challenged by citizens, and there will be an upcoming hearing that is yet to be scheduled. Back to our guests, we asked each of them to tell us why they thought the legend of the Charter Oak is important.
Christopher Martin: [56:04]
I believe the reason is trees can tie us to our past and make us remember more vividly or get a picture in our mind of what actually happened. I think it's a great way to teach younger kids about history and the fact that it's a tree that they can easily relate to.
Allan Fenner: [56:30]
Well, I think it's appropriate that the Charter Oak, being a white oak, and then the official state tree of Connecticut is the white oak, Quercus alba. I think it reflects well on Connecticut's citizenry and our governance and where we are in the world. It's a nice reflection. So, I don't know, it's just it's a good fit for Connecticut.
Robert Storm: [56:57]
I think it's more symbolic than anything. A legendary wood, sturdy, long lasting. The mighty oaks of England are legendary. It's the heartiness, the solidity of oak that means a great deal. The beauty of this particular tree was unusual too. It hadn't the form of a typical oak tree. You've seen, of course, the paintings. In 1935, it appeared on the tercentenary stamps for the existence of the colony. It was the emblem of the colony. But in addition, it had that reputation of being a sign of peace, an emblem of peace as well as solidity. On its high hill overlooking the capital city of Connecticut, it had almost the quality of a guardian of the entire population of the state. So, it was looked upon almost as a nonhuman ancestor, I think, for all of us who live here in Connecticut.
Doug Still: [58:03]
Well, Jean, I'd say if the legend of the Charter Oak has survived in Connecticut for 340 years, it isn't going anywhere.
Jean Zimmerman: [58:10]
I'd say so.
Doug Still: [58:12]
I really noticed that people would light up whenever we asked them about it, and they would talk about it.
Jean Zimmerman: [58:17]
Yeah, that seems true of everybody that we spoke with.
Doug Still: [58:20]
Even if the Hoadley Oak is lost, I think this legend will live on.
Jean Zimmerman: [58:26]
Right. It makes you ask though about the meaning of a hollow in a tree. It used to be something of such value and something so important was hidden in it. Now, we're actually kind of risk-averse and we're worried that a tree with a cavity is somehow dangerous. Times sure have changed.
Doug Still: [58:44]
Yeah, there's an irony in that. This story wouldn't have existed without the hollow in Charter Oak.
Jean Zimmerman: [58:50]
Douglas Still: [58:51]
What do you find most remarkable about this story?
Jean Zimmerman: [58:54]
Well, to me, one thing that's amazing is just that a tree is still cherished by so many folks and in our highly advanced techie society that a tree, something so natural, is still recognized as being really important.
Doug Still: [59:12]
Well, we met some wonderful people, didn't we?
Jean Zimmerman: [59:15]
Doug Still: [59:15]
Thank you so much for researching and investigating this story with me. It's been a great pleasure.
Jean Zimmerman: [59:22]
It's been fun working with you, Doug.
Doug Still: [59:24]
You've been listening to This Old Tree, and I'm Doug Still. Thanks again to Jean Zimmerman, Robert Storm, Jack Hale, Chris Martin, and Allan Fenner for appearing on the show today. You all really helped bring the story alive. Thanks to Robb Barnard for a fantastic Mark Twain.
And thank you tree lovers for listening. Visit the website thisoldtree.show for more guest information, show notes, photos, and if you're interested in supporting the show through Patreon, I'll see you next time.
[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]