A famous tree, the Charter Oak, became a symbol of freedom throughout early America.

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An unusual funeral took place in Hartford, Connecticut, on August 21, 1856. The city’s bells tolled in mourning, and a band played funeral hymns. It was an outpouring of grief fit for a hero—except that this hero was a tree, a white oak to be exact.

For nearly 169 years this special tree had been known simply as the Charter Oak in honor of the part it played in the history of colonial America.

Captain Joseph Wadsmorth carefully placed Connecticut's charter in the hollow of the great white oak.

The Charter Oak was an old and respected tree even before colonial times. Native Americans of the area held meetings under its branches. And when the tree’s new leaves were as big as a mouse’s ear, they knew that it was time to plant corn.

In time, the English came to the valley surrounding the big oak. They settled there and founded the colony of Connecticut. Every colony had to obtain a contract, called a charter, from the king of England. The charter helped to protect the colony’s rights. The charter given to Connecticut by King Charles II in 1662 was the pride of the colony. It allowed the colonists to govern themselves by their own constitution. More than a century before the Declaration of Independence, the charter treated Connecticut almost as if it were an independent country.

Then, in 1685, King Charles died. The new English ruler, King James II, not only disapproved of Connecticut’s charter but he also disliked having so many colonies. He thought it would be better to combine the colonies of the northeast into one big colony.

Sir Edmund AndrosKing James ordered Sir Edmund Andros, the governor of the Dominion of New England, to seize any documents recognizing the colonies’ old rights. Most colonies felt they had no choice and turned over their charters. Only Connecticut delayed. Again and again, Andros demanded that Connecticut give up its charter to him. Again and again, the colonists politely but firmly refused. Finally, Andros had had enough. On All Hallow’s Eve, 1687, Andros and more than sixty British soldiers marched into Hartford.

Connecticut Governor Robert Treat was waiting for Andros at the door of the meetinghouse, where leaders of the colony were assembled. Politely he escorted Andros inside. Andros wasted no time. He demanded that Connecticut obey the king and surrender its charter.

By now a crowd of townspeople had gathered outside. As they strained to hear every word, Governor Treat spoke passionately about the struggles of the people to build their colony, and about their love of freedom. Giving up the charter, he said, would be like giving up his life. Andros was unmoved. At dark, candles were lit so that the meeting could continue, but Andros had heard enough. He demanded to see the charter. The colonists could delay no longer. They brought out the charter and placed it on the table before him.

Suddenly all the candles in the room went out. In the darkness, a young patriot, Captain Joseph Wadsworth, snatched the charter and jumped out an open window. Carefully wrapping the document in his cloak, he placed it in the hollow of the great white oak. Had the brave captain simply seized the opportunity provided by the sudden darkness, or had it all been a clever plan? No one would ever know. By the time the candles were lit again, Andros was looking at nothing but innocent faces.

If Andros was furious at being outsmarted, he did not show it. With or without the charter, he said that the government of the colony was over. Fortunately, King James was soon overthrown. Andros was imprisoned and then sent back to England. The new rulers, King William III and Queen Mary II, agreed that since Connecticut had never surrendered its charter, the colony could take up its old freedoms again.

The Charter Oak appears on the Connecticut quarter, issed in 1999 by the U.S. Mint. Connecticut became a state in 1788. The Charter Oak became a beloved symbol of freedom throughout the land. After it was blown down in a storm on August 21, 1856, people requested keepsakes of its wood. There was plenty to go around—so much, in fact, that author Mark Twain said there was enough “to build a plank road from here [Hartford] to Great Salt Lake City.”

Craftsmen fashioned pianos, chairs, and even a cradle of Charter Oak wood. One of the fanciest pieces was an elaborately carved chair that is still used in the Senate Chamber in the State Capitol Building in Hartford. It occupies a place of honor in memory of the Charter Oak, one of the most unusual heroes in our country’s struggle for liberty.