What’s in a tree..


The Charter Oak by Charles De Wolf Brownell in 1857.

Most families have tall tales regarding an ancestor or two, some ghoulish, some funny or in this case kind of heroic.

In the year 1662 King Charles II granted the Connecticut Colony a large degree of self-rule in its charter. So they were accustomed to running things the way they liked. But in 1686 when James II took the throne, he decided that he wanted better control over the running of these colonies. So in his infinite wisdom he decided to combine several colonies together in what was called the Dominion of New England. [That has such a Deep Space Nine ring to it.] To oversee this change in policy he appointed Sir Edmund Andros as the new governor-general, and indicated that his appointment nulled and voided the colonies previous charters, after which Andros proceeded to visit each colony to collect their original charters, this was to be more of a symbolic gesture to emphasize the change in policy.

Andros’s visit to Hartford in October of 1687 was as unwelcome as his visits to the previous colonies. According to local stories, when Andros demanded that the document be handed over, the local leadership produced the charter but, shortly thereafter, the lights were doused. The charter was then ‘spirited out a window and thence to the Oak by Captain Joseph Wadsworth’. The man who doused the lights is said to have been his good friend Cyprian Nichols.

Andros was overthrown two year later in the 1689 Boston revolt, therefore dissolving the Dominion. The tree that the charter was hidden in became known as the Charter Oak. 

According to a diary in the Wadsworth family Joseph told family:

I returned to Hartford on Friday and the following night removed the Charter from the hollow oak and concealed it in a candle box which was fitted into the stone foundation of my house.

According to the Cook family of Harwinton, Connecticut:

Captain Wadsworth and Captain Cyprian Nichols, of Hartford, agreed that they would try to save the charter; that Wadsworth gave Captain Nichols the choice of whether he would undertake to extinguish the candles or hide the charter. Nichols chose the former, and upon receiving a prearranged signal, personally and by others extinguished all of the lights in the Council Chamber, and that Captain Wadsworth seized the charter, secreted it in the oak, coming back as quickly as possible. Late that night, or very soon thereafter at the dead of night, Captain Wadsworth brought the charter to his own house with the intention of secreting it there, without anyone knowing of that fact. Upon his arriving home, to his dismay, he found that his wife had been suddenly taken ill with the colic, and he had to impart to her or some other member of the family the nature of his employment, and thereupon the charter, placed in an old candle box, was secreted in the corner of Captain Wadsworth’s cellar, and the earth replaced in such a way as to thoroughly conceal it. His injunctions to the person to whom his secret had to be disclosed were that if anything should happen to him, they should communicate to Captain Cyprian Nichols the secret of its hiding place.

Family tradition says that Joseph told this story to his daughter, Hannah, who told her grandson Allan Cook, who repeated it to R. Manny Chipman, who wrote History of Harwinton.

Wadsworth is suppose to have kept the duplicate charter until 1698, when he presented it to the ruling Governor and Council, at which time he was told to keep it until otherwise instructed.

 The original at that time was in the hands of Samuel Wyllys…From May, 1698, to May, 1715, the duplicate charter lay in its box in the cellar. Over twenty seven years had elapsed since it was taken from the Council Chamber, and as almost all of those who participated in those stirring incidents had passed away I deemed it advisable to return it to the Governor and General Court, which after a conference, passed the following  resolution: “The resolution in the original paper is thus endorsed by the clerks: … Their agreement, viz.: twenty shillings to Capt. Wadsworth for the services mentioned in the Resolution…”

Both of the main characters of this heroic tale, Joseph Wadsworth, and Cyprian Nichols are related to me. Joseph is an ancestral uncle, and Cyprian is my 9x great grandfather.

Historically, the white oak tree that housed the charter for a short time has become the focus of the tale. But it is Joseph Wadsworth who deserves all the credit for putting it there in the first place.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_Oak
  2. http://colonialwarsct.org/1687.htm
  3. https://connecticuthistory.org/hiding-the-charter-images-of-joseph-wadsworths-legendary-action/
  4. http://www.hartfordhistory.net/charter_oak.html
  5. Wadsworth: Or, The Charter Oak, By William Henry Gocher; google books

3 thoughts on “What’s in a tree..

  1. Erick Wadsworth

    Do you know where the diary currently is kept that holds the quote from Joseph Wadsworth? In addition, what is the source from the Cook Family of Harwinton, Connecticut? I am a direct descendent and am currently updating a narrative about Joseph Wadsworth


    1. Erick,

      All the information I have on the Wadsworths was found online, most of my sources are listed at the end of the post. I forgot to include this publication: Wadsworth: Or, The Charter Oak, By William Henry Gocher, which is where at least one quote came from. I do not know where the mentioned diary is currently located, if it exists. The Cook Family reference was also found in the book p350.


    2. Hi Erick, I am a six great grandson of Joseph Wadsworth through Hannah (Wadsworth) Cook. My mothers maiden name is Cooke. I have my great grandfather Edgar Cookes diary’s and although there is no mention of the story in them, it has been family folklore for obviously many years now. My great-great grandfathers name was Joseph Cooke and he was the son and grandson of 2 other Joseph Cookes. One of whom was the son of Hannah (Wadsworth) and Aaron Cooke, whom they name after Capt Joseph Wadsworth. Hannah Cooke is mentioned in Joseph Wadsworths will. I have many family documents going back to 1677, one of which is the burial papers for Sir Edmund Andros, whom Joseph Wadsworth grabbed the Charter out of his hands before hiding it. I have land deeds, documents from Secretary John Allyn whose daughter Martha married the 3rd Arron Cooke who were in laws to Joseph Wadsworth. I have a document from James Wadsworth when he was an Assistant to the Governor of the Colony. I live in Farmington, CT, which is just outside of Harwinton, and many of our family still live in that area including Watertown and surrounding areas. I am also on the Board of the Directors (as of last night) of the Ancient Burying Grounds in Hartford, where it is believed that Joseph Wadsworth may have been buried, but his grave is unknown. Although a great many fallen stones have just been located in the churches basement. I am in the process of writing a book on our familys role in the founding of CT and would like to share any ifo that you may have. Through Aaron Cooke, our family played a vital role in the CT Charter, the founding of many towns, as well as designing and building the “First CT State House in 1713” as well as survying the layout of many towns such as Glassenberry (Glastonbury). Please let me know if you are interested in corresponding further.


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