October 14, 2016
By Joel R Kolander
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If asked to talk about the Charter Oak, or Charter Oak guns, few Americans aside from Connecticut residents, American history professors, or dedicated Colt collectors would be able to touch on the topic. Yet, despite the recollections of the general public, the Charter Oak remains an enduring symbol of American independence. In a modern-day reference, the recent 1999 Connecticut state quarter recently featured its expansive boughs on its reverse. However, the story of the charter oak long predates Samuel Colt, or even the first white explorers to set foot on this continent.
The Charter Oak began its life in the 12th or 13th century in an area populated by various Algonquian tribes. By the early 1600s the first Dutch explorers entered the area, notably Adrian Block who sailed the coast of the Long Island Sound, up what would become the Connecticut River, and up to where it joins the Park River, the current site of Hartford. In a 1614 journal entry (which I am unable to find and directly quote), Block notes a massive tree believed to be the Charter Oak.
By any measure, the tree was truly a giant. Sources state that the tree and branches measured some 70 feet across, while the trunk was said to be 33 feet around or “large enough that 27 persons have stood in the hollow.” It’s gnarled and gothic branches spread in a way that seems more jaggedly drawn by a child than in anything that could be considered stately. Often photographed in its last years without its foliage, the tree appears grotesque in design, but with its verdant mantle, Samuel Colt gushingly referred to it as the “aged monarch of the forest.”
Dutchman Block also had much to do with accurately mapping the area, establishing trade with the local native Americans, and before long, Dutch and English settlements began to pop up in the area. In short order, the shared importance of the tree between Native American and European settler would become apparent, when in 1638 George Wyllys, third Governor of Connecticut, bought a parcel of land and was having it prepared to make a dwelling, clearing much of the local vegetation. Now known as Wyllys hill, this lot contained the Charter Oak, and as preparations were being made for the lot, a group of the Suckiag tribe came to Wyllys so that the tree might be spared. Known as their Peace Tree, it is said that local tribes held council meetings under its branches, and even tied their canoes to it during spring floods.
“[The Suckiag] came up to remonstrate against the cutting down of a venerable oak that stood… With the true eloquence of nature, the brown sons of the forest pleaded in behalf of the immemorial tree. ‘It has been the guide of our ancestors for centuries’ said they, ‘as to the time of planting our corn. When the leaves are of the size of a mouse’s ear, then is the time to put the seed in the ground.’ At their solicitation the tree was permitted to stand, and continued to indicate the time when the earth was ready to receive the seed-corn; a vast legendary tree, that must have begun to show signs of decay a hundred years before that day…”
Whether the tree was saved on behalf of the Native Americans, or because the English feared them, or even because that lot was likely chosen primarily for its beautiful mature trees, is beside the point. The Charter Oak’s importance had been imparted to the white man, who would soon give it an importance all his own.
By 1639, Connecticut has already written and adopted its own sort of constitution called the Fundamental Orders. It established a government, but made no mention of jolly ol’ England or her king. Eventually, John Winthrop (“Winthrop the Younger”) decided to make things right, and apply for a charter from the king as so many other colonies had successfully done. Winthrop negotiated a very permissive charter from King Charles II, since both of their fathers ( John Winthrop, 1st Governor of Massachusetts and King Charles I) had been very close. In 1662, the Connecticut Charter was granted and all was well in the newly legitimized colony.
However, once the “Merry Monarch’s” reign came to an end upon his death in 1685, his successor and brother, King James II, was not nearly so tolerant. In fact, he hated the liberal charters so much that in 1686 he consolidated several colonies into the “Dominion of New England,” and revoked their previously issued charters to impose a firmer rule on the distant land. He tasked Sir Edmund Andros as Governor of the Domain and named him “Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over the Colonies of Massachusettes Bay and New Plymouth, the Provinces of New Hampshire and Maine, and the Narragansett count or King’s Province.” You thought your job title was long. Andros apparently felt the need to collect the physical documents from each colony to finalize the revocation and demonstrate his control.
Andros was an arrogant man who likely loved every bit of his lengthy title. When retrieving the charter from Connecticut, he did this with all the fanfare and pomp one would expect from a power-hungry, vain statesman. A letter was set earlier to announce his arrival, and he later arrived on a handsome gray steed amidst trumpet fanfare and numerous armed red coats. He met with Governor Robert Treat and other politicians at Moses Butler’s Tavern on Main Street, on October 26, 1687, with the intention of receiving the treaty. However, Treat refused to give the charter at this time, so the King himself arranged a meeting for the two parties to again meet on October 31 at a local public house.
The story goes that Gov. Treat was well-known to speak at length, and on that Halloween eve, did so until dusk, when two candelabras were brought in to light the room. When a frustrated Andros was finally able to speak, he demanded the charter, and stated that failing to present it would be treason. After all, he was “the King’s Governor of all new England and that they in turn were all subjects of the king.” Such treason would be punished with a splitting of Connecticut colony and dividing the land between Massachusetts and New York. These threats were not taken lightly and the armed colonists present were likely making the red coats quite nervous. Governor Treat sent immediately for the charter, with Captain Joseph Wordsworth obliging. In the meantime, loud arguments were made about whether or not the charter should actually be delivered to Andros and his entourage, essentially arguing for rebellion against the king.
Such arguments reached a fever pitch when the treaty was brought into the room inside a locked chest. When it was opened, an older gentleman cited as Andrew Leete, “sprang to his feet to rail against the return of the charter.” He was frail and gesturing wildly in a patriotic furor, when he suddenly collapsed sending both candelabras to the ground, extinguished. In a spontaneous act of rebellion, Assemblyman Nathaniel Stanley snatched the charter in the dark and quickly passed it out an open window to Captain Wadsworth, who had just brought the charter from the Wyllys mansion. Apparently not thinking clearly, Wadsworth immediately took off for the mansion again. Upon arriving, Ruth Wyllys, suggested he hide the charter in the great cavity of the huge oak since the troops would be sure to search the house knowing the charter had been kept there earlier. Wadsworth agreed, quickly wrapped the document up in his jacket, and hid it inside a hole in the great oak’s trunk.
One can safely surmise that Andros was none too happy about the current turn of events, but he made a great effort not to show it. Instead he issued a proclamation that made good on all his threats, which “took into his hands the Government of this Colony of Connecticut, it being by His Majesty annexed to the Massachusetts and other Colonies under his Excellencies Government,” effectively taking charge.
However, he was still forced to return to the King without the charter, and in the eyes of the colonists that meant it had never been nullified, even if Andros did still carry the authority of the King. A bit of a semantic victory perhaps, but a victory none-the-less for the colonists who viewed this as an act of direct defiance against the crown. Also, since they never voted to give Andros the charter, they had only recorded Andros’ authority, but had never made a vote of submission. Other versions of the story state that Andros was given a copy of the charter while the original was kept in the Charter Oak, thus symbolically keeping the charter in the hands of the colonists. Most sources acknowledge the existence of three copies of the charter, making Andros’ mission more hollow than the trunk of the great oak.
Regardless of how it came to be, Andros’ rule was a short one in the colonies. The Glorious Revolution took place in the spring of 1689 resulting in William and Mary assuming the throne, which also coincided with the Boston Revolt, a popular uprising against Andros. Sources differ on whether the colonists simply reverted back to the charter after Andros left, or whether the colonists petitioned King William to reinstate the 1662 charter. Either way, it remained in effect until 1818 when the Connecticut State Constitution was drafted.
Even in 1687, the Charter Oak seemed on its last gasp. The trunk had hollowed out so much from decay at the bottom that even in the time of the Native Americans it is noted that the “vast legendary tree, that must have begun to show signs of decay a hundred years before that day, in the cavity at its base, that was gradually enlarging as one generation after another of red men passed from beneath its shadow.” In later years its declining health, which was owed “in part to the neglect which dilapidated fortunes of the family and want of male guardianship” and some terrible inclement weather, more poetically described as “the corroding tooth of time or the sharp violence of the tempest.”
On August 21, 1856, nearly two centuries after its shining moment in American history, a great storm passed through the area, and was more than the oak’s decayed foundation could bear. The mighty tree, beloved by many a generation, had fallen.
The Hartford community immediately fell into mourning, not least of all Samuel Colt, who was noted to express an “admiration and passionate fondness for old trees,” let alone those with local and national historic significance. Many began taking wood and acorns of the old giant before an honor guard was set up to cease it. Colt’s Armory Band played dirges at noon: Dead March from Saul, Home Sweet Home, and Hail Columbia. Flags were draped over its trunk and stump, and when dusk fell on the city all the church bells tolled for an hour in a solemn chorus. The Hartford Courant headline the following morning read “The Charter Oak is Prostrate!” and ran the story as an obituary.
Wood of the Charter Oak was instantly in demand from all corners of the country. Large portions were set aside and made into a number of wood carvings and furniture pieces. Most notably, is a large hunk of wood for the state of Connecticut that was carved into an incredible, high backed chair. The “chair of state” was “paid for and is still used today by the lieutenant governor in the state senate chamber. Also famously known is an exquisite cradle made for Samuel Jarvis Colt, Jr., one of many pieces that was created by wood purchased by Samuel Colt that currently reside at the Wadsworth Athenium Museum of Art. The most lavish of the pieces remains the “Charter Oak Chair,” a throne of elaborate wood carving, and a masterpiece by any measure. A depiction carved in relief of the Charter Oak comprises the chair’s back. Originally commissioned for use by the mayor, the city balked at the $375 price tag (almost $20,000 today). After nearly a year Colt stepped in to buy the chair above and beyond the cost asked of the city calling it, “cheap at any price.”
Now we have come to the heart of the matter. Finally knowing the history behind this venerable and beloved tree, we can now know the significance behind the artifacts made with its body. Two such artifacts appear in Rock Island Auction Company’s 2016 December Premiere Firearms Auction.
Magnificent Factory Cased Colt New Model Pocket Pistol with Charter Oak Grips
This factory cased Colt Model 1855 Sidehammer revolver was manufactured in 1867 and is fitted with grips made with wood harvested from the Charter Oak. Only eight other Sidehammers and one Model 1849 pocket are known to also wear the wood of the revered tree. The case is made of mahogany, and lined with red velvet. Well known to collectors, this exact pistol is shown and described in great detail in R.L. Wilson’s “Magnificent Colts” on pp. 220-225. It is truly an incredible rarity in Colt collecting and is certain to find a new home with a deservedly prominent collection.
The walking stick presented to Major-Commander Henry Boardman requires we give some background on its recipient. Boardman was a Connecticut militia officer who was appointed as commander of the First Company, Governor’s Horse Guards in 1845. The Governor’s Guards, specifically the First Company of Foot Guards holds the honor of being the American military formation with the longest period of unbroken and unaltered service, which is noted as gallant in many instances.
A single event put Boardman at odds with Samuel Colt, who was called upon to help revive a local Horse Guard. It had long since fallen dormant, much to the displeasure to local residents. Used largely in ceremony, the First Company of the Governor’s Hose Guard had failed to appear for the bicentennial celebration of Hartford (1835), the passing through of Gen. Winfield Scott, and even an appearance of Vice President R.M. Johnson was escorted by every possible military unit in the area except the horse guard. Having been a source of pride for so long in the community, many citizens were disgusted and disappointed in their absence. So much so, in fact, that in 1853 a group of over 100 young men voted to adopt the charter of the old horse guard. To give credence to this newly revived organization Samuel Colt was invited and gladly accepted the opportunity to be a part of something so flashy, ceremonious, and important to the people. He was also elected as Major Commandant of the new unit, despite not seeking the office.
No doubt it took some time for the members of the newly formed guard to practice, find uniforms for members that were not part of the old horse guard, and so on. This was also more than enough time for Boardman to hear of the new group and to seethe about the fact that this group had been usurped right from underneath him! On May 3, 1854, when the new Horse Guard was making its first appearance to a delighted public, Major Boardman’s Horse Guard also showed up for the first time in eight years, surprising everyone who thought the group had died out.
This left two groups claiming to be the First Company, Governor’s Horse Guard, and instead of making a decision, the governor passed this dilemma on to the General Assembly. Both sides had arguments in their favor. Boardman stated that he had never disbanded the group, been discharged, nor been notified of any reorganization, feeling the new movements “too fast for him, or not quite courteous enough.” Colt also had plenty of ground to stand on, with the prior group not having performed any service for eight years, having no recent membership records, and a lack of interest in its body of members. Eventually Governor Dutton met with the two men to resolve the matter, when in the course of debate Colt snarkily stated, “I felt…that Hartford should have something better than a comatose troop of cavalry and I was willing to do my share in putting some life into it.” A remark that brought Boardman to his feet ready to trade blows with his adversary.
Gov. Dutton eventually allowed Boardman’s group to continue as the First Company Governor’s Horse Guard, with Colt’s guard to be recognized as a “Company of Cavalry to be attached to the First Regiment of the First Brigade of the Militia.” The scrap breathed a new fire into the belly of the Horse Guard and thereafter they presented themselves in full uniform and full number with a martial band and an enthusiasm long since absent.
This cane, made of solid Charter Oak, was presented to Maj. Boardman on May 4, 1858 by I.W. Stuart, an author, politician, and local historian perhaps most responsible for raising the legend of the Charter Oak to such lofty heights.
These items bring their significance to American history, as well as their rarity, to the Rock Island Auction Company 2016 December Premiere Firearms Auction. A Colt sidehammer in this condition alone would be a fantastic find for any collector, but to have Charter Oak grips, and knowing how dear the Charter Oak was to Samuel Colt, puts it in a special realm for Colt collectors. The cane on the other hand, represents a strong opposing force to Colt’s life in Hartford. Just as competitors to Colt’s M1911 pistol are now strong collectibles, this cane represents a vanquished foe whose name is left in the dusty pages in history. Its rarity and fascinating tale make it an appropriate addition to the most thorough and comprehensive Colt collections.
Barnard, Henry. Armsmear: The Home, the Arm, and the Armory of Samuel Colt: A Memorial. Place of Publication Not Identified: Beinfeld, 1976. Print.
Hosley, William N. Colt: The Making of an American Legend. N.p.: U of Massachusetts, 1996. Print.
Howard, James L. The Origin and Fortunes of Troop B: 1788, Governor’s Independent Volunteer Troop of Horse Guards, 1911, Troop B Cavalry, Connecticut National Guard, 1917. Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1921. Print.
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