Jay Turner explores the fascinating history behind the Connecticut state quarter’s iconography and recounts the story of the famous Chart Oak Tree.
The great thing about most collectible modern coins is that they not only exhibit artistic skill, but can also be a teacher of history for those willing to take the time to study them. The state quarter program is a perfect example of this. One of my earlier articles explored these ideas and focused on the Delaware quarter. The Connecticut quarter of the same year has just as much (if not more) historical merit, artistic beauty, and links to earlier numismatics that many people overlook.
By the time the Connecticut quarter came out in 1999, the state quarter program had already seen huge popularity among collectors and the general public. Yet the attention received by the Connecticut quarter was not even close to that of previous state quarters. This was probably due to it being the last of the five state quarters for that year and also because it had already been put into Proof and Mint sets before its release. However, its design was tremendously different from other state quarters. It was a simple yet artistic version of the Charter Oak Tree, with no leaves, and it covered most of the surface of the coin, more then the previous state quarters. The design encompassed historical, artistic, and naturalistic themes.
The Charter Oak Tree was not just an ordinary tree. Its size was unusual, considered to be very large and possibly older then 500 years old when it was first noted in 1614. By the 1630s, land around the tree was being cleared by Samuel Wyllys, a settler to the area. He was purportedly asked by Native Americans in the area to preserve the tree because it had been planted by their tribe upon first settling there. He complied.
The Charter Oak Tree got its name and attention during the colonial era of the Americas. When James II of England became king, he consolidated several territories to the Dominion of New England. This was to enforce the Navigation Acts which restricted foreign trade as well as to reinforce the colonies to protect against the French and hostile Native Americans. The Dominion included the Colony of Connecticut, a colony that had a great deal of autonomy under the previous colonial arrangement. Under the Dominion of New England, the appointed governor-general, Edmund Andros, sought to collect the charters of the colonies to keep more control over them. The idea was simple: take away evidence of previous rights from the people you are trying to govern. The people of Hartford were not willing to hand over their charters — the links to their previous autonomy and their history. Legend has it that when Edmund Andros asked for the document, it was not the real document that was given to him because the real Charter was hidden in the fabled Oak Tree. There are other slightly different versions of the legend, but it does not matter which story is the truest account. The Charter Oak Tree is an important piece of Connecticut’s history and American history. It symbolizes one of many acts of defiance that led to the American Revolution and also the spirit that led Connecticut to become one of the first five states to join the Union. Today, what is believed to be a fragment of the charter once hidden in the Charter Oak still exists in the Connecticut Historical Society.
The Charter Oak Tree, though a great monument of historical importance, would not stand forever. The great American Giant fell on August 21, 1856 during a storm. In the morning, city bells tolled for the mourning of the heroic tree. Pieces of its wood were removed for souvenirs by many people but the bulk of the tree was taken to make relics including the chair for the president of the Connecticut senate. Acorns from the tree were planted in a forest in Bushnell Park, where they are today referred to as Charter Oaks. In 1909, a monument was built in commemoration where the tree once stood.
The Charter Oak — while heavily commemorated in the names of streets, schools, homes, banks, and even a bridge — has also made its appearance before in numismatics. In 1935, for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Colony of Connecticut, the United States placed its image on both postage stamps and on a commemorative half dollar. It is no wonder that in 1999, the state of Connecticut again picked the tree to symbolize its spirit in the design on the state quarter. The tree symbolized freedom and a spirit of rebellion. It represented the greatness of nature and a protector of civilization. It appears to be just a simple image of a tree on a coin. However, for those familiar with the history, it is so much more. That is why the Connecticut quarter is this month’s Modern Coin of the Month.