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 of these 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, probably as 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.