Oak tree branches with leaves

Findings in the University of Minnesota Herbarium: Connecticut Charter Oak Leaf

Published12/12/2020 , by Nehwoen Luogon-Bojkov

Colin Robinson, an undergraduate University of Minnesota Herbarium assistant, began working at the end of October. He received an assignment on his first day at his new job that led to a fascinating discovery, or as Colin refers to the moment, a re-finding. 

Working with his supervisor Timothy Whitfeld, collections manager at the Bell Museum, Colin was assigned to organize a group of leaf specimens that had been processed but still needed to be sorted by their family, genus, and species. When Colin came across the oak leaf, he knew immediately that it was different from the other specimens he had viewed.

Herbarium sheet with pressed Oak leaf

Connecticut Oak Leaf Specimen, Bell Museum Herbarium, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, 1856

Ordinarily, there are special folders set aside for specimens that have significance but this one had been placed with the stack of regular specimens that needed sorting. Colin noticed that the paper the leaf was attached to looked older than the rest and had been preserved differently. This leaf happened to be from 1856, unlike the others in the pile, which ranged from the 1880s to 1890s. He found it interesting and set the leaf aside with the intent to show his boss instead of sorting it with the rest of the specimens.

He then learned that the leaf was from the Connecticut Charter Oak, the same tree featured on the Connecticut state quarter, and was a large part of the state’s identity. On October 31, 1687, the King of England had demanded the Connecticut government surrender and return the charter that permitted the colony to elect officials and make its own rules. During a discussion with the leaders of Connecticut and a representative from England, the charter was taken and hidden in the hollow of an oak tree, what became known as the “Charter Oak.” The newspaper attached to the leaf specimen describes the day that the Charter Oak fell on August 21, 1856. At least one other duplicate specimen was made and deposited in the Herbarium of Yale’s Peabody Museum. Possibly other collections exist from the day the tree fell but it’s a mystery how this specimen made its way to the Bell Museum!

Closeup of oak tree on Connecticut state quarter

Connecticut State Quarter

Colin is looking forward to continuing his work in the University of Minnesota Herbarium, possible next steps for the Connecticut Charter Oak leaf, and coming across more re-findings.

Here’s a link to the Charter Oak record in the Bell Museum’s Biodiversity Atlas: