[Pictured: Portrait of Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt and her son, Caldwell Hart Colt, by Charles Loring Elliott.]
As you may or may not have gathered from the above portrait, this blog post is about ELIZABETH HART JARVIS COLT, the widow of Samuel Colt, and her determination to preserve her husband's memory, accomplishments, and carry on his work. In point of fact, without Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, there would not be a Colt Manufacturing Company today, the Union Army would not have been supplied with firearms during the Civil War, and the company's famous six-shooter, the Colt .45 Peacemaker would never have been created.
[Pictured: Portrait of a young Elizabeth by Richard Morrell Staigg in 1856. Courtesy: Wadsworth Antheneum]
In 1851, 25-year old Elizabeth met world famous firearm inventor and manufacturer Samuel Colt in Newport, Rhode Island. Both Samuel and Elizabeth were determined to marry for love, and wanted their marriage to be a true partnership. They were inseparable when they married in 1856. For their honeymoon, they toured Europe for a year. In fact, they attended the Coronation of Russia's Czar Alexander II during their travels.
In 1857, Samuel and Elizabeth's firstborn son, William Jarvis Colt, died as an infant. Three more children were born to the couple. A second son, Caldwell Hart Colt was born in 1858, daughter Elizabeth Jarvis Colt was born in 1860, and daughter Henrietta Selden Colt was born in 1861. Then, unexpectedly, in January 1862, Elizabeth watched helplessly as her husband and 1-year old daughter, Henrietta became gravely ill. On 10 January 1862, Samuel Colt died; he was 47 years old. Ten days later, little Henrietta died as well. As she mourned the death of her husband and daughter, Elizabeth's two-year old daughter and namesake was also sickly, and she was pregnant with her fifth child. In July 1862, Elizabeth's fifth child, a daughter, was stillborn. In 1863, 3-year old Elizabeth (whose health never recovered from the illness that claimed her father and sister) also died. The only child of Samuel Colt and Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt's five children to survive to adulthood was their son, Caldwell Hart Colt.
In the depths of pain and grief, Samuel Colt’s company became a lifeline for his widow. After all, who knew better than she the hopes and future projects her husband had wanted for his company? For certain, she didn’t need the income. As Samuel Colt’s widow, she’d become one of the richest women in the world. However, the employees who worked for her husband’s company still depended on it for their livelihood. And there was another serious matter to consider. On 12 April 1861, Fort Sumter had been fired upon. The American Civil War had begun and Colt firearms had been contracted to supply firearms for the Union Army.
So, rather than drown in a sea of sorrow, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt assumed control of Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. She personally made sure that her husband’s vision, inventions, patents, excellence in production, and his life's work would not falter and die. She made sure his commitment to supply the Union Army in a time of War continued. Indeed, every Union order was filled on time. She stressed her husband’s high standards of production quality, and the company her husband started with 60 employees grew to employ 1500 workers under her leadership. With perseverance and determination, she steered her husband's ship until one day when her son might continue the family’s legacy and follow in his father’s footsteps.
When Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt inherited controlling interest of Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company, it was the largest firearm manufacturer in the world and worth $3.5 million. To better put this into perspective, by today’s economy, she’d inherited a world-renown, successful empire worth approximately $200 million.
Although she worked tactfully behind the scenes, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt was in control of Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company and calling the shots (no pun intended).
However, two years after Samuel Colt’s death, Elizabeth’s efforts and resolution to keep the company going was challenged by another disaster. In 1864, with the Civil War raging, the Colt Armory was targeted by the Confederate army and set ablaze. Elizabeth watched towering flames engulf all that her husband had built, including the blue onion dome with the rampant colt statue atop. [Pictured: Surviving Rampant Colt Statue Model for Finial]
You see, one of the first things Elizabeth did after her husband died was to insure the business. Because of her foresight and leadership, Colt Manufacturing rose from the ashes. She not only rebuilt the company, including the cobalt blue onion dome, but she had it made fireproof. Aided by her brother, Richard Jarvis (who assumed the position of company president), Elizabeth worked diligently to strengthen the company, expand its development of new firearms, and to steer it through the Civil War and into the 20th century.
Whatever the reasons were that first compelled Elizabeth to draw strength from grief and take the helm of her husband’s company, there is no mistaking that Colt Manufacturing exists today because of her personal involvement.
We can also attribute the production of Colt’s most legendary firearm to Samuel Colt’s widow. Her husband’s dream of a six-shooter, the Colt .45 SAA (Single Action Army) Revolver was finally realized 11 years after his death. This six-shooter, known far and wide as “The Peacemaker” was first manufactured in 1873 and has since become synonymous with the American West.
The fact that a woman (who was not legally entitled to even vote) oversaw the operations and development of an industrial empire in the 1800s, and during a tumultuous time in the history of the United States, is nothing short of exceptional. Yet there was more to this woman than her perseverance and determination to keep her husband’s dream not just alive but growing. In addition to being a respected member of society and a civic leader, she was also a visionary in her own right.
For 22 years Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt served as President of a pioneering organization that provided daycare for the children of working mothers. The Union for Home Work also provided meals and access to a library and classes. Additionally, she also became the first female president of the Hartford Soldiers Aid Society. In fact, she is credited with raising over $1 million in a two-week period to benefit the Hartford Soldiers Aid Society. In 1869, she even organized the first Women’s Suffragette Convention in Connecticut. Remember, it was not until 18 August 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified granting women the right to vote.
The amazing widow of Samuel Colt not only kept his memory alive, she worked tirelessly throughout her lifetime to improve her community and the lives of its citizens. She used her wealth and position to help religious, charitable, and social causes in Hartford and Connecticut. She was a patron of the arts and a founder of the Hartford Decorative Arts Society. There can be little doubt why she was often heralded as the “First Lady of Hartford”.
[Pictured: Church of the Good Shepherd (left) and the Parish House (right).
As mentioned above, Caldwell Hart Colt, was the only child of Samuel and Elizabeth Colt who lived to adulthood. Born 24 Nov 1858 in Hartford, Connecticut, Caldwell attended Yale University and was an American inventor and yachtsman. He served as Vice-Commodore of the New York Yacht Club in 1888, and Commodore of the Larchmont Yacht Club from 1892-1893. He did follow in his father’s footsteps and in 1879, at 21 years of age, Caldwell Colt designed the Colt double barrel rifle. This rifle was chambered in .45-70 Government 1 (also known as the .45-70 rifle cartridge) and is one of the rarest Colt firearms ever made.
Tragically, Caldwell died near Punta Gorda, Florida on 21 Jan 1894 while piloting his ship, the Dauntless. He was 35 years old, leaving behind his widowed mother who had now survived her beloved husband and all five of her children.
In Caldwell’s memory, Elizabeth commissioned a Parish House to be built opposite the Church of the Good Shepherd. Designed by the same architect, Edward Tuckerman Potter, the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Parish House – both built by Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt in remembrance of her husband and children -- are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
She still continued her philanthropic efforts and remained active in Hartford Society, including serving as President of the Hartford Women’s Auxiliary.
On 23 Aug 1905, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt died. She was 78 years old. Her obituary took up the entire front page of the Hartford Courant, referring to her no longer as the "First Lady of Hartford", but the “First Lady of Connecticut”. Never before had a newspaper recognized the death of a woman in such a prestigious manner. The fact this was done for Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt speaks volumes about her accomplishments, the esteem and respect others had for her, and the impact she had on the lives of others.
A wife, a mother, a woman of business – way ahead of her time – Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt was also a civic leader, humanitarian and philanthropist. Her legacy of helping others continued after her death. Over 1,000 objects of fine art, firearms, and historical documents were bequeathed to the Wadsworth Antheneum. The Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt Memorial Wing was built in an American municipal museum. This wing was, understandably, named in her honor and is recognized as the first museum wing ever named after a woman patron.
Please note there have been discrepancies with regard to the number and names of Samuel and Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt's children. The names and dates of the five Colt children referenced in this post are copied from the Colt Memorial grave site itself.
Thank you for stopping by today, and I hope you enjoyed learning more about this remarkable woman. ~ AKB