Friday, January 30, 2015

THE WOMAN BEHIND THE COLT .45 - ELIZABETH HART JARVIS COLT

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Some of you may recall that in March 2011, I wrote a post here at Sweethearts of the West titled THE PEACEMAKER…History of the Colt .45 and Samuel Colt’s Revolvers. The article was fairly comprehensive about Samuel Colt and addressed the history of his innovative revolvers. Although I referenced that the Colt .45 Peacemaker was not manufactured until a decade after his death, I did not elaborate upon how the company survived Samuel Colt's sudden death in 1862.

[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.

The daughter of Reverend William Jarvis, a respected Episcopal minister, and Elizabeth Miller Hart, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis was born in Saybrook, Connecticut on 05 October 1826. The eldest of five children, she grew up in a socially prominent, affluent family. Her mother's ancestors included military leaders and English royal governors.

[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.

Upon their return to Hartford, Samuel presented Elizabeth with his wedding gift, a beautiful home named Armsmear [pictured left] that overlooked the Colt Armory. In the distance they could see the beautiful blue onion-shaped dome with its rampant Colt finial. Like all newly married couples in love, it seemed that together they could make all their dreams come true. They planned a lifetime together, and hoped for a large family, but their time together was cut short by illness and tragedy.

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.

Let’s just pause a moment here. Elizabeth had joyously married the love of her life in 1856. Seven years later, her beloved husband was dead -- as well as four of their five little children. How does one cope with the loss of so many loved ones in so short a period of time? To suddenly find yourself alone in a home once filled with love, where so many dreams were made, and where so much laughter had now been silenced by death. How does one find purpose or the strength to keep going? For Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, a fire was kindled within her to continue her husband’s work and not allow his dream to die. [Pictured: Portrait of Samuel 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]

According to her father, as Elizabeth watched her husband’s armory burn it was as if she was losing him all over again. Everything he worked so hard to build was in ruins. She watched the devastation from her bedroom window with stoic calm. Yet when the blue dome fell into ruins with that proud colt finial, she could no longer hold back the tears. She could have given up then, simply walked away then. She could have, but she didn’t.

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.

[Pictured: Colt .45 Single Action Army (SAA) Revolver -- the Peacemaker - Weight: 2 lb. 5 oz.,Overall Length: 11 inches, Barrel Length: 7.5 inches, Built: 1873 - Photo Courtesy: The West Point Military Museum]

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”.

In 1867, as a memorial to her husband, Samuel Colt, and their four deceased children, Elizabeth built the breathtakingly beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd in Hartford, Connecticut. Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, the Gothic-style church contains guns and gun-smith tools sculpted in marble to honor her husband’s vision and work as an arms maker. Rather an unusual decorative aspect for a church to be sure, but not when you consider who commissioned the building of the church and why.
[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.

In 1901, Elizabeth sold her interest in Colt Manufacturing Company. The original factory (pictured below) is now part of the Coltsville Historic District.

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.

The beautiful grounds and gardens of her estate, Armsmear, were donated to the City of Hartford to create a 140-acre Colt Park. As for the house that Samuel Colt built for his bride, Elizabeth bequeathed it become a home for "female dependents of Episcopal clergy and other gentlewomen."

Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt is buried beside her husband and children in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut. Pictured is the Colt Memorial.

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

18 comments:

  1. Wow. Just wow. Elizabeth Colt had great courage to live through the tragedies that fell on her, and yet continued to help others. Her life story would be a good one to share with today's young women.

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    1. I agree, Linda. The more I learned about her, the more I admired her. I found it so heartbreaking the losses she suffered. Her husband would certainly have been proud.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing such a remarkable bit of history.

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  3. I am so happy you enjoyed the post, Laurel. The fortitude and courage off women like Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt - very reminiscent of pioneering women throughout history - should be an inspiration to us all. Thank you for comment.

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  4. What a remarkable woman. I can't imagine surviving such heartbreaking loss of family. Thanks for sharing her story.

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  5. Thank you, Caroline. I cannot stop thinking about her and all she accomplished out of love for her husband's memory, and concern for others -- especially working women and their children. She is as different from Sarah Winchester in how she handled tragedy as night is from day. Sarah spent her life building rooms to nowhere in her mansion and was very much a recluse. Elizabeth Colt became active in her community, as well as making sure her husband's accomplishments and business would continue. I think (as the daughter of an Episcopal reverend, her faith in God sustained Elizabeth through everything, too. Sarah, on the other hand, turned to clairvoyants who most likely were unscrupulous charlatans. Sad really.

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  6. I'm almost speechless after reading this thorough account of such an amazingly strong, smart, and industrious woman. I can't imagine the sadness she must have endured after losing her beloved husband and all of her children before she died. This was a great article. I'm still in awe of Elizabeth Colt.

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  7. Thank you so much, Sarah J. I am happy you enjoyed the article. I have such admiration for this woman, and was proud to share what I have learned about Elizabeth Colt.

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  8. What a great article. This woman was remarkable in any time period, but especially in an era and in a society that had definite views about the responsibilities of and limitations on women in society. She found a way to work within the system and rose above any obstacles in her path. Her tenacity is an example to us all. I was not familiar with Elizabeth Colt, so I found this information enlightening.

    Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

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    1. Thank you, Robyn. I found it interesting that Union Army soldiers used Colt weapons. And that Elizabeth made sure each order was filled on time. It does beg the question what might have happened had the Colt company closed in 1862 when Samuel Colt died, or in 1864 when the Armory was destroyed by fire. The Union Army would have had to find another supplier, but delays in production --not to mention the quality of the firearm -- might have changed the outcome of the War or lenghtened the War substantially.

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  9. Amazing. Once again, Ashley, you have give us a wonderful gift of your excellent research to create these fantastic posts. I predict it will be another very popular one over time.
    Of course, no one heard about Elizabeth--she was the woman. I don't imagine she would have changed the name of the weapon, though, for all the tea in China. I'm sure she was as proud of it as he had been.
    To imagine the couple in the gorgeous home overlooking the Colt Armory, being so in love, and producing beautiful babies, when without warning, she lost all but one in a short period of time.
    What would any of us have done?
    She reminds me of The King Ranch dynasty, when as a young married couple they set up an enormous ranch in the Wild Horse Desert of Texas. But he passed away much younger than she, and so the wealth and the huge acreage was due to what she did after his death.
    Fascinating female pioneers, and we are lucky to know about them.
    Thank you for the post, and the photos are wonderful. You know how I love vintage photos.

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    1. Thank you, Celia. I am familiar with The King Ranch history. I think many of us can look to our family tree and find strength and courage against adversity or tragedy. You do what you must to survive and care for your family. Child mortality due to illness was something they all dealt with, rich and poor. But I do not know I would have had the strength to do what Elizabeth Colt accomplished after losing my husband and children. I like to think I would, but for sure she is an inspiration for women of any time period.

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  10. An absolutely amazing woman, one who triumphed over multiple adversities and came out even stronger. There were a number of women who did remarkable things in business and other ventures, which has always made me wonder why it has taken so long for men to get it through their thick heads that women are just as capable as men. Here we are, a hundred and forty years later, still balking at equal pay for women. As a guy, I'm somewhat embarrassed by my fellow men. Very interesting post.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment and insight, JD. I agree that business, politics, and society needs to address the failings that still exist with regard to women. We have women fighting in the military for freedom, shoulder to shoulder with men, and in all walks of life -- teachers, scientists, physicians, writers, senators, retail and corporate businesses. They make contributions that should be equally rewarded, by all means.

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  11. Wow! for your article. I have a book about the Colt revolver that says Colt turned the business over to Richard Jarvis shortly before his death and gives all the credit for the company's subsequent sucess to Jarvis. Elizabeth is barely mentioned. Thanks for giving another powerful woman her due.

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    1. Wow is right. I can assure you Samuel Colt did NOT sign over his company to Richard Jarvis, his wife's brother. Richard Jarvis became president of the company after the former president died, and 3 years after the death of Samuel Colt. Regardless of who the male president was, Elizabeth Holt inherited a fortune as sole beneficiary and controlling interest of her husband's company. Because of prejudice against women in business, a male figurehead image as president waa necessary. However, she worked behind the scenes and ran that company from 1862 into the 20th century. And she IS the reason the company kept going and growing.

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  12. Marvelous post, Ashley! What a strong woman Elizabeth was to survive such terrible loss and keep her husband's company going. She's a heroine in the best sense of the word!

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