- Historic Sites
Gunmaker To The World
Samuel Colt’s life was brief but eventful. He was an imaginative inventor and an ambitious pitchman whose legacy included scandal and success—and firearms that were revolutionary in more ways than one
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
The funeral of Samuel Colt, America’s first great munitions maker, was spectacular—certainly the most spectacular ever seen in Hartford, Connecticut. Jt was like the last act of a grand opera, with thrcnodial music played by Colt’s own band of immigrant German craftsmen, supported by a silent chorus of bereaved townsfolk. Crepe bands on their left arms, Colt’s 1,500 workmen filed in pairs past the metallic casket in the parlor of Armsmear, his ducal mansion; then followed his guard—Company A, izth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers—and the Putnam Phalanx in their brilliant Continental uniforms.
A half mile away the largest private armory in the world stood quiet—its hundreds of machines idle, the revolvers and riHes on its test range silent. Atop the long dike protecting Colt’s South Meadows development drooped the gray willows that furnished the raw material for his furniture factory. Beneath the dike a few skaters skimmed over the frozen Connecticut River. To the south, the complex of company houses was empty for the moment, as was the village specially built for his Potsdam willow workers.
On Armsmear’s spacious grounds snow covered the deer park, the artificial lake, the statuary, the orchard, the cornfields and meadows, the fabulous greenhouses. At the stable, Mike Tracy, the Irish coachman, stood by Shamrock, the master’s aged, favorite horse, and scanned the long line of sleighs and the thousands of bareheaded onlookers jamming Wethersfield Avenue. After the simple Episcopal service the workers formed two lines, through which the Phalanx solemnly marched—drums muffled, colors draped, and arms reversed. Behind them, eight pallbearers bore the coflin to the private graveyard near the lake.
Thus, on January 14, 1862, Colonel Samuel Colt was laid to rest, at the age of only forty-seven. At the time, lie was America’s best-known and wealthiest inventor, a man who had dreamed an ambitious dream and had made it come true. Sam Colt had raced through a life rich in controversy and calamity and had left behind a public monument and a private mystery. The monument, locally, was the Colt armory; in the world beyond, it was the Colt gun that was to pacify the western and southern frontiers and contribute much to their folklores. The mystery concerned his family, whose entanglements included lawsuits, murder, suicide, and possibly bigamy and bastardy. His had indeed been a full life.
On that January afternoon a kaleidoscope of colorful memories must have crowded the minds of the family and intimates who were present. The foremost mourner was the deceased’s calm and composed young widow, Elizabeth, holding by the hand their three-year-old son Caldwell, the only one of five children to survive infancy. Elizabeth was to become Hartford’s grande dame , and her elaborate memorials would ennoble Colt’s deeds at the same time that they would help conceal the shadows of his past. Her mother, her sister Hetty, and her brothers Richard and John Jarvis, both Colt officials, sat behind her. Richard, then the dependable head of (Jolt’s willow-furniture factory, would in a few years become the armory’s third president. Only the year before, the Colonel had sent John to England to buy surplus guns and equipment. Colt had been extremely fond of both these men, in contrast to his tempestuous relationships with his own three brothers. Near the Jarvises sat Lydia Sigourney, Hartford’s aging, prolific “sweet poetess,” who had been Colt’s friend from his youth and who looked upon Mrs. Colt as “one of the noblest characters, having borne, like true gold, the test of both prosperity and adversity.”
Four of the pallbearers hail played major roles in Colt’s fortunes. They were Thomas H. Seymour, a former governor of Connecticut; Henry C. Deming, mayor of Hartford; Elisha K. Root, mechanical genius and head superintendent of the armory; and Horace Lord, whom Colt had lured away from the gun factory of Eli Whitney, Jr., to become Root’s right-hand man.
And in the background, obscured by the Jarvises and the Colt cousins, was a handsome young man named Samuel Caldwell Colt. In the eyes of the world he was the Colonel’s favorite nephew and the son of the convicted murderer John Colt, but according to local gossip he was really the bastard son of the Colonel himself by a German mistress.
Hartford was stunned by Cult’s early death. True, he had suffered for some time from gout and rheumatic fever; he had indulged fully in the pleasures of life; he had labored from dawn to dusk to the point of exhaustion; then, at Christmas, he had caught a cold and become delirious. Perhaps pneumonia had set in. Whatever the cause of the Colonel’s death, the general reaction was, as one lady put it, that “the main spring is broken, and the works must run down.”