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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Colt Family Tragedy: Caldwell Hart Colt

Lot 331: Documented Historic Presentation Engraved and Silver Plated Colt Model 1877 Thunderer Double Action Revolver Shipped to Caldwell Hart Colt, the Son of Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt and his contributions to a young nation are nearly mythic in scale.  People speak of Col. Colt in reverent tones laden with solemnity, and why not?  He was a brilliant marketer and businessman, he envisioned the assembly line decades before most industrialists, and gave the world the most iconic revolver of all time.  His success was beyond doubt.  At the time of his death, Colt's net worth is said to have been around $15 million.  Keep in mind, those are 1862 dollar values, equivalent to around .001% of the entire Gross National Product of the time.  That may seem like a small percentage, but anytime one can measure their fortune as a relevant percentage of GNP, they've achieved a clear indicator of financial success.

Yes, Samuel Colt had made it in the business world.  After his failed Paterson and revolving hammerless rifle, a foray into underwater cable and detonators with Samuel Morse, and even trying to sell tinfoil cartridges - as opposed to paper "envelopes" containing ball and powder, which could get wet - Colt finally found success with Captain Samuel Walker in 1847 and his recommendations for a new revolver.  Not long after his ascent began, Samuel Colt would meet his wife, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt (nee: Elizabeth Hart Jarvis), a woman 12 years his junior from a particularly wealthy and well-known family.  They would be married five years later and life could not have been any better for the rising businessman.

Here Sam & Elizabeth Colt can be seen strolling the grounds of Armsmear with a bustling Colt Armory on the horizon.  Also note the depicted peacocks that roamed the grounds.

With an extremely rosy future in front of him, it might have been easy for Colt to forget the family tragedies of his past.  His mother died of tuberculosis when he was only six.  His father later remarried, but of his three half-sisters one died during childhood, the eldest was taken by tuberculosis at 19, and the third committed suicide.  Of these three brothers, one would go on to murder and mutilate a creditor, in a widely-known crime some say inspired Edgar Allen Poe's The Oblong Box, as well as Herman Melville's "Bartleby, The Scrivener," only to commit suicide the day of his planned execution.  To say this was a young life beset by tragedy is an understatement.  It is nothing short of a miracle that his early setbacks didn't force Samuel to just give up.  Then again, perhaps the early hardships in his life prepared him for the difficult road he would eventually pave with gold.

Elizabeth Jarvis Hart Colt and her son, Caldwell
by Charles Loring Elliott
Unfortunately for Samuel Colt, fate continued to torment him with the worst tragedies life can afford.  Despite being married in 1856 and moving into their mansion, Armsmear, the very next year, they couldn't seem to fill it with the family they so desired.  They would have four children, but the first, William Jarvis Colt, would die as infant in 1857.  The second, and only to live into adulthood, would be Caldwell Hart Colt - his name a mixture of his paternal grandmother's surname (Caldwell) and his mother's middle name from maidenhood.  The third child would be the first daughter, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, and the fourth would be another daughter Henrietta Selden Colt, born in 1861.  In January of 1862, within the first year of the Civil War, Samuel Colt and Henrietta fell terribly ill.  Samuel would succumb to gout on January 10 at the age of 47, and Henrietta would follow 10 days later.  Daughter Elizabeth, her mother's namesake, remained sickly, but held on to life.  Samuel Colt left behind a 3-year old son, an ill daughter, and a wife three months pregnant.  In July, six short months later, Mrs. Colt would give birth to a stillborn baby, and in 1863 would finally lose her resilient daughter.  If life's cruel trials were not yet unimaginable enough, on February 4, 1864, with Elizabeth passionately carrying out her husbands life work, the East Colt Armory, with its iconic "Blue Onion" dome and its rampant colt finial, burned to the ground, allegedly set ablaze by Confederate sympathizers.  When the gilded dome and colt finally crashed through the ceiling of the armory it is said that Mrs. Colt could no longer hold back tears.
The Colt Armory after the fire on February 4, 1864
- Connecticut State Library, State Archives, PG 460, Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company

Let all that sink in for a moment.  Four dead children and a widower in the span of six years.  A husband's life's work in ashes.  A large empty house that should have been filled with laughter and running footsteps would linger on, quiet and nearly empty.  All that remained were the indomitable Mrs. Elizabeth Colt and her 3-year old son, Caldwell.  By 1866 she had selected an architect, Edward Tuckerman Potter, to build a church to memorialize her lost family.  It would be finished in 1868 and was appropriately placed on the Colt Armory "campus" (a.k.a. Coltsville) so that workers and families living on the grounds would have a convenient place to worship.  The Church of the Good Shepherd would be a fitting tribute with no small detail overlooked.  The color of stones was selectively chosen, wood carved to look like foliage is abundant, a blue ceiling once bore golden stars just as the Armory's "blue onion" had, and countless luxurious materials were implemented.  A description of the church from its National Register of Historic Places may be quoted as saying, "This interior is Potter-Victorian at its finest.  There are no extant churches from this particular period of Potter's development that are as intact or have as much of his sumptuous ornament."

In addition to its architecture, the church is also noted for its wondrous stained glass.

This is called the "Armorer's Porch."  It is located on the southwest corner of the church
and formerly served as the primary entrance. It appears quite normal at a distance.

However, Architect Edward Tuckerman Potter liked to include personal touches
related to the life of those who commissioned his work.  This entrance has subtle touches
related to firearms such as loading levers, revolver frames, grips, a percussion cylinder, and
other revolver related images.  A wonderful flourish and very appropriate for the Colt family.

Depictions of revolvers were used to decorate the pillar capitals.

Through all her grief, Elizabeth continued her husband's work with the help of her brother, and thankfully so.  Without her spirit and perseverance (and foresight to have the factory insured after Sam's death), we might never known such beloved firearms as the Model 1873 Peacemaker, the Model 1911 pistol, and an unknown number of others.

Caldwell Hart Colt
Caldwell would grow to become a man and attend Yale University.  With plans to follow in his father's footsteps, he designed his first firearm in 1879, the Colt double barrel hammer rifle, chambered in .45-70.  With only 35 produced from 1879 to 1885, and most of those examples supposedly going to Caldwell and his friends, it is today considered one of the rarest Colt firearms.

Sadly, the sole heir did not pursue his gift with much fervor.  Instead becoming what author William Hosley calls, "a stereotypical icon of foppish indulgence whose fame was earned by his courage and audacity as a celebrated yachtsman."  Much of the only information available on Caldwell describes his enthusiasm for yachting, but hints at a lavish lifestyle that involved gambling, drink, and expensive parties. He was heavily involved in several yachting clubs and his love of leisure and life in the lap of luxury overtook the interest of his birthright in firearms.  However, life had one more catastrophe planned for the Colt family.

Dauntless, 1888

In January 1894, Commodore Caldwell Hart Colt died rather mysteriously at sea in January of 1894, while aboard his schooner yacht Dauntless.  Some sources say he drowned, others say tonsillitis struck while abroad, and the more sensationalist historians claim that he was shot by a jealous husband.  Regardless the cause, the sole surviving Colt sibling died at the age of 35, leaving his widowed mother to bury her sole remaining child.  In his memory, she obtained the same architect (who had since retired) to build a parish house to the Church of the Good Shepherd.  Much like the church, it would be masterfully constructed and also contain many references to those it memorialized.  For the Parish House, that meant references to Caldwell reflecting his love of sailing and the sea.  (Note:  I highly recommend reading the description of the Parish House and the Church of the Good Shepherd to learn about all the fascinating symbols utilized in  its creation).

Here a depiction of Dauntless can be seen alongside web-footed Colts, Neptune, his trident,
waves, clams, coral, and other oceanic imagery.

The Parish House
The Parish House Ballroom

The Colt 1877 Thunderer Double Action Revolver shown below was shipped to Caldwell Hart Colt on October 19, 1880 when he was just 22 years of age.  This beautiful gun was sent with presentation grade factory engraving, a nickel finish, gold cylinder base pin and trigger, and pearl grips.  The revolver now bears period silver plating.

The backstrap is inscribed "H. F. Robinson."  The Robinson name is familiar to Colt collectors who know of Colonel Charles L. F. Robinson who married Elizabeth Colt's niece, served as the President of Colt Firearms from 1911 - 1916 and also for the Gatling Company.  The recipient of this revolver is likely a relative of Col. Robinson and may be Herbert F. Robinson who worked for the U.S. Indian service in the Southwest, specializing in irrigation.

A piece of history from the Colt family can be held in your hands!  Its direct ties to the famous family, its condition, and its beautiful embellishments have earned it a place in even the most advanced of Colt collections.  This and many other fine Colts will be available during our 2015 April Premiere Firearms Auction.  Take a look for yourself by heading over to and find out why so many are excited about this tremendous sale!

-Written by Joel Kolander


Description of Church and Parish House from National Register of Historic Places


  1. This Colt Model 1877 is without doubt the most historic example extant

    1. Once in a lifetime chance to own a piece of history!