Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt

Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1826

Died: 1905

Inducted: 1997

Town: Hartford

Elizabeth Hart Jarvis was the eldest child of William Jarvis, an Episcopal minister, and Elizabeth Miller Hart, who was well-connected in Rhode Island’s social elite. In 1856 she married Samuel Colt, the world famous arms manufacturer and inventor of the Colt revolver. By this marriage, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt gained access to the restricted social circles of 19th-century Connecticut.

With Samuel Colt’s premature death in 1862 at the age of 47, Elizabeth Colt became one of the richest women in the United States, inheriting several million dollars and a controlling interest in Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt knew firsthand that wealth does not come with immunity to tragedy. She had already lost two children in infancy and, at the time of her husband’s death, had two young children and was pregnant with another. In the year following her husband’s death she would lose both her fourth and fifth children, leaving her with only one son, Caldwell Colt, who would survive into adulthood. In 1864, another tragedy struck: suspected Confederate sympathizers set fire to the Colt factory, burning it to the ground. Colt chose to rebuild, paying special attention to fire-proofing and adding a second story as well as recreating the iconic blue onion dome that had been destroyed.

Rather than withdraw from society or hide behind her wealth, Colt used both her position and wealth to play a leading role in countless Connecticut religious, social, art, and charitable organizations. Known affectionately as “The First Lady of Hartford,” she helped found and presided over the Union for Home Work, the Hartford Decorative Arts Society, the Connecticut Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church, and the Hartford Soldiers’ Aid Society, for which she staged many fundraising theatrical performances. She is credited with raising over $1 million in a two-week period for the Hartford Soldiers’ Aid Society. To honor her late husband, Elizabeth Colt built the Church of the Good Shepherd in 1869 intending it to be a place where owners, managers, and laborers could worship side-by-side. She continued to maintain tight control of the Colt factory for most of the forty-three years she outlived her husband.

In 1865 Colt began work on a formal gallery to be established on the second floor of Armsmear, the elaborate Italinate villa she and her husband had built on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford, south of the Wadsworth Atheneum. With the help of artist Frederic Church she began to collect paintings and sculpture and to commission landscape works by well-known New York artists like Thomas Cole, John Kensett, James Hamilton, William Beard, and William Bradford as well as Charles Loring Elliott, who painted monumental portraits of Samuel Colt and of Elizabeth Colt with her only surviving child.

By the end of her life, the Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt Collection had grown to over 600 individual American and European objets d’art. Colt bequeathed her collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum along with $50,000 to construct a wing in which to house the collection. It became the first wing in an American municipal museum to bear the name of a woman patron. But her generosity was not confined to her art collection. Elizabeth Colt bequeathed the grounds of the Colt estate to the city of Hartford for use as a park and designated that the house itself be used as a home for female dependents of Episcopal clergy and other “gentlewomen.”

Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt died in Hartford in 1905. She is buried along with her husband and children in Hartford’s historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.

During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform