New National Park Honoring Samuel Colt Inspires Hope But Raises Questions In Hartford

Oct 31, 2017

When I moved to Hartford from Windsor four years ago, I was excited: a new place, new people, new stories. But as time went on I got bored with Hartford. Our city slogan is “Hartford Has It.” My friends and I would make fun of it, because there are times where it seems our city has nothing but poverty.

In other words, there’s a perception that Hartford has too much crime, and not enough to do.

However, something is coming that supporters hope will make Hartford residents proud, and draw in visitors from around the country.  Coltsville National Historical Park, set to open just south of downtown in the next few years, will tell the story of Samuel Colt, the 19th century businessman who is most famous for manufacturing the Colt revolver.

It’s a fact that Sam Colt, his wife Elizabeth, and the money they made from their firearms business had a huge influence on Hartford. But is this a history worth honoring?

Historian Bill Hosley poses with teenage Sam Colt at the Colt Memorial Statue in Hartford.
Credit Madyson Frame / NEXT

For Connecticut historian Bill Hosley, the answer is an enthusiastic “yes.” He’s the author of the book Colt: The Making of an American Legend.

We met up with him in the Coltsville neighborhood, in front of a green-tinted monument to Samuel Colt, erected in 1905. The monument includes two statues of Colt: above, the tall, confident captain of industry; and below, a teenager working on his revolver.

Hosley said the area that will become the national park - which encompasses the old Colt factory buildings, the Colts' mansion, and land that used to be the family’s estate - holds international significance.

When he talks about the Colts, Hosley sounds like an energetic teacher whose enthusiasm is so strong, it rubs off on his students.

“[Samuel and Elizabeth Colt] kick-started the industrial revolution, and a lot of businesses were spun off of Colt. Hartford became the center of the precision manufacturing industry,” said Hosley.

The Samuel Colt Memorial Statue, commissioned in 1905, overlooks the northwest corner of Colt Park in Hartford.
Credit Sam Hockaday / NEXT

Colt’s innovations allowed him to sell hundreds of thousands of guns to the military and civilians on the Western frontier. After his death in 1862, his wife Elizabeth ran the company until 1902. The Colt company would go on to supply arms to the U.S. government during World War I.

“It was during that period from 1850 to 1920, for about 75 years that Hartford was just on fire, minting money, getting rich. This was the richest small city in America. It's unbelievable, I know it's ironic, we won't go there,” Hosley says, chuckling. “But, for me, as a history person I look at these things, all these gifts.”

One of the gifts Hosley was talking about was where we’re standing: Colt Park was built on 106 acres donated by Elizabeth Colt to the city of Hartford before her death. She also donated the family mansion, which still stands, as a retirement home for women.

Listening to Hosley while looking down the hill over the ball fields and playgrounds of Colt Park and the old Colt factory buildings, it’s easy to be inspired by the idea of what reviving history could mean for this place.

A view of Colt Park with Colt factory buildings in June 2017.
Credit Sam Hockaday

The 10-building factory complex fell into disrepair after the 1950s, when the main plant moved to West Hartford.

But in recent years the main buildings were renovated, and now they contain 129 apartments occupied by young professionals, as well as office space. The landlord, Colt Gateway Management, says the apartments are full, and they plan to keep renovating and open more. A tasting room and brewery recently opened on the ground floor.

The creation of Coltsville National Historical Park was authorized by Congress and President Obama in 2014, and the city of Hartford officially became involved in December 2016.  Earlier this month, after lengthy negotiations, Colt Gateway reached an agreement with the National Parks Service to donate two historic buildings where the park’s visitors’ center will be housed. Restoration on those buildings can now begin, but it may take up to a year for the park to be established. 

Because of this hitch in the process, we don’t know yet how the national park will tell the story of Coltsville. Will it focus more on Sam, or will Elizabeth get equal attention? Will workers’ stories be included? What about the complexities around guns? 

A map of Coltsville National Historic Park, approved by Congress in 2014.
Credit National Parks Service

Some in Hartford think the idea of building a national park around the Colt story is problematic in and of itself. One of the loudest dissenters is local amateur historian Steve Thornton. Back in 2014, he wrote an op-ed in the Connecticut Mirror with the headline: Honoring Sam Colt a misplaced effort and a waste of money.”

“I think the more we learn about the man, the more we have to ask ourselves, exactly what are we celebrating here?” Thornton asked. “Should we name buildings after people who held slaves? The Colt legacy is very much like that. And that's not hyperbole. Colt was a self-promoter to the point where he really had no loyalty to this country at all."

"He sold arms and built up the war capacity of the Southern states right up until the Civil War,” he said. As Thornton pointed out, Colt sent his final shipment of weapons to the South after the Battle of Fort Sumter on August 12, 1861, considered the first battle of the Civil War. 

Two years earlier, Thornton said, Colt helped organize a meeting of pro-slavery businessmen and politicians in Hartford. And in a broadside preserved in the archives of the Connecticut Historical Society, former factory workers claim that one of Colt’s managers monitored their voting  in a local election.

After the election, the broadside claims, Colt fired 66 workers, 56 of whom were Republicans - the anti-slavery party at the time. 

Thornton’s remarks bring up a common struggle for us all: our moral compass. Should we honor Sam and Elizabeth Colt who, while doing a great deal for Hartford, in a sense, supported slavery?

Thornton said that if we’re going to discuss our historical figures, we have a responsibility to tell the whole story.  So will the national park tell the story of Sam Colt’s business relationship with the slaveholding South?

A Colt Model 1851 Navy Percussion Revolver, with case and accessories. Currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Credit Metropolitan Museum of Art

“When [the National Parks Service] tells our nation's stories we tell them honestly and in a full manner with multiple perspectives,” said James Woolsey, superintendent of Coltsville National Historical Park.

Woolsey said he’s often asked how the national park at Coltsville plans to tell the story of guns in America.

“I guess how I would answer that is what better place to tell the story of firearms than at Coltsville?” said Woolsey. “This place helped arm the country, was involved in the Indian Wars out West, helped arm our nation in World War I, World War II. So I think this is the place to tell that story in all that complexity, and we shouldn’t shy away from controversy.”

Speaking on WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, Woolsey said the National Parks Service will assemble a “really well rounded group of people of diverse ideological perspectives,” to help inform the narratives to be told at the national park. He also said he expects there to be public meetings during the process, so the people of Hartford can have a say in how the story of Coltsville is told.

After learning about the Colts’ connections to slavery, it’s hard to match Hosley’s positivity about their impact on history. But something Hosley said stuck with me: that just knowing the history of the place you live helps make it a better place to live.

“Civic attachment -- that quality of consciousness that makes people care about a place is, to me, the X factor in making the place great," said Hosley. "As I always say, you can't love a person you don't know, and it's hard to love a place you don't know. So part of this idea of history is it gives people a familiarity with those things that are special and different.”

As for me, I think the only way to truly love where you live is to get to know it and get involved. Making Colt Park a national park can only help this city in the long run. Coltsville’s history is definitely worth honoring, if the whole story is told.

Madyson Frame is a recent graduate of the Journalism and Media Academy in Hartford. She is currently a first-year student at Stevenson University in Maryland. This story was produced as a collaboration between NEXT and the Hartford Public Schools’ Journalism and Media Academy. Nicole Ellis  and Andrea Muraskin contributed reporting.