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Colt Family Papers

Historical note

Samuel Pomeroy Colt, entrepreneur, politician, lawyer, gentleman farmer, and philanthropist, was born in Patterson, New Jersey on January 10, 1852. He was the youngest of six children of Christopher and Theodora Goujand DeWolf Colt and the nephew of Samuel Colt, inventor of the Colt revolver. His father was a dry goods merchant in New York City and Connecticut, his mother a descendant of the DeWolf mercantile family of Bristol, Rhode Island.

Young Samuel Pomeroy, known to family and friends as "Pom," attended public schools in New York City, Hartford, and Bristol. After his father's death in 1855, he lived in Hartford for a time with his uncle Samuel Colt. In 1865, Colt moved to Bristol with his mother when she returned to the DeWolf family's ancestral home, now know as Linden Place. He lived in Bristol for the rest of his life. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1870 to 1873, and graduated from Columbia Law School in 1876. The young lawyer was admitted to the New York bar in that same year and to the Rhode Island bar in 1877.

Samuel P. Colt had already begun to make his mark on the Rhode Island political landscape, even before he completed law school. In 1875, at the age of twenty-three, he was appointed aide-de-camp to Rhode Island Governor Henry Lippitt with the honorary rank of "colonel," a title by which he was addressed for the remainder of his life. He served on the Governor's staff until 1877. A year earlier, while still on Lippitt's staff, he was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives from Bristol. His primary interests while in the Legislature were in the areas of regulating child labor and promoting the right of women to hold and inherit property.

Colt left the Legislature in 1879 to accept an appointment as an Assistant Attorney General under longtime Rhode Island Attorney General Willard Sayles. Upon Sayles retirement in 1882, Colt ran for and was elected to the first of four one year terms as Rhode Island's Attorney General. During his seven year tenure in the Attorney General's Office, he vigorously prosecuted liquor law violations and had a strong interest in murder cases, often leading the prosecution of these cases personally. In contrast, his private legal practice, which he continued to pursue while serving in the Legislature and the Attorney General's Office, focused on probate and estate work. He served as an executor for the estates of Cornelius J. Vanderbilt, the son of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Ambrose Burnside, former Rhode Island governor and Civil War general.

Colt's active public political career waned after he was denied election for a 10th term as Attorney General in 1886. He did stage an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1903 and made a brief and abortive run for the U.S. Senate in 1907. These campaigns apparently were mounted more out of a sense of obligation to the Republican Party than out of any great desire to reenter elective politics. Both before and after these debates, however, Colt remained a behind-the-scenes power and major financial contributor to the Republican Party in Rhode Island.

His political defeat in 1886 also marked the beginning of a major shift in his professional life. At the age of thirty-three, he ceased his active participation in the legal profession to pursue his interests in the business world. In 1886, Colt founded the Industrial Trust Company, a banking corporation which has grown into today's Fleet/Norstar Corporation. The early incorporators, representing the political, business, and industrial elite of late nineteenth century Rhode Island, included William and Frederic Sayles, Zechariah Chafee, Nelson Aldrich, Lucien Sharpe, and John B. Herreshoff. Within two years of its founding, Industrial Trust was the largest bank in Rhode Island and one of the largest in New England. Colt served as president of the Industrial Trust Company from its founding in 1886 until 1908 and as Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1908 to his death in 1921.

A year after founding Industrial Trust, Colt was appointed as a receiver for the bankrupt National Rubber Company which was located in his hometown of Bristol. By the spring of 1888, he had succeeded in reorganizing and reopening the factory as the National India Rubber Company which manufactured rubber boots and shoes. In 1892, he merged National India Rubber with a number of other rubber companies to form U.S. Rubber, the forerunner of the present UNIROYAL Corporation. Colt served as president of U.S. Rubber from 1901 to 1918 and oversaw its growth into one of the largest corporations in the world. By 1917, a year before Colt's retirement from the presidency, the company had absorbed more than forty smaller rubber companies and employed more than 20,000 people in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In addition to Industrial Trust and U.S. Rubber, Colt had a major financial or personal interest in railroads, lumber, public utilities, and publishing. He served on the boards of directors of more than forty companies and was one of the wealthiest men in the country.

His philanthropic interests were nearly as varied as his business interests. In 1908 Colt paid for the construction of a public high school in the town of Bristol as a memorial to his mother. He donated the money to build a stone chapel for St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Bristol. His 400 plus acre waterfront farm, North Farm, at Poppasquash Point in Bristol was open to the public during his lifetime and after his death this farm was left to the state of Rhode Island and represents the bulk of the area now known as Colt State Park.

Colt's personal life was not marked by the same success and happiness that he enjoyed in his professional and business life. His relationship with his mother Theodora was a close but often stormy one, complicated by the fact that both she and Samuel lived at Linden Place at least part of each year until her death in 1901. Colt married Elizabeth Bullock of Bristol in 1881, a marriage marked by tragedy and ultimate failure. They had three sons the first of whom, Samuel Pomeroy Colt, Jr., died of a viral infection in 1890 at the age of nine. The remaining two sons, Russell Griswold (born 1882) and Roswell Christopher (born 1889), survived their father. Russell achieved some notoriety when in 1909 he married noted stage actress Ethel Barrymore. They divorced in 1923 and Russell later married Gwendolyn M. Gray in 1940.

The marriage of Samuel and Elizabeth was an uneasy union, due in large part to the constant criticism and interference of Theodora Colt. It ended in a highly publicized legal separation in 1896 amid charge and countercharge of adultery. Though Colt had a number of relationships in the years after his separation, he never sought a divorce and never remarried. Nor apparently did Elizabeth, who died in Paris in 1935.

Samuel Pomeroy Colt died of complications from a stroke on the afternoon of August 13, 1921, at his beloved Linden Place in Bristol. His passing was front page news in the newspapers of the state and his funeral was attended by major political and business figures from around the country.

Colt's legacy to his family, the state of Rhode Island, and the nation is impressive, if somewhat contradictory. In many ways, he was the quintessential man of his time. He was an entrepreneur, similar to Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, a man who created large corporations in the banking and rubber industries through liberal doses of capital and undercutting of competition. Like Carnegie, and to a lesser extent Rockefeller, he was also a philanthropist who built a $ 300,000 high school and donated it to his home town in his mother's memory. He was determined in his purchase of property in his home town of Bristol to satisfy his urge to be a "gentleman farmer," yet cognizant enough of his obligation to the community to open his waterfront "gentleman's farm" to the public and to leave it in trust for the people of the state to enjoy as the magnificent Colt State Park. In his will, he provided for each of his two surviving sons and their families through trusts established in their names, yet by creating a tontine will he left the bulk of his estate to his last surviving grandchild without knowing who that would be.

Samuel Pomeroy Colt was indeed a man of his era and a study of his and the family's papers reveal much about the political, social, and economic history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Rhode Island.