Mary or Maria (Polly) Jefferson Eppes (1778-1804) was the fourth child of Thomas Jefferson and Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and the younger of their only two children to survive to adulthood. Following her mother's death in 1782, Polly was sent to stay with her aunt, Elizabeth Wayles Eppes. She became very attached to the family at Eppington, but Jefferson arranged for the eight-year-old to join him and Martha in Paris. Upon her arrival in England, before moving on to France, Polly lived briefly with Abigail and John Adams, who were so charmed by the little girl that Mrs. Adams wrote to Jefferson that she was "the favorite of every creature in the House."
In 1797, Maria married her cousin, John Wayles Eppes, and returned to live at Eppington. They had two children, Francis Wayles Eppes (September 1801 - May 1881) and Maria Jefferson Eppes (February 1804 - February 1806). Like her mother Martha, Maria suffered from poor health and she died on April 17, 1804, two months after giving birth to her namesake. Her father wrote, "This morning between 8. & 9. aclock my dear daughter Maria Eppes died."
Mary, also known as Polly, took the name of "Maria" from at least November 1789, when Jefferson and his family disembarked at Norfolk, Virginia, from the Clermont. On November 26, 1789, according to his memorandum book, Jefferson "Gave Maria" twenty cents at Norfolk. Thereafter he addressed her as Polly or Maria, while she signed her letters sometimes Mary, sometimes Maria.
Jefferson's great-granddaughter Sarah Nicholas Randolph gave this account: "After her return to Virginia, Polly's name was changed to Maria, that being the Virginia pronunciation of Marie, as she was called in France." As Miss Randolph did not provide any indication of pronunciation, her statement is difficult to interpret. The long history of the use of the long "i" in Randolph and related families of Virginia suggests that Jefferson's daughter, too, might have pronounced her name with a long "i".
On the other hand, the eleven-year-old Polly had just spent two years in a French school, where her name had been given the French pronunciation "Marie." She was also reported as speaking French rather than English when she disembarked in Norfolk in 1789. She may have wished to retain the familiar sound of Marie and her father may have suggested giving it an Anglicized ending to conform with the ways of her native country – in other words, a convenient evolution. Jefferson's biographer, Dumas Malone, wrote that "later her English Mary became Marie, and finally in America evolved into Maria, which it remained unto the end."
Until more clear-cut evidence comes to light, it seems that arguments can be made for both pronunciations.
- Lucia Stanton, 1991
Undated. (Sarah Nicholas Randolph). "She does not seem to have had the bright, gay, and happy temper which her sister possessed. To deserve and retain their father's unbounded love was the highest aim in life for both the sisters, and the youngest was always troubled with the fear that not having her sister's talents she would not have an equal share in his affections. ... The singular beauty of Mrs. Eppes caused all eyes to be riveted on her when her lovely face and graceful form appeared in the doorway."
Undated. (Peachy Gilmer). "Her sister Miss Maria Jefferson, who married Mr. Jno. W. Eppes, I also knew, having been in her company repeatedly. She was said to be very intelligent and accomplished. I only knew her personal appearance. Her person was bad, her manners reserved and retiring. Her face was all that struck, or gave interest to one slightly unacquainted, and that was divine. Her complexion was exquisite; her features all good, and so arranged as to produce an expression such as I never beheld in any other countenance: sweetness, intelligence, tenderness, beauty were exquisitely blended in her countenance. Her eye, fine blue, had an expression that cannot I think be described."
1787 July 6. (Abigail Adams). "She is a child of the quickest sensibility, and the maturest understanding, that I have ever met with for her years. She had been 5 weeks at sea, and with men only, so that on the first day of her arrival, she was as rough as a little sailor, and then she been decoyed from the ship, which made her very angry, and no one having any Authority over her; I was apprehensive I should meet with some trouble. But where there are such materials to work upon as I have found in her, there is no danger. She listend to my admonitions, and attended to my advice and in two days, was restored to the amiable lovely Child which her Aunt had formed her. In short she is the favorite of every creature in the House, and I cannot but feel Sir, how many pleasures you must lose by committing her to a convent. ... Books are her delight, and I have furnished her out a little library, and she reads to me by the hour with great distinctness, and comments on what she reads with much propriety."
1787 July 10. (John Adams). "I am extremely Sorry, that you could not come for your Daughter in Person, and that We are obliged to part with her so soon. In my Life I never Saw a more charming Child."
1789 March 13. (Jefferson). "[W]hile my elder daughter was playing it [a song of Hopkinson's] on the harpsichord, I happened to look towards the fire and saw the younger one all in tears. I asked her if she was sick? She said 'no; but the tune was so mournful.'"
1789 October 12. (Nathaniel Cutting). "The youngest Daughter is a lovely Girl about 11 years of age. The perfect pattern of good temper, an engaging smile ever animates her Countenance, and the chearful attention which she pays to the judicious instructions and advice of her worthy Father, the Pertinent queries which she puts to him, and the evident improvement she makes in her knowledge of Foreign Languages, History and Geography, afford a pleasing Presage that when her faculties attain their maturity, she will be the delight of her Friends, and a distinguish’d ornament to her sex."
1796 June. (Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt). "In the superintendence of his household he is assisted by his two daughters, Mrs. Randolph and Miss Mary, who are handsome, modest, and amiable women."
1802 December 26. (Margaret Bayard Smith). "Mrs. Eppes is beautiful, simplicity and timidity personified when in company, but when alone with you of communicative and winning manners. Mrs. R. is rather homely, a delicate likeness of her father, but still more interesting than Mrs. E."
1837. (George Tucker). "Mrs. Eppes, a lady whose gentle virtues and rare beauty won the admiration and regard of all who knew her."
1856 January 15. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Henry S. Randall). "My aunt, Mrs. Eppes, was singularly beautiful. She was high-principled, just, and generous. Her temper, naturally mild, became, I think, saddened by ill-health in the latter part of her life. In that respect she differed from my mother, whose disposition seemed to have the sunshine of heaven in it. ... [My mother] was intellectually somewhat superior to her sister, who was sensible of the difference, though she was of too noble a nature for her feelings ever to assume an ignoble character. There was between the sisters the strongest and warmest attachment, the most perfect confidence and affection."
- Descriptions compiled by Kristin Onuf, 1992
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902