Francis Wayles Eppes (September 20, 1801 - May 30, 1881) was the only surviving child of Thomas Jefferson's daughter Maria Jefferson Eppes and her husband, John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson's nephew by marriage.
Six months before Francis was born, Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office as the third president of the United States. Despite the demands of the presidency, Jefferson took a keen interest in the young Francis and, over the years, the two of them became very devoted to each other. Maria died in 1804 and John Eppes was serving in the Congress, so Jefferson became actively involved in Francis's life.
Francis spent much of his time at Monticello, where Jefferson sought to inspire in him a love of learning. He was educated at various private schools, including New London Academy near Poplar Forest, Georgetown College (later Georgetown University), and South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina).1 He began to read law but was never admitted to the bar. Francis returned from South Carolina to Virginia in 1822 because his father was experiencing financial difficulties and because the young man had fallen in love.2
Jefferson turned over his Poplar Forest plantation to Francis at the time of the latter's marriage in 1822 to Mary Elizabeth Cleland Randolph, the daughter of Thomas Eston Randolph, and he promised to bequeath the estate to his grandson.3 Later, on learning of the magnitude of Jefferson's financial difficulties, Francis offered to return the property, but was refused.4 With the death of John Wayles Eppes in 1823 and the death of Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826, Francis's ties to Virginia were broken, and he joined the current migration to Florida. In 1828, he sold Poplar Forest and moved his family south.
In 1827, Francis settled on land that was about 12 miles northeast of Tallahassee. He named his plantation L'Eau Noir (Black Water), constructed a log house, and became a successful planter. Francis soon became involved in the affairs of the community. In 1829, he was one of the founders of St. John's Episcopal Church (located at 211 North Monroe Street), where he served as a vestryman. He contributed $500 to a fund to finance the construction of a church building. He was a delegate to the convention when the Episcopal Diocese of Florida was founded in 1838 and served as the secretary of the Diocese for many years.
In 1833, Governor William P. DuVal selected Francis as a justice of the peace. He served in the office for six years, striving to bring order to the wild frontier territory. Francis's wife died in 1835 after the death of their sixth child. Francis sold L'Eau Noir and bought a plantation on Lake Lafayette. He also built a house at what is now the southwest corner of North Monroe and Brevard streets in Tallahassee. In 1837, he married Susan Margaret Ware Crouch, the daughter of a prominent Georgian. Francis had become a distinguished citizen of the community due to his dedication to public service.
In 1841, Francis became intendant (mayor) of Tallahassee and served in the office for four consecutive one-year terms. (He also served as intendant in 1856, 1857, and 1866.) Francis and the town council set about combating crime in the community. They passed ordinances to establish peace and civility and organized a night watch to patrol the streets and enforce the laws. They also set fines and jail sentences to punish violators of the laws.
A yellow fever epidemic swept through the town in 1841 and many people died. Francis re-established the boundaries of the city cemetery (the Old City Cemetery on West Park Avenue) and set up rules for its operation. At the end of his second term in office, a grateful citizenry presented a silver pitcher to Francis. On one side of it the inscription reads: "F. Eppes, Esq. Intendant of Tallahassee 1841 & 1842." On the opposite side the inscription reads: "A token of regard from his fellow citizens for his untiring and successful service in the promotion of virtue and good order." The pitcher is on display at the Brokaw-McDougall House in Tallahassee.
Continuing his public service, Francis served as the foreman of the grand jury during its 1842 term. In 1843, a fire swept through the downtown business district and destroyed many of the buildings, which were primarily wooden shacks. Francis and the town council adopted an ordinance requiring that in the future all new buildings must be of masonry construction.
Nowhere is Thomas Jefferson's influence on his grandson Francis more apparent than in his determination to found an institution of higher learning in Tallahassee. In April 1836 he and his father-in-law, Thomas Eston Randolph, were among a group of men who petitioned the Congress for the establishment of a seminary in the area. The petition failed but Francis was undaunted. Later he would appeal to the Florida Legislature. In 1851, the Legislature passed an act authorizing the establishment of two institutions in the state, one east and one west of the Suwanee River.
In 1854, a proposal to locate the western school in the City of Tallahassee was presented to the Legislature and failed to pass. When the Legislature convened in 1856, Francis, as the intendant of the town, presented another proposal. He offered a new building, ten thousand dollars in cash, and an annual endowment of two thousand dollars a year to the school. This time the legislature passed the act for the western school to be in Tallahassee. Governor James Emilius Broome approved it on January 1, 1857. This act marked the founding of the predecessor of Florida State University.
The Legislature authorized the appointment of a Board of Education, with broad powers, to administer the Seminary. The Board consisted of five members, three appointed by the Governor and two ex-officio members. Governor Broome appointed Francis to the Board. He served as a member for eleven years, eight of them as president. The Board exercised control over the Seminary's finances and the care of its property. Also it was responsible for selecting the teachers, setting their salaries, and defining their duties. The West Florida Seminary experienced great difficulties, enduring the Civil War, the Reconstruction era, serious financial problems, and many other crises. The Seminary survived due in part to the persistence, dedication, and determination of Francis Eppes. Eventually, the small school became a prominent institution, the Florida State University.
In 1869, Francis sold his Leon County property and moved to Orange County, near present-day Orlando to become a citrus farmer. Although he was in his sixties, the pioneer continued to be a leader. He organized the scattered Episcopalians in the area and held services in his home, often acting as lay reader. This small group of people formed the foundation for the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando. In the narthex of the Cathedral is a stained glass window dedicated to Francis Eppes. In his history of West Florida Seminary, Dean William G. Dodd summarized the saga of Francis's years in Florida in these words: "Through the 40's, 50's, and 60's there were few civic, religious, or educational affairs in which he did not have a prominent part."5
Francis Eppes died on May 30, 1881, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando, Florida.
- Ruth Blitch, 2/1995; revised by Anna Berkes and Bryan Craig, 2007