Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Esther Winder Polk Lowe (1824-1918)
MSA SC 3520-2263
First Lady of Maryland, 1851-1854

Esther Winder Polk, wife of Governor Enoch Louis Lowe, was born on February 29, 1824 into a prominent family in Princess Anne, Maryland. American progenitor Robert Bruce Pollock, Esther's great, great, great grandfather, immigrated from Northern Ireland to settle on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Miss Polk's mother, Anne Maria Stuart Polk, was the daughter of Dr. Alexander Stuart, a respected physician practicing in Deleware. Esther's father was Colonel James Polk, the son of Chief Justice William Polk of the Court of Appeals; and perhaps most impressively, Esther's cousin was none other than the nation's chief executive, President James Polk. Her siblings include William, Mary, Elizabeth, Ariana, Thomas Hampden, James, Lucius, and Josiah.1

As a child, Esther Polk attended the local school run by the "village master." After graduating, her parents sent her to a young ladies academy to complete her education; however, Esther asserted that the best and most valuable instruction came from her hometown school, not from the expensive, fashionable boarding institution.2

In her diary, Esther reflected on her childhood and recalled that her most vivid memory dated back to 1832 when she was eight years old. At that time, she remembered hearing news of a slave uprising in North Hampton, Virginia. She explains that her family was engulfed by an "inexpressible terror" when faced with the reality that "without police protection [they] were at the mercy of the slaves." Yet, after a period of caution and no revolts by local slaves, Lowe family life returned to normal. Mrs. Lowe claimed that there was "no thought of tomorrow, or a rainy day, since corn was plentiful and negroes happy."3

Mrs. Lowe also recalled a memorable incident that occurred when she was a young lady during a vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. She decided to go surf bathing with a few friends, both male and female. To clarify her story, Esther explained that during that period, a woman's bathing suit consisted of merely a simple calico dress. While playing in the ocean, the waves became so rough that they ripped her skirt to "tatters." Esther revealed how embarrassed she was upon leaving the water half-undressed, and she concluded the anecdote by confirming that the incident was her first and last foray into the ocean's waves.4

Esther Polk met Enoch Louis Lowe at her cousin's party in Frederick. Lowe was the son of Adelaide and Lt. Bradley Lowe of Frederick who had recently returned to Maryland after attending college in England. Esther recalled upon seeing Mr. Lowe for the first time, she perceived the "form of an Apollo" and the "temperment . . . of Lord Byron." 5 After such a romantic first impression, it is not surprising that on May 29, 1844 Miss Polk married Enoch Louis Lowe.The union of Esther and Enoch Lowe produced eleven children including Adelaide, Vinandier, Anne Maria, Enoch Louis, Jr., Paul Emil, Vivian, Victoire, Aleander Stuart, Esther Winder, Mary Gorter, and James Polk.7

Enoch Louis Lowe by O. Eckhard
Collection of the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property
MSA SC 1545-1023

In 1850, Mr. Lowe became the youngest candidate ever nominated for the governorship at the age of twenty-nine. By 1851, when he became the state's chief executive, he had attained the legal age of thirty and could rightfully assume the office of Governor of Maryland. Lowe held this post until 1854.8

In her diary, Mrs. Lowe vividly recalls her excitement upon moving to Annapolis as the First Lady of Maryland. During this period, the governor's residence was the Jennings House, built by Edmund Jennings and purchased in 1769 by Robert Eden, Maryland's last provincial governor. This four-acre property is now a part of the Naval Academy grounds.On arriving at Jennings House, Esther Lowe was awed by the breathtaking home and the lovely surrounding landscapes. The following are her own words, as she reminisces about her first impressions of Government House and its impressive vistas:

Jennings House, artist unknown
Maryland State Archives, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
MSA SC 1890-2048

Never can I forget our entrance into that grand old colonial mansion . . . situated upon Annapolis Bay just where the beautiful Severn joins it.  A broad expanse of water as far as [the] eye could reach was the view from the spacious back porch; only the outlines of Kent Island to interrupt it.  The structure was built of English brick; a main building and at each end a wing---one used as a breakfast room, the other as library.  A large hall of entrance separated dining and drawing rooms and at the end     of the hall a large semi-circular room, extending the entire width of the building, was used on special occasions---such as State dinners given each week---necessarily requiring a spacious room.  The garden sloping gradually to the water was most attractive. Two immense fig trees, so large that children, and even grown persons, could sit in their branches. Bushels of figs were gathered from these trees and supplies sent to friends in Baltimore who like ourselves enjoyed the luscious fruit.10

Jennings House
Marion Warren Collection, Maryland State Archives
MSA SC 1890-3953

Although her description of life in Annapolis is a veritable utopia, not all of Mrs. Lowe's experiences there were happy. Perhaps the saddest event occurred when her oldest son, Louis, died in the Annapolis mansion after being gripped by a sudden, violent fever. Mrs. Lowe would later lose a second young son, Stuart, to illness during the Civil War.11

During their tenure in Annapolis, the Lowes made many dear friends within the community. For instance, Mrs. Lowe frequently called on the officers' families and the staff at the Naval Academy, since "the gate of the Navy Yard was about twenty yards from [her] front door."12 She was particularly fond of Professor Chauvenet who taught mathematics on campus. Mrs. Lowe also visited Mrs. Jessie Haversham, a granddaughter of the famed Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner.13

As the Official Hostess of Maryland, Esther Lowe also entertained some of the leading figures in the nation and, often, the world. For example, the Lowe family entertained Sir William Ously, English Ambassador to the South American Republics, and his wife. In addition to the Ously's, the Honorable John J. March, a distinguished member of President Pierce's cabinet, was frequently a guest at Government House. Also, the governor and the First Lady had the opportunity to dine with Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Webster.14

Of all the entertaining done by the Lowe family, perhaps the most amusing incident resulted from the visit of the purported grand nephew of George Washington, the contemporary owner of Mount Vernon. Mrs. Lowe recalls that this man was "of fine presence" and that he "bore a striking resemblance to all of the pictures [she] had seen of the Washington family." Esther reveals that, in the two or three days that "Mr. Washington" was in Annapolis, he was treated to the very best food and
accomodations and was the guest of the most prominent citizens. The First Lady goes on in the report that several days after the revered guest had travelled on to Baltimore, the local newspapers contained a story about a thief, calling himself a descendant of General Washington, who had robbed two Baltimore jewelry shops. It would seem that the citizens of Annapolis, including the Lowe's, had been duped.15

In addition to her duties as hostess, Mrs. Esther Lowe also was ever-concerned about the well-being of her state and its inhabitants. In perhaps her most noble gesture as First Lady, Mrs. Lowe rescued a young visitor to the state capital from what she considered an undeserved jail term. On a tour of the penitentiary in Baltimore, she noticed a young man who in her estimation did not seem to belong in prison, for he had "the face of culture and refinement." 16 Upon inquiring about the prisoner's history, she was told that he had been arrested for stealing books and that he had no friends or family in the area.  Esther compassionately reasoned that "like the poor steal a loaf of bread to sustain corporal life, he may have hungered for mental susentenance and yielded to temptation."17 Determined to offer aid to this unfortunate stranger, she convinced the governor to look into the man's predicament. As a result, the young man's case was reinvestigated by authorities, and he was pardoned. The man was sent home to Canada to be with his family owing his freedom to the First Lady.18

After Governor Lowe's term had ended, the family moved back to Frederick where they lived until the outbreak of the Civil War. During the sectional conflict the Lowes were accused of being Southern sympathizers, which Mrs. Lowe denies in her diary, and consequently, were forced to flee to Virginia. When the fighting neared their home in Ashland, they were forced to move even farther south to Georgia. In reflecting on the state of the South during the war, Mrs. Lowe recalled that she was astounded by the fact "although the war was at its height, Southern people continued to 'eat, drink, and be merry.'"19 She also noted that the price of food was high, but asserted that her family never went without supplies. At the conclusion of the war, the Lowes decided to move to New York and were allowed to do so only after taking the "Iron Clad Oath" of loyalty to the union. Mrs. Lowe died at her daughter's home in Baltimore on December 1, 1918.20

The preceding essay was taken from the Master's thesis of Maryland State Archives' Archival Research Intern, Emily A. Oland. This thesis, entitled Running Mates: A Biographical Study of First Ladies and Official Hostesses of Maryland, 1777-1995, is copyright protected by Emily A. Oland and was submitted to the University of Maryland Graduate School, Baltimore in August 1996 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for an M.A. degree.

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