Polly the Parrot has taken up residence at Montpelier once again, and as Leanna Schafer mentioned in her blog post, a number of the Madisons’ guests left written descriptions of Polly. The Madisons’ niece Mary Cutts, for example, recalled Polly as “a splendid bird” who was “very fond of Mr. and Mrs. Madison,” although her behavior often made her “the terror of visitors.” Let’s look through some of the historical accounts of this beautiful but bad-tempered bird.

Dolley Madison acquired Polly in Washington during her husband’s presidency. Dolley’s friend Anna Maria Thornton provides our first glimpse of Polly in a diary entry on October 2, 1813: “Walked to President’s House for Mama to see the Macaw.”[1]

Another friend, Judith Walker Rives, recalled that “Mrs. Poll” was a gift to Dolley Madison from “a South American diplomat.”[2] While living in the White House, Polly learned French phrases from chief steward John Sioussat, a native of France. Polly was apparently a favorite of Sioussat. He saved Polly’s life during the War of 1812, removing her from the White House before British troops burned the building in August 1814.[3] After James retired to Montpelier in 1817, Polly was the “one pet brought with [Dolley] from Washington,” according to Mary Cutts.[4]

Visitors to the Madisons described Polly’s brilliant plumage, her ability to repeat French phrases, and her unfortunate tendency to attack the humans around her. Polly’s victims included the Secretary of the Navy’s daughter (Polly “ran after Mary to catch her feet”),[5] as well as Judith Walker Rives (James Madison intervened “to save me from her formidable beak and claws”), and even the retired president himself (“she bit his finger to the bone … though he took it in perfect good humor, as only pretty Polly’s way”).[6] Mary Cutts recalled that the cry “Polly is coming! was the mode of frightening the children of the household.”[7]

The Madisons’ friend Lydia Sigourney recalled that Polly “ranged at will,” unlike other birds that Dolley “cherished in an aviary.”[8] Mary Cutts also depicted Polly as free-ranging, typically “brought to her perch in the hall” by the enslaved domestic workers, until the fatal night when no one brought her in and “her career was … brought to an end by a night hawk, which pounced upon her.” Cutts described Polly as “very old” at her death; Dolley had owned her at least thirty years. (Scarlet macaws can live up to 75 years in captivity.[9])

Polly Lives Again

Despite meeting an unfortunate end in real life, Polly lives on under other names in two fictional accounts. (As notorious as Polly was, she apparently found it wise to assume an alias or two for her life in the literary world.) Lucy Page Saunders visited Montpelier as a child in 1817 and fictionalized her experience in the 1872 novel Dora Lee: Or, the Visit to Montpelier. Saunders undoubtedly used Polly as the model for Fanchon, a French-speaking macaw who attacks three characters within the span of eight pages.[10]That seems to capture the spirit of the original Polly!

More recently, Rita Mae Brown used Polly as inspiration for the character of Uncle Willy in the 1994 book Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War. Although the fictional Uncle Willy, like Polly, seems to be a favorite of John Sioussat, most of Uncle Willy’s antics were drawn entirely from the novelist’s imagination. Whether picking fights with a cat named King George or drinking Dolley’s champagne at a New Year’s Day reception, Uncle Willy provides the novel with a degree of comic relief that was beyond the character of the historical (and tempermental) Polly.

Last but not least is Polly’s newest incarnation at Montpelier. Be sure to look for our Polly on your next visit. Sitting prettily but ominously in unexpected places, she evokes the days when the Madisons’ brilliantly plumed pet both amazed and terrified their visitors.

[1] Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton, Diary, 1793-1863, Anna Maria Brodeau Thornton Papers, MS 51862, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 23848.

[2] “The Autobiography of Mrs. William Cabell Rives. Born–Judith Walker–of ‘Castle Hill’ Va.,”  1861, William C. Rives papers, MS 37937, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 23182.

[3] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts, Memoir I, [1849-1856], Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MRD-S 27600; Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 23538; Margaret Gray, A Short Sketch of the Lives of Jean Pierre Sioussat and Charlotte Julia de Graff, his Wife (Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby, 1888), MRD-S 39722.

[4] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 23538.

[5] Mary Boardman Crowninshield to Mary Hodges Boardman, December 24-25, 1815, MRD-S 40356.

[6] “The Autobiography of Mrs. William Cabell Rives. Born–Judith Walker–of ‘Castle Hill’ Va.,”  1861, William C. Rives papers, MS 37937, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 23182.

[7] Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, MRD-S 23538.

[8] Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, “Montpelier – The Seat of the Late James Madison, President of the United States [poem],” Scenes in My Native Land (1845), MRD-S 23896.

[9] Scarlet Macaw,” National Aviary, https://www.aviary.org/animals/scarlet-macaw (retrieved August 14, 2018).

[10] Lucy Burwell Page Saunders, Dora Lee; Or, The Visit to Montpelier, By a Lady of “Louise Home,” Washington (Baltimore, MD: Charles Harvey & Co., 1872), MRD-S 204.

Written By

Hilarie M. Hicks, MA
Senior Research Historian

Hilarie came to Montpelier in 2010 and joined the Research Department in 2011, where she provides documentary research in support of the Montpelier Foundation’s many activities. A graduate of the College of William and Mary (B.A) and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies (M.A.), Hilarie has a broad background of experience in research, interpretation, and administration of historic sites. She enjoys following a good paper trail and locating the perfect Madison quote for any occasion.

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