September 28, 2020, Susan Harber, Local Historian
Rutherford County bequeathed an elegant and sophisticated future president’s wife in the emergence of Sarah Childress Polk. She was named for her maternal grandmother Sarah Thompson Whitsitt (1746-1831), who was born in British Colonial America. Sarah served as a respected and fascinating First Lady from 1845 to 1849. She was born on September 4, 1803 to Joel and Elizabeth Childress. Her parents were originally from North Carolina yet chose Rutherford County as their home. Sarah’s great-grandfather John Childress (1712-1786) was an immigrant from Antrim, Ireland. Joel first settled in Sumner County in 1799 and moved to Rutherford County in 1812 to a farm three miles south of Murfreesboro. The location was the site of Stones River crossing Shelbyville Highway. Joel built a large frame house and was very content to raise his family in an inviting and wonderful community. He was a prominent land speculator, merchant, tavern keeper, and postmaster of Murfreesboro. Andrew Jackson visited the Childress plantation and forged a strong bond with this family. Joel died in 1819; yet his wife Elizabeth lived until 1863, after having moved into the town of Murfreesboro.
Sarah had three siblings including Anderson, Susan, and John Whitsitt. Her parents insisted on a quality education for each child. After she was enrolled in Daniel Elam School in Murfreesboro, her father hired a tutor Samuel Black, headmaster of Bradley Academy, for Sarah’s tutelage. James K. Polk was a current student at Bradley Academy, an all-boys school; and he made acquaintance with Sarah, who was 12 years old. Sarah’s brother Anderson attended this school. By age 13, Sarah attended the Abercrombie School in Nashville for two years where she boarded in the home of a Colonel Butler. At this finishing school, Sarah learned piano, sewing and social etiquette. Susan and Sarah then attended the famed girls’ Moravian Church Academy in Salem, North Carolina. The sisters rode 500 miles by horseback accompanied by her brother Anderson and a slave, who was a close friend to the Childress family. This school provided studies in English grammar, Greek and Roman literature, geography, music, drawing and sewing. Sarah developed a lifelong love of reading at this school and so enjoyed her new surroundings, yet, she returned early to Rutherford County with the sudden death of her father. By 1817, Sarah attended Salem College to complete her education. She had grown into a tall and lovely young woman with a destiny soon to unfold.
James K. Polk was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the same time of Sarah’s schooling. He returned home to study law in Rutherford County with Felix Grundy and serve as Clerk of the State Senate. He pursued Sarah, who encouraged him to run for state legislature. At the time, Murfreesboro was state capitol (1819-1825) and the exciting center of all political activity. The General Assembly convened in the Murfreesboro courthouse until it was burned in 1822 and then reassembled in the Presbyterian Church until 1826.
Sarah and James were wed on January 1, 1824 in her home in Murfreesboro with the strong blessings of Andrew Jackson, who was smitten with the couple. Sarah was 20, and James was 28. Afterwards, they moved to Columbia and were centered there for the next 19 years of James’ aspiring career. He was a Democrat in the House of Representatives for 14 years and elected Speaker. He was also Governor of Tennessee 1839-1841. As a ‘dark horse’ candidate in 1844, Polk stepped forward to accept the role of President of the United States with Sarah on his arm. Her approach to First Lady mirrored her same manner as a governor’s wife. She befriended everyone and was a sensation from the first day. She encouraged the president in his greatest moment with the acquisition of the Oregon Territory, California, and the Territory of New Mexico.
James and Sarah had no children; yet, they raised a nephew Marshall Polk, a troubled young orphan. They also provided a home for two more nephews, Sam and Bill, who were continually in harm’s way. Upon James’ death in 1845, Sarah gained guardianship of a niece Sarah Jetton and raised her as her own. Sarah Polk maintained a lifelong companionship with Sarah Jetton, who lived in Sarah’s home along with her son and daughter. In Washington, Sarah assumed a role of advisor and active supporter to her husband. She assisted with his speeches and offered policy advisement. In public, she was an excellent listener and a very skilled conversationalist on intelligent political matters. Sarah was also an organizer and hosted the first Thanksgiving dinner at the White House. As a strong Presbyterian, she denied dancing, card games, and alcohol at receptions, which were sober and serious gatherings. Her exemplary morals carried over to a new chapter in the White House of the mid-19th century. James committed to one term only as President and labored intensely in accomplishing all of his lofty goals within four years.
On June 15, 1849, the couple retired to their home ‘Polk Place’ in Nashville. The praise and adoration of the public was overwhelming to James and Sarah, who were now so beloved and respected on a national juncture. Incredibly, James died three months into retirement with cholera. Sarah was a widow at age 46 and lived 42 more years in the same home on an annual pension of $5,000.
During the Civil War, Sarah remained neutral, although she did plead for release of captured Confederate friends and loved ones. She was also a founding member of the Ladies’ Soldiers Friend Society. Ulysses Grant visited her home at Polk Place during the war, and they remained friends.
When Sarah died in 1891, she was buried at Polk Place but later reinterred with James at the State Capitol. Sarah was a young Murfreesboro girl with big dreams and rose to great heights. She was an admired First Lady but foremost an exceptional wife to our former president. His final words were: “I love you Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”