First Ladies: Sarah Childress Polk

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Sarah Childress Polk was one of the longest Presidential widows of the 19th Century.

Sarah Childress Polk and James K. Polk

Sarah Children was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1803. She was the third of six children to Joel and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress.

In 1817, she attended the exclusive Moravians’ Salem Academy in North Carolina. This was one of the few higher education institutions for women in the early 19th Century.

Sarah met James Polk when she was twelve years old and he was nineteen. Both were being tutored by Samuel P. Black at the time.

Several years later the couple began courting. Legend says Andrew Jackson called her “wealthy, pretty, ambitious, and intelligent,” and urged James K. Polk to marry her.

Sarah married James Polk on January 1, 1824. The Polk’s would have no children of their own. However, they did raise a nephew Marshall Tate Polk.

Wikipedia provided the following description of Sarah Polk, “In physical appearance, Sarah was fairly tall, with black hair that was parted in the middle and worn in ringlets, dark brown eyes, and olive complexion. She had prominent teeth that caused her to tighten her lips, giving her a disapproving look, though she was admired as a “noble” beauty. She usually dressed in vibrant blues, reds and maroons, that suited her dark coloring.”

Sarah Polk was active in her husband’s political campaigns and career and even assisted with his speeches.

Sarah Childress Polk

In 1845, James Polk was elected the 11th President of the United States. In her role as First Lady, Sarah is described as “lively, charming, intelligent, and a good conversationalist”.

The Polk’s were devout Presbyterians and did not allow dancing, hard liquor, games, the theatre or horse races as part of their activities while serving in the White House.

James Polk left office after one term, keeping his campaign promise. Three months later he probably contracted cholera and died on June 15, 1849.

Sarah received a yearly widows pension after her husband’s death.

After James Polk died, Sarah raised an orphaned niece, Sarah Polk Jetton.

During the Civil War she ” held herself above sectional strife and received with dignity leaders of both Confederate and Union armies. All respected Polk Place as neutral ground.”

Sarah Polk outlived her husband by 42 years. She died on August 14, 1891 at the age of 87. She is buried next to her husband at the Tennessee State Capitol.


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