Sarah Childress Polk was born in Rutherford County, Tennessee,
the third of six children. Although raised in the rugged Western
Frontier, Sarah grew up amidst wealth and refinement. Her father,
Joel Childress, was a successful businessman and planter.
Although an education was scarce for frontier girls, Sarah attended
a local school and, in 1817, was sent to Salem Academy in North
Carolina. This school was considered one of the best in the South.
The unusually strong curriculum included English grammar, Bible
study, Greek and Roman literature, geography, music, drawing, and
sewing. Sarah's education was cut short, however, by the death of
While James K. Polk was a Tennessee Legislator, he began courting
Miss Childress, and on January 1, 1824, James and Sarah were married
at her parents' home near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The young couple
moved to a cottage in Columbia, where Mr. Polk could concentrate
on his law practice and political career.
Sarah's education would serve both her and her politically ambitious
husband well. As James K. Polk embarked upon his long national political
career, Sarah acted as his secretary by keeping her traveling husband
aware of local political events. Because of her ability to intelligently
converse about politics, she was respected and befriended by some
of the great politicians of the day.
As First Lady, Sarah Childress Polk quickly endeared herself to
the country. She was a strict Presbyterian, and changed the image
of the President's House. She curbed the tradition of heavy drinking
and dancing at White House social functions. In charge of completely
remodeling the State floor of the President's House, she created
an elegant setting befitting the highest office in the land.
After four years, Sarah looked forward to her husband's retirement
where they could live quietly in their new home, Polk Place, in
Nashville. Their quiet retirement did not last long, however, as
James K. Polk died just three months after leaving Washington. A
45 year-old widow, Mrs. Polk donned the black clothes of mourning
for the rest of her life.
Not long after James K. Polk's death, Sarah became the guardian
of an orphaned great niece. This "adopted" daughter, Sally
Polk Jetton, would remain with Sarah for the rest of her days. Mrs.
Polk was honored at Polk Place throughout her life, and was considered
the “grande dame” of Nashville for over four decades.
After a short illness, Mrs. Polk died at Polk Place in 1891, just
short of her 88th birthday, forty-two years beyond her illustrious
To watch the video Sarah Polk's White House, click the
Media Player Format
September 4, in Rutherford County, Tennessee
at the Moravian Academy, Salem, North Carolina
1, married James Knox Polk
of Congressman and Speaker of the House, James K. Polk
Lady of Tennessee
Lady of the United States
with starting the use of the song "Hail to the Chief"
as the Presidential Anthem
K. Polk dies, beginning Sarah Polk’s 42 year widowhood
“adopts” orphaned great niece
neutral during Civil War
given first telephone in Nashville
by Presidents Hayes and Cleveland
the honor of turning on electric lights in Cincinnati, Ohio
at her home, Polk Place at age 87