Do You Know Anything about James K. Polk?

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My mother told me I was related to President James K. Polk. I never knew exactly how but my great grandmother was America Adeline Polk before she married my great grandfather in 1872. I don’t know if she was the connection or not. My great-great grandfather, Joseph P. McVay, Lived about 6 miles from Savannah, Tennessee in a log cabin. The McVay’s lived on one side of the Tennessee river and the Polk’s, who married into the McVay family, lived on the other side of the river. When the Civil War Battle of Shiloh took place, the McVay’s could hear the shooting and fighting. The Polk’s owned the land where the battle took place.

A month later, Joseph McVay and his son Joseph Riley enlisted in the Union Army at Bethel and were assigned to Company A of the Sixth Tennessee Cavalry. Four more Companies were raised in short order. Private Joseph McVay was captured and spent over a year at Andersonville Prison, almost the entire time the prison was open. He never expected to survive his time as a POW but lived as a broken man until 1900.

Back to the Polk family, Ezekiel Polk (December 7, 1747 – August 31, 1824), was an American soldier, pioneer and grandfather of President James Knox Polk

Polk was a militant Jeffersonian and a Deist (some said an atheist), which put him at loggerheads with much of the family, especially his nephew William Polk’s three sons, who were Ezekiel’s close Tennessee neighbors, ardent Federalists and orthodox churchmen. The inscription composed for his first wife’s tombstone spoke of “a glorious Resurrection to eternal life,” but her painful illness and the death of all the children of his second marriage seem to have dampened if not extinguished the bereaved husband’s faith.

He was married three times. His first wife, Mary Wilson Polk, bore him eight children, including Samuel, the father of James K. Polk, 11th President of the United States. No children of his second wife, Bessie Davis Polk, survived infancy. His third wife, Sofia Neely Lennard Polk had four children.

At age 20 Ezekiel, recently married, was named clerk of court in the new county of Tryon across the Catawba River, where he and his bride established themselves on a 100-acre farm just south of Kings Mountain. In 1772, however, the provincial boundary was surveyed, and Polk’s property was discovered to lie in South Carolina.

Polk adapted with increasing difficulty to the shifting boundary and consequent loss of his position as clerk of court. At first he was chosen lieutenant colonel of the district militia. In 1775 he was elected a delegate to the South Carolina Provincial Congress held in June and was commissioned a captain in the Third South Carolina Regiment of Horse Rangers, assigned to the interior, where Whigs and Loyalists were competing for control of the province. But when the regiment was ordered to the coast, Polk balked, marching his men home rather than sacrifice their health, as he put it, for the protection of Lowcountry aristocrats and rice plantation nabobs. He subsequently relented, apologized for his insubordination and was restored to command. He led his company against Loyalist forces in the Battle of Big Cane Brake at Reedy River in December 1775 and the following summer commanded 300 militia in a successful expedition against pro-Loyalist Cherokees. On July 24, 1776, Polk’s regiment was adopted into the Continental Army and assigned to the Southern Department. “Captain Ezekiel Polk’s Independent Company,” according to the U.S. Army’s regimental history, was “concurrently redesignated as the 10th Company, 3rd South Carolina Regiment.”

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Polk may never have been entirely comfortable in South Carolina, and waning popularity and political enmities appear to have left him increasingly disgruntled. After being passed over initially as delegate to a provincial congress held in November 1775, he had with great difficulty forced a second election and kept his seat. Probably this aborted rejection continued to rankle. In late 1776 Polk surrendered his commission in the 3rd Regiment and returned to North Carolina, settling down on a 260-acre farm about 10 miles below Charlotte, the Mecklenburg County seat. Two years later he opened a tavern in town and the following year was named justice of the peace. This period of tranquility was not to last. With the fall of Charleston in 1780 and the subsequent defeat of Horatio Gates at Camden, Lord Charles Cornwallis’s triumphant Redcoats marched into North Carolina, the main body encamping a few miles from Polk’s farm. The following day, September 26, Cornwallis commandeered the Charlotte home of Ezekiel’s brother Thomas and established his headquarters there. Fearing the loss of crops, slaves and his tavern, Ezekiel rode to town and “took protection” from Cornwallis in exchange for peaceful cooperation with the British.

Such an action was not without precedent, and Polk’s neighbors evidently did not judge him too harshly, for toward the end of the war the Mecklenburg magistrates, with only two dissenters, elected him sheriff. At the conclusion of the war, he received a generous acreage of western land for his services during the Revolutionary War and in 1790 was appointed deputy surveyor in the Western District, as Tennessee was then called, and moved with his family to a tract north of the Cumberland River. Indian raids and the prolonged illness and death of his wife in 1791 led to his return to Mecklenburg County. He did not make Tennessee his permanent home until the fall of 1803, when he established himself on a 2,500-acre tract on the Duck River in what is now Maury County.

Ezekiel Polk died near Bolivar, Tennessee, August 31, 1824, and was buried in the Polk Cemetery at Bolivar.

Polk composed his own epitaph and left instructions that it be painted on durable wood “as there is no rock in this country fit for grave stones.” In its original version, it reads:

Here lies the dust of old E.P.
One instance of mortality;
Pennsylvania born, Car’lina bred,
In Tennessee died on his bed
His youthful days he spent in pleasure,
His latter days in gath’ring treasure;
From superstition liv’d quite free
And practiced strict morality.
To holy cheats was never willing
To give one solitary shilling,
He can foresee, and in foreseeing
He equals most of men in being
That church and state will join their pow’r
And mis’ry on this country show’r.
And Methodists with their camp bawling,
Will be the cause of this down falling.
An era not destined to see,
It waits for poor posterity
First fruits and tithes are odious things
And so are Bishops, Priests and Kings.

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James Knox Polk became President on March 4th, 1845 and promptly allowed Texas into the Union as the 28th State. During his term, Iowa and Wisconsin also became States.

After the Texas annexation, Polk turned his attention to California, hoping to acquire the territory from Mexico before any European nation did so. The main interest was San Francisco Bay as an access point for trade with Asia. In 1845, he sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico to purchase California and New Mexico for $24–30 million. Slidell’s arrival caused political turmoil in Mexico after word leaked out that he was there to purchase additional territory and not to offer compensation for the loss of Texas. The Mexicans refused to receive Slidell, citing a technical problem with his credentials. In January 1846, to increase pressure on Mexico to negotiate, Polk sent troops under General Zachary Taylor into the area between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande—territory that was claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico.

Slidell returned to Washington in May 1846, having been rebuffed by the Mexican government. Polk regarded this treatment of his diplomat as an insult and an “ample cause of war”, and he prepared to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Mere days before Polk intended to make his request to Congress, he received word that Mexican forces had crossed the Rio Grande area and killed eleven American soldiers. Polk then sent a message to Congress on May 11, 1846, stating that Mexico had “invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil.”

Some Whigs, such as Abraham Lincoln, challenged Polk’s version of events, but Congress overwhelmingly approved the declaration of war. Many Whigs feared that opposition would cost them politically by casting themselves as unpatriotic for not supporting the war effort.

Polk selected the top generals and set the military strategy of the war. By the summer of 1846, American forces under General Stephen W. Kearny had captured New Mexico. Meanwhile, Army captain John C. Frémont led settlers in northern California to overthrow the Mexican garrison in Sonoma. General Zachary Taylor, at the same time, was having success on the Rio Grande, although Polk did not reinforce his troops there. The United States also negotiated a secret arrangement with Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican general and dictator who had been overthrown in 1844. Santa Anna agreed that, if given safe passage into Mexico, he would attempt to persuade those in power to sell California and New Mexico to the United States. Once he reached Mexico, however, he reneged on his agreement, declared himself President, and tried to drive the American invaders back. Santa Anna’s efforts, however, were in vain, as Generals Taylor and Winfield Scott destroyed all resistance. Scott captured Mexico City in September 1847, and Taylor won a series of victories in northern Mexico. Even after these battles, Mexico did not surrender until 1848, when it agreed to peace terms set out by Polk.

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The Mexican Cession was acquired through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Gadsden Purchase was acquired through purchase after Polk left office.
Polk sent diplomat Nicholas Trist to negotiate with the Mexicans. Lack of progress prompted the President to order Trist to return to the United States, but the diplomat ignored the instructions and stayed in Mexico to continue bargaining. Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which Polk agreed to ratify, ignoring calls from Democrats who demanded that all Mexico be annexed. The treaty added 1.2 million square miles of territory to the United States; Mexico’s size was halved, while that of the United States increased by a third. California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming were all included in the Mexican Cession. The treaty also recognized the annexation of Texas and acknowledged American control over the disputed territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Mexico, in turn, received $15 million. The war claimed fewer than 20,000 American lives but over 50,000 Mexican ones. It may have cost the United States $100 million.

The treaty, however, needed ratification by the Senate. In March 1848, the Whigs, who had been so opposed to Polk’s policy, suddenly changed position. Two-thirds of the Whigs voted for Polk’s treaty. This ended the war and legalized the acquisition of the territories.

In mid-1848, President Polk authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase of Cuba and offer Spain up to $100 million, an astounding sum at the time for one territory, equal to $2.74 billion in present-day terms. However, Spain was still making huge profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum, and tobacco), and thus the Spanish government rejected Saunders’ overtures.

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Polk’s time in the White House took its toll on his health and he did not seek reelection. Full of enthusiasm and vigor when he entered office, Polk left on March 4, 1849, exhausted by his years of public service. He lost weight and had deep lines on his face and dark circles under his eyes. He is believed to have contracted cholera in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a goodwill tour of the South after leaving the White House. He died of cholera at his new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee, at 3:15 pm on June 15, 1849, three months after leaving office. He was buried on the grounds of Polk Place. Polk’s last words illustrate his devotion to his wife: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.” She lived at Polk Place for over forty years after his death. She died on August 14, 1891. The bodies of President and Mrs. Polk were exhumed and relocated to their current resting place on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. Polk Place was demolished in 1900.

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Polk had the shortest retirement of all Presidents at 103 days. He was the youngest former president to die in retirement at the age of 53. A year later, California became the 31st State.

Thank you for reading, now you know something about the Polk Family.

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One Response to “Do You Know Anything about James K. Polk?”

  1. Rifleman III Says:

    Reblogged this on Rifleman III Journal.

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