Sarah Childress Polk was born on September 4th, 1803, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her parents owned a large plantation. She was the third of six children. During her childhood, she attended schools to teach women basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. As a teenager, she was enrolled in an all-female academy in North Carolina known as Moravians’ Salem Academy until her father died.
Sarah met James Polk in school when she was twelve years old and he was nineteen. At the time, he was a clerk of the Tennessee Senate. Years later, he began courting her and they were married in 1795 in North Carolina. She never had children of her own, but she did take in the son of her husband’s brother, named Marshall Tate, who often proved to be a troublemaker. In 1825, after serving as a state Congressman, James was appointed to the United States Congress and moved to Washington D.C., while Sarah stayed in Tennessee. In 1839, James ran for the Governor of Tennessee. During his campaign, Sarah scheduled his speeches, reviewed his press releases, and contacted newspapers. Throughout her husband’s political career, Sarah provided support, operations, and even political advice. In 1845, James won the Presidency and the couple celebrated in Nashville before moving into the White House.
As First Lady, Sarah’s Christian orthodox beliefs made her seem very strict. For instance, she did not approve of business being conducted Sundays. She also stayed away from any events involving gambling, and did not allow dancing in the White House. At the time of the Polk presidency, the Presidential family was expected to fund any social events happening at the White House. Compared to their predecessors, the Tyler’s, the Polk’s were not rich, so there was less opportunity to entertain. Sarah’s low-key, sedate gatherings earned her the nickname “Sahara Sarah.” Sarah, did however, host the nation’s first annual Thanksgiving at the White House.
Just three months after departing from the White House to Nashville, James passed away. Sarah was left a widow at forty-five. She stayed in the Polk’s home in Nashville for the rest of her life. Sarah passed away on August 14th, 1891, forty years after her husband’s death. She was a widow for longer than any other First Lady.