The elder daughter of Captain Joel and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress, Sarah grew up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was schooled first in Nashville, then at what is now Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of the few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century.
James K. Polk had begun his first year's service in the Tennessee legislature when they were married on New Year's Day, 1824. He was 28 and she was 20. There was a tradition that Andrew Jackson had encouraged their romance. He made Polk a political protegé, and Polk represented a district in Congress for 14 years. The Polks had no children of their own, but raised a nephew, Marshall Tate Polk (1831-1884) as their personal ward. After her husband's death, Mrs. Polk assumed guardianship of an orphaned niece, Sarah Polk Jetton (1847-1924), and raised the girl as her own.
Sarah Polk accompanied her husband to Washington whenever she could. They soon won a place in its social circles. Sarah helped James with his speeches in private, copied his correspondence, and gave him advice. While she enjoyed politics, she also cautioned him against overwork.
A devout Presbyterian, Sarah Polk refused to attend horse races or the theater. When James returned to Washington as President in 1845, she stepped to her high position. She appeared at the inaugural ball, but did not dance.
Contrasted with Julia Tyler's waltzes, the Polk entertainments were noted for sedateness and sobriety. Although some accounts stated that the Polks never served wine, a Congressman's wife recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the White House--glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby port and sauterne, "formed a rainbow around each plate." Mrs. Polk was said to be popular and respected.
Only three months after retirement to their new home "Polk Place" in Nashville, James Polk died. (He had the shortest retirement of any former US President).
Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years. She lived through the longest retirement and widowhood of any former US First Lady, and wore black always. During the Civil War, Mrs. Polk stayed apart from sectional strife. She continued to receive leaders of both Confederate and Union armies. All respected Polk Place as neutral ground. She lived there until her death. She enjoyed a long life, almost to her 88th birthday. Sarah Childress Polk was buried beside her husband, at the Tennessee State Capitol grounds in Nashville, Tennessee.
Only 41 when her husband became president, Sarah Polk outlived several of her successors: Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eliza Johnson and Lucy Webb Hayes. Only a handful of first ladies have lived longer -- Anna Harrison, Edith Bolling Wilson, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Bess Truman.