One of my favorite places to visit in Chapel Hill is the Morehead Planetarium on the University of North Carolina campus. Morehead combines two of my favorite interests within its walls; astronomy and history. I like to go to the Star Theater shows on astronomy that they put on in the lower level whenever I am in the area. The main front entrance to the building will lead you into the Genevieve Morehead Memorial Rotunda. Huge historical paintings line the walls in the rotunda surrounding a life size statue of UNC alumni President James K. Polk
Some researchers believe that Polk has an Iredell County connection. His parents were Samuel Polk and Jane Knox. Samuel was a farmer and surveyor and was born in Tryon, N.C. in 1772 to Ezekiel Polk and Mary Winslow Wilson. James’s mother Jane Gracy Knox (Nov.13, 1776-Jan.11, 1852) was the oldest daughter of James Knox and Lydia Gillespie. James and Lydia were married in Rowan County on Nov. 4, 1772. Lydia’s parents were Thomas and Naomi Gillespie. James’s father was John Knox, a likely descendant of the brother of Scottish Religious Reformer John Knox, and was born in Renfrewshire, Scotland on Dec. 24, 1708. John married Jean Bracy (Gracy) in 1730 in Coleraine, Londonderry Co., Ireland and they immigrated to America from there in 1740. They are both buried in the Thyratira Presbyterian Church cemetery in Rowan County.
John and Jean’s son James was born in Pennsylvania in 1752 and died Oct. 10, 1794 in Hopewell, Mecklenburg County. He is buried at the Hopewell Cemetery. James was a Captain in the American Revolution and he and his wife Lydia’s daughter Jane married Samuel Polk. Jane and Samuel’s had ten children the first of whom was James K. Polk who would become the country’s eleventh President. On July 23rd 1778 James enters into record 430 acres on the waters of Third Creek in what was then Rowan County, but would now be within the boundaries of Iredell County. Iredell County was formed out of Rowan County in 1788. It is here that some feel that President James K. Polk’s mother Jane was born.
Samuel and Jane son James K. Polk was named for his named for his mother’s father who had died two months earlier. Samuel’s father Ezekiel Polk gave him a 250-acre farm near his own land in Mecklenburg County. It was on this farm that James K. Polk was born. The family lived there for eleven years before relocating to middle Tennessee in 1806 following his father who had moved there in 1803. James K. Polk suffered from poor health while growing up and at the age of 17 attempted to travel with his father to Philadelphia in the back of a covered wagon to seek medical help. Polk’s pain became unbearable while traveling and his father was forced to take him to Dr. Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Kentucky who was closer. Polk survived an operation to remove urinary stones without anesthesia which restored his health. Historians believe the surgery may have left Polk sterile as he and his wife never had any children.
Polk had learned to read and write while attending a rudimentary school while still living in N.C. He later attended a school run by a Presbyterian minister named Robert Henderson who helped him get a formal education. Polk entered the University of North Carolina in January 1816 and graduated with a B.A. in June 1818 at the top of his class. He returned to Nashville to study law under trail attorney Felix Grundy and to serve as a clerk of the Tennessee State Senate from 1819 to 1822. Polk was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson and was elected to the House of Representatives in Tennessee in 1824. In 1835 Polk defeated John Bell to become Speaker of the House of Representatives and continued to support Jackson who was by now President.
J.K. Polk served as Speaker of the House from 1835-1839 and as Governor of Tennessee from 1839-1841. In 1845 he was elected as the country’s eleventh President serving from March 4, 1845 to March 4, 1849. He was the first President to retire after only one term and did not seek re-election. He died of cholera at the age of 53 three months after his term ended in Nashville. During his office he was responsible for the second-largest expansion of the nation’s territory. He secured the Oregon Territory which included Washington, Oregon, and Idaho then purchased 525,000 square miles through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. He oversaw the opening of the Smithsonian Institute, the U.S. Naval Academy, the groundbreaking for the Washington Monument, and the issuance of the first postage stamps in the U.S.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Ties bind President Polk, Iredell County” on Oct. 29, 2008