Ezekiel Polk

Ezekiel Polk
Born (1747-12-07)December 7, 1747
Cumberland County, Pennsylvania
Died August 31, 1824(1824-08-31) (aged 76)
Hardeman County, Tennessee
Occupation Soldier, Pioneer
Children 12

Ezekiel Polk (December 7, 1747 August 31, 1824), American soldier, pioneer and grandfather of President James Knox Polk, was the next youngest of five boys and three girls born to William Polk and Margaret Taylor Polk of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, near present-day Carlisle.[1] About 1753 the family moved southwestward to the southern boundary of North Carolina in what would become Mecklenburg County. His parents appear to have died shortly afterward, and Ezekiel probably was brought up by his older brother Thomas, the senior member of the family, a leader of the local militia and a member of the first and subsequent North Carolina provincial assemblies.[2] 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 (0.40 km2) 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.[3]

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.[4] He led his company against Loyalist forces in the battle at Reedy River in December 1775 and the following summer commanded 300 militia in a successful expedition against pro-Loyalist Cherokees.[5] 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." [6]

Polk may never have been entirely comfortable in South Carolina, and waning popularity and political enmities appear 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 (1.1 km2) farm about 10 miles (16 km) 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.[7]

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 Revolution 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 (10 km2) tract on the Duck River in what is now Maury County.[8]

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.[9]

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. (Some sources identify his second wife as a Polly Campbell.) Genealogical Notes on Ezekiel Polk By his third wife, Sofia Neely Lennard Polk, he had four children.[10] He died near Bolivar, Tennessee, August 31, 1824, and was buried in the Polk Cemetery at Bolivar.[11]

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[12]


  1. Mrs. Frank M. Angellotti, "The Polks of North Carolina and Tennessee," New England Historical and Genealogical Register, LXXVII (1923), 133-145, 213-227, 250-270; LXXVIII (1924), 33-53- 159-177, 312-330.
  2. Charles Grier Sellers, Jr., "Colonel Ezekiel Polk: Pioneer and Patriarch," William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. X, No. 1. (January 1953), 80-81.
  3. William L. Saunders (editor), The Colonial Records of North Carolina (Raleigh, 1886-1890), IX, 302.
  4. A.S. Salley, Jr., The History of Orangeburg County, South Carolina, from its First Settlement to the Close of the Revolutionary War, (Orangeburg, 1898), 389-395, 406-407, 414, 416-419, 424-425, 434.
  5. Sellers, 84.
  6. Robert K. Wright, Jr., The Continental Army, (Washington, D.C., 1989), Center of Military History, United States Army.
  7. Sellers, 84-86.
  8. Thomas P. Abernathy, From Frontier to Plantation in Tennessee: A Study in Frontier Democracy (Chapel Hill, 1932), 187-188.
  9. Sellers, 88-91.
  10. Angellotti, 8-13.
  11. Sellers, 98.
  12. Jackson Gazette, Sept. 13, 1824, printed two weeks after Polk's death from a manuscript in his handwriting. (Quoted in Sellers, 97.)

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