The President James K. Polk State Historic Site is comprised of 21 of the original 150 acres owned by Samuel Polk and his wife Jane Knox Polk when future president, James Knox Polk, was born here on November 2, 1795. Young James K. Polk spent the first 11 years of his life on the farm here until the family moved to the duck River Valley area of Tennessee in 1806. While here, the Polks maintained a farm that had livestock, produced cash crops like tobacco and cotton, and also included a kitchen garden to grow produce and medicinal herbs for the family's personal use. The cash crops and kitchen garden would have been tended to by Sam and Jane, the 5 Polk children who were born on this site, and the 5 enslaved individuals who lived on the Polk farm, along with other enslaved persons from nearby farms.
For more information about the enslaved Polks, click the button below.
History of Backcountry Kitchen Gardens
The kitchen garden today is representative of what the Polk's kitchen garden might have looked like as well as other family kitchen gardens in Carolina Backcountry. The primary purpose of a kitchen garden was to provide families living in the backcountry with essentials like food, medicine, textiles, and dye. While every kitchen garden would have looked different and had a different combination of plants, we used a popular four square central bed design and strive to have a large variety of medicinal herbs and produce that would have been grown by the Polks and similar families according to the season. Backcountry kitchen gardens were all unified in their utilitarian goal of providing for rural families and their needs. The settlers who came to the backcountry had to cope with unfamiliar weather and terrain, and they did so by creating spaces to meet their basic needs like kitchen gardens. These intentionally planned spaces were devoted to the cultivation of useful plants and stand in stark contrast to the luxurious gardens of the elite and upper-class that were created for artistic display and enjoyment.
What Was Grown?
There is a wide array of plants in our garden, just as there would have been in the Polk's and many other family kitchen gardens in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Plants and herbs would have been a mix of those indigenous to America, Africa, and Europe, which the settlers had brought with them due to their familiarity. Settlers who came from the Caribbean, along with enslaved peoples from there and Africa, brought tropical food crops that thrived in the Carolinas, along with the knowledge and expertise on as to grow and to prepare them. Sweet potatoes, okra, southern peas, sweet and hot peppers soon augmented cole crops such as cabbage, collards, and other root crops that British settlers knew so well.
Native American traders helped to introduce the food crops of America to colonists, most importantly the “Three Sisters”: maize (corn), beans, and squash. The corn was of kinds later known as field corn and was grown principally to be dried, stored, and shelled for winter use. Beans were grown mostly to be dried, shelled, and stored, sometimes with hot pepper pods to repel weevils. Squash varieties were mostly hard-shelled, winter-keeper types, not the early maturing summer squash that are so popular today.
In addition to produce, many herbs were grown in the garden for their medicinal value. In an undeveloped region with no access to medical professionals and no understanding of modern medical science, herbs were essential to keeping the Polk family and their chattel healthy and alive. Herbs such as tansy, boneset, feverfew, and many others were frequently used throughout the year as family members experienced sickness and other ailments. We continue to grow many of these medicinal herbs today, although we at the James K. Polk State Historic Site do not recommend using any of these “natural remedies” today, as oftentimes, the very herbs used for treating sickness were poisonous and could cause further harm and even death themselves.
Our kitchen garden is a smaller-scale recreation of what a backcountry kitchen garden would have looked like during the time the Polks lived in Mecklenburg County. While our garden is around 30x30 ft., the Polk family's and similar kitchen gardens would have been up to a square acre. The European style design has four raised produce beds divided by walkways with a continuous bed that goes along both the inside and outside of the fence.
While we have a modern fence around our kitchen garden, a wattle or split rail fence would have taken its place during the Polk's time. These fences were of vital importance to keep wildlife such as deer and rabbits out of the garden, as they would eat and destroy most any plant in the garden. Just like our kitchen garden, most were located in close proximity to the family's dwelling place in order to make it easier to access and easier to keep an eye on to watch for unwelcomed visitors.