Cover image for Polk's folly : an American family history
Polk's folly : an American family history
Polk, William R. (William Roe), 1929-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Physical Description:
xxxi, 512 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Maps on endpapers.
Personal Subject:
Geographic Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E179 .P76 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The grand saga of American history told through the story of one remarkable family--a chronicle of pioneers and generals, presidents and scoundrels, cowboys and killers, Southern belles and civil rights heroes. In 1680, a Scots-Irish mercenary named Robert Pollok fled war-torn Ireland with his family, in search of safe haven and a better life in the New World. When Robert (now using the name "Polk") arrived in Maryland, the only land available was a wretched piece of swampfront the locals derisively dubbed "Polk's Folly." From this desperate and hardscrabble beginning, the Polk clan would flourish, and generate some of the most fascinating and colorful characters in American history. When William Polk was a boy in Texas, he sat rapt as his grandmother Molly spun tales of family lore, of Civil War heroes and rascals, presidents and slaves, Indian traders and fighters. Polk would go on to have a long and prestigious career as a historian and diplomat, but he kept his grandmother's stories alive for his children, and when he retired, decided to research the truth behind the family history. And what a history. In these pages one finds drafters of an early Declaration of Independence, oft-wounded soldiers of the Revolutionary War, women taken hostage by Indians, land speculators, slaveholding aristocrats and populist crusaders, one of our greatest presidents, Civil War generals and foot soldiers from North and South, a grandfather who shot the sheriff of Laredo and became a cattle baron, the founders of the Wall Street firm Davis Polk, Patton's lead tank commander, Martin Luther King's lawyer, and the author's amazing brother, a World War II Navy pilot and journalist who was the first casualty of the Cold War. The saga of this family is the story of the United States.Polk's Follyis both epic in scope and intimate in detail--a unique book about our shared past. When Bill Polk was a boy in Texas, he sat rapt as his grandmother spun tales of family history, of Civil War heroes and rascals, of presidents and slaves, Indian traders and fighters. Throughout his long and distinguished career as a historian, Bill kept her stories alive for his children, and when he retired decided to approach his family story as a historian would. And what a history. In these pages one finds drafters of an early Declaration of Independence, oft-wounded soldiers of the Revolutionary War, women taken hostage by Indians, land speculators, slaveholding aristocrats and populist crusaders, one of our greatest presidents, Civil War generals and foot soldiers from North and South, a grandfather who shot the sheriff of Laredo and became a cattle baron, the founders of the powerful Wall Street firm Davis, Polk, Patton's lead tank commander, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s lawyer, and the author's amazing brother, a Navy pilot and journalist who was the first casualty of the Cold War. The saga of this family is the story of the United States. It is both epic in scope and intimate in detail--a unique book for an age obsessed with the past. -->

Author Notes

William R. Polk taught at Harvard and was later Professor of History at the University of Chicago, and he is the founder of the Adlai Stevenson Institute.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Historian Polk traces the history of his distinguished family from 1670 to the present in this epic testament to his roots and the American experience. The author's illustrious ancestors include James K. Polk, eleventh president of the U.S. and architect of the war with Mexico; diplomat and financier Frank Polk; and James H. Polk, a self-made Texas cattle baron. The more contemporary Polks profiled feature war heroes, a foreign correspondent, and a civil rights attorney. Attempting to write the history of the U.S. through his own family's story, Polk succeeds largely due to the longevity, the diversity of experience, and the restless pioneer spirit evidenced by the Polk clan through the succeeding generations. This old-fashioned family saga is brimming with enough adventure, humor, pathos, triumph, and tragedy to appeal to a broad range of readers. A uniquely American odyssey. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Polk family history is a vast and fertile territory, studded with an early revolutionary (Thomas Polk), a general who battled Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War (Leonidas Polk) and an American president (James K. Polk), not to mention a widow who was nearly wedded to the Prince of Wales (Sarah Polk Bradford). Drawing on a wealth of family documents, the author (a State Department official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations) sketches the exhausting Polk saga, from Robert Pollok's 1680 arrival in what became Somerset County, Md., to stirring accounts of various Polks' heroism in WWII. The book's center of gravity, however, is the meticulous diary left by President Polk, which was never intended for publication and offers a behind-the-scenes account of the Mexican War. Named for the parcel of swampy land where the Polks first settled in America, Polk's Folly says as much about one family's misadventures as it does about the grand processional of American history. Polk does an admirable job of setting his family's journey within the context of the young nation's travails, but the almost painterly details afforded by family documents are occasionally overwhelmed by grand brush strokes of historical narrative. The most telling moments occur in minor historical footnotes. During the Civil War, for example, General Polk was killed by a cannon shot fired just a few feet from a distant cousin, a soldier in the Union army. The book is most enjoyable when it delves into such details of the Polk family, least absorbing when it rather dutifully and without much color recapitulates widely documented historical events. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Prolific author Polk (Passing Brave and Neighbors and Strangers), former Harvard and University of Chicago history professor, shares with readers the results of his passionate search for notables in his complex family tree. What is revealed is always dramatic, colorful, and humorous, as well as tragic. His familial saga begins in 1670 and progresses to the present, highlighting many noteworthy figures along the way. Besides, of course, President James K. Polk, there is Frank Polk, a diplomat who helped uncover the Zimmerman Telegram that helped bring the U.S. into World War I; James H. Polk, the author's grandfather, one of the great Texas horse and cattle barons; another James H. Polk, the author's cousin and the first U.S. officer to penetrate German soil in World War II; and George Polk, the author's brother, a journalist who covered the rape of Nanking and the Nuremberg trials. A fascinating, entertaining saga that illuminates American history. Highly recommended for popular history and significant genealogical collections.--Dale F. Farris, Groves, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Departure: "All the Tryles, Hardships,and Dangers of the Seas" Brought over from the wild Scottish borderlands to fight in Ireland, Robert Bruce Pollok knew the exhausting and bloody war of the guerrilla all too well. For him, combat became almost a diversion; it was marching that wore men out. Across the mountains and through the bogs that shredded seventeenth-century Ireland, trails were just beaten furrows that stopped abruptly at the many streams and gullies, forcing armies also to stop abruptly because bridges were then more rare than roads. To carry the wounded even a few miles on bullock carts was a wrenching experience which few survived. And to carry food to the soldiers across the rugged land was a tedious and expensive undertaking. As Robert had seen, the only way Cromwell could get food to his troops was off of boats or barges. Indeed, Ireland's first line of defense was its very poverty: no army could live off the land for long, and no army could feed itself at all if it moved far inland. But inland was where the Irish guerrillas were resisting English colonization; so inland the soldiers had to go. Like most soldiers, Robert probably feared and distrusted the sea. True, he had sailed over from Scotland, but on a clear day Scotland was within eyesight of the northeastern Irish coast; so Robert had never been really out at sea. At least not in a sea like the one he would have heard about from sailors in the port of Derry or seen crashing remorselessly against the desolate cliffs of Dunluce Castle on Ireland's northern coast. That coast he certainly knew firsthand in fights against the savage bands of robbers, pirates and even ordinary farmers who built bonfires to lure ships onto the rocks so they could prey on the stricken passengers. They were immortalized in the very names of their haunts--Tory ("outlaw") Sound, Bloody Foreland, Horn Head. No matter how strong the ship or how well armed the crew, once the sea and the shoals had done their work, no defense could be mounted against the raiders. Even the soldiers of the powerful Spanish Armada a century before had been stripped, robbed and often murdered; smaller merchant ships didn't have a chance. The fact that many of these robbers were fellow Scots gave Robert no comfort. He had often had to fight against Scots, and the pirates and outlaws on that coast were Highlanders who regarded Lowland Scots like Robert as virtual foreigners. No, there was no comfort in their national brotherhood. More distant and more luridly painted in the wild tales of sailors were the Barbary pirates who pillaged and kidnapped up and down the Atlantic coast and around Ireland. Wild tales aside, no one could deny the infamous cutthroats who, despite brave talk from government after government, still kidnapped, sacked and burned whole villages. Even the lord deputy, as the English styled the viceroy of Ireland, had been captured by pirates less than fifty years before. Raiders often sailed right up the loughs to attack town walls, although a man who knew how to fight or who took shelter in a strong house could probably protect himself and his family. Ashore, Robert must have felt relatively confident. He was a soldier. But encountering pirates at sea was quite a different matter. Indeed, an encounter with the sea itself was frightening enough. Chilling tales of shipwreck, starvation and cannibalization were the staple conversation of sailors. Here in Londonderry, such tales were nearly all anyone talked about. Some claimed to have had personal experience. Maybe that was boasting, the way sailors and soldiers will when they measure themselves against one another. But to settle any doubts, a few of the stories had been printed by the famous Oxford geographer Richard Hakluyt. Although Hakluyt's book Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America had been published some years before, the dire portrait he painted of travel across the Atlantic would present the true dangers for at least a century to come. Not that Hakluyt had intended to scare men like Robert away from voyages to America; far from it, he even wrote an enthusiastic treatise on agricultural possibilities in the New World. It was because he was engaged in promoting settlement there that he was taken under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth's powerful minister of strategic and intelligence affairs, Sir Francis Walsingham. England was already reaching toward empire, striving to catch up with Spain, and, surprisingly to our ears, was desperately worried about its "surplus" population. Its displaced peasants had begun to create an unruly, hungry and idle urban proletariat, as frightening to the ruling class as Rome's mobs had been to the caesars. Meanwhile, the younger sons of the aristocracy and the new commercial elite were greedy for the spoils of conquest and the riches of plantation; so, not surprisingly, government policy was to colonize the New World and Ireland. And government policy was popular. Even more than whatever strategic and commercial aims the government espoused, people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries hungered for knowledge of the world beyond Europe. Some learned men, like John Locke (who was almost exactly Robert's age), avidly studied reports of the explorations. They thought they could find the basis of all human society, and perhaps its philosophical justification, in accounts of the newly discovered primitive nations like the Roanoke Island Indians who, Captain Philip Amadas thought, were living "after the maner of the golden age." For Robert's contemporaries, the new discoveries were even more tantalizing than space exploration in our times. At the other end of their voyages were beings who, however exotic and bizarre their appearance and their actions, were human. How they got together to form communities or how they ruled themselves or were ruled by others was a sort of speculation more likely in the common rooms of Oxford or the drawing rooms of London, of course, than in rustic Ireland. There in Donegal, where Robert then lived, most people just loved a good tale of derring-do. And Hakluyt offered plenty of that. But a few, even in Donegal, thought they saw in the New World opportunity for riches and escape from the multiple tyrannies that afflicted their lives. Catering to each of these desires, and encouraged by government policy, Hakluyt and other paid publicists like the great poet John Donne had produced a stream of highly popular letters, pamphlets and books. Robert might not have read them, but he could not have avoided hearing their message; to him, that message was a mixture of hope and fear. Whether or not hope was before him, fear was certainly behind him. For his service as an officer in Cromwell's forces, he had become a marked man when the monarchy was restored. With religion setting the parameters of politics, Robert found himself on the wrong side of the divide. The monarchy not only had defaulted on the salaries and compensations of Scots soldiers but now regarded them as enemies. As old scores were being called to account, Robert decided he must leave before disaster struck. Gamble he knew his venture to the New World would be, but in his position gamble was better than certainty. In this state of mind, I imagine him sitting often on the walls of Londonderry looking down at the little bark moored in the calm, dark waters of the Foyle below, watching carpenters fitting new boards where storms had ripped them from the sides and deck. It would not have been a reassuring sight. And sitting there, he must often have mused over the tortuous path that had led him to this point of no return. It takes an act of imagination to follow him down that path, but from the effort, we can better understand both him and the America he and his family helped to build. So, let us begin where he did, in Scotland. Scotland was the anvil on which was hammered the cultural mold that shaped not only his life but also, in the more distant future, the lives of his descendants and many of the men and women who would form history in faraway America. Excerpted from Polk's Folly: An American Family History by William R. Polk All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Polk Family Membersp. xiv
Introductionp. xvii
1. Departure "All the Tryles, Hardships, and Dangers of the Seas"p. 1
2. Arrival "Polk's Folly"p. 42
3. Westward from Maryland "The Young Chief of the Long Knife"p. 67
4. The Revolution "The Colonists are not a Conquered People"p. 96
5. The Young Republic "That Hydra Democracy"p. 140
6. The Presidency "Mr. Polk's War"p. 186
7. The Old South "We build forever"p. 230
8. The Civil War "This hideous carnival of Death"p. 264
9. Revolution and Diaspora "When things go wrong, go west"p. 309
10. War, Boom and Bust "The worst of enemies"p. 355
11. America in a New World "They die often in abject fear in the dirt"p. 383
Notesp. 431
Indexp. 497