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PRESIDENTS Tar heel birth sites preserved



Published: Sat, February 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Two -- and maybe three -- presidents were born in North Carolina.

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- American history is being preserved at the North Carolina birthplaces of two of the nation's early presidents, James K. Polk (1845-49) and Andrew Johnson (1865-69).

Although their legacies have been overshadowed by other 19th century presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, both Polk and Johnson served at critical times in history. Polk pushed an expansionist vision during his term, adding about 500 million-square-miles to the West. Johnson, vice president under Lincoln, helped heal the struggling nation after Lincoln's assassination.

Their birthplaces draw visitors from around the country.

"Presidents and the lives of presidents are touchstones of American history," said Victor Gordon, program manager at Mordecai Historic Park in Raleigh, where the Johnson birthplace is located. "They've been celebrated for a long time."

'The land of opportunity'

Polk was born in Mecklenburg County in 1795 and has the more extensive site, including a memorial and log buildings that date to the early 1800s. The state historic site is run by the Department of Cultural Resources on part of a 250-acre farm that belonged to Polk's parents, Jane and Samuel.

His family sold the farm when Polk was 11 and they moved to Tennessee to join relatives. Polk returned to the state to attend the University of North Carolina and then returned to Tennessee, where he studied law and established a practice.

"Tennessee was the land of opportunity at that time," with lots of cheap acreage, said Jeff Bockert, site manager at the James K. Polk Memorial in Pineville.

Polk served in the U.S. House and later was elected governor of Tennessee. He won the White House by campaigning in favor of annexing Texas and occupying Oregon. His administration also acquired the California territory, resulting in an unpopular war with Mexico.

"Had the Civil War not occurred, Polk would have probably been known as one of our most famous early presidents," Brockert said.

Reward for staying loyal

Johnson, a tailor who had little formal education, followed a similar Volunteer State path to power, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and as Tennessee governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln's vice president.

Johnson was born in downtown Raleigh in 1808, the son of Jacob and Mary Johnson. Both his parents worked at a large inn near the state Capitol, his mother as a weaver and his father as a horse-keeper. Jacob Johnson also worked as a janitor at the state capitol building.

At 16, in trouble for throwing rocks at a man's house, Johnson moved to the town of Carthage, where he established a tailoring business. He moved later to Tennessee, where he began a political career.

Though Johnson was a Democrat, the Republican Lincoln chose him as his vice president in the 1864 presidential campaign because he was the only senator from a rebellious state to remain loyal to the United States during the Civil War.

Impeached and acquitted

Johnson ascended to the presidency when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. In 1868, Johnson's battles with the Republican congressional leadership over plans for Reconstruction resulted in him being the first president impeached by the House of Representatives. He was acquitted by one vote following a trial in the Senate.

The two-story building where Johnson was born has been moved several times over the years, and is now located on about 2 1/2 acres in Mordecai Historic Park.

Also at the site, which is a mishmash of historical interpretation run by the city of Raleigh, are an antebellum plantation home and two 19th-century office buildings. A chapel built by slaves in 1847 sits across from the entrance.

The olive-gray clapboard building, recently repainted, has a gambrel roof with wooden shingles. The cramped first floor has period pieces, including a spinning wheel and cooking utensils, to show what the building may have looked like when Johnson was born.

And what about Abe?

Lincoln himself may have had North Carolina roots, according to two North Carolina researchers.

In their 2003 book, "The Tarheel Lincoln," Catawba Valley Community College history professor Richard Eller and retired schoolteacher Jerry Goodnight argued in favor of a decades-old claim that Lincoln was the illegitimate son of a North Carolinian named Abraham Enloe.

Eller and Goodnight theorize that the 16th president was born in southeastern Rutherford County, near the town of Bostic, about 60 miles west of Charlotte.

Traditional claims that Lincoln was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Ky., are based on a statement written by Lincoln a few months before he was nominated to be president.

"When we started, I was pretty skeptical," Eller has said. "When we got into it, it started to make sense. And when we put more of the pieces together, it makes good sense."

Officials at Lincoln's official birthplace, a National Park Service historic site near Hodgenville, Ky., say they doubt the claim.




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