Polk was born in Anson County in 1837. He was a graduate of Davidson College. During the Civil War he served with the 26th and 43rd North Carolina Regiments, until he was elected to the state legislature in 1864. After the war he was a newspaper editor, agrarian leader and the state's first Commissioner of Agriculture. He later served as president of the National Farmers' Alliance. Polk died in 1892, just before he would have been nominated for the Presidency of the United States.