Mary Frances “Polly” Cleveland Rusk, daughter of Benjamin Cleveland and Argin (Blair) Cleveland and wife of Texas revolutionary Thomas J. Rusk, was born in Habersham County, Georgia, on August 14, 1809. She had four siblings: James Cleveland, John Cleveland, Catherine Cleveland, and Ann Cleveland. Her father, a prominent citizen in Habersham County, had achieved the rank of general in the Georgia militia and served as a Georgia state senator. He had many land holdings in the area. On January 4, 1827, Mary Cleveland wed Thomas J. Rusk, who at the time was practicing law in Clarkesville, Georgia.
Mary and Thomas Rusk had seven children, but by the 1890s only one, John C. Rusk, survived. Two sons, Thomas J. and Alonzo, died in their infancy, and the only daughter of the family, Helena, died before adulthood in Nacogdoches. Cicero died serving in the Confederate army; Thomas D. died in Harrison County in 1875, and Benjamin died in Austin in 1885.
Prior to their lives in Texas, the Rusks lived in Clarksville, Georgia, where Thomas worked and formed several business connections with miners and land speculators, as well as with his father-in-law. These connections propelled the Rusks to move to Texas in 1835; two of his associates had embezzled funds from their corporation and ran off to Texas with the booty. Thomas Rusk pursued them as far as the Sabine River but was unable to recover the stolen funds. This journey led him to the town of Nacogdoches, and he decided to uproot his family from Georgia and begin anew at the frontier. Thomas, impassioned by the revolutionary fervor at Nacogdoches, joined the Texas Revolution.
Soon after their move to Nacogdoches, David Rusk, brother of Thomas, was charged to look after the family during the war and befriended Hugh McLeod, a soldier who later led the Texan Santa Fe expedition. Elizabeth Brooks in her Prominent Women of Texas (1896) included a colorful anecdote demonstrating Mary Rusk’s “self-denial, composure, and courage” during a town-wide flight that occurred due to a rumor of a potential Indian raid. McLeod screamed, “Hurry up or the Indians will scalp you,” to which Mary replied, “You will save your scalp if your horse holds out.”
Mary Cleveland Rusk was known for being very supportive of her husband throughout his long and successful run as a revolutionary hero and politician, through both council and occasionally active help. She died of tuberculosis on April 26, 1856, at the age of forty-six. She was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches. Her husband, devastated by her death and ill, committed suicide and was buried there the following year. A state-funded monument was dedicated to the Rusks and unveiled at Oak Grove Cemetery on September 27, 1894.