Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Sunday, June 11, 2017

Anne Royall, Pioneering Professional Journalist

Anne Newport Royall, Writer and Publisher (born 11 June 1769)

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, the daughter of William and Mary Newport, Anne Newport Royall was a writer and editor, frequently credited as the "first American newspaperwoman." 

As her early biographer writes in The Life and Times of Anne Royall (1908), the Newport family, like many of their contemporaries, moved "west," first to Virginia and then into "the frontier Pennsylvania" in 1772: "the men and women who moved into this so-called 'western' wilderness sought neither gold, nor adventure, nor the establishment of any one form of religious faith. Their sole object was to secure that blessing most highly prized in all ages by the Anglo-Saxon heart—a private home."

The family of four was not wealthy. Anne herself later enumerated their meager possessions: 
Our cabin, or camp, rather, was very small—not more than eight or ten feet. This contained one  bed, four wooden stools with legs stuck in them through augur holes, half a dozen tin cups and the like number of pewter plates, knives, forks and spoons, though my sister (very mischievous) broke one of the spoons and seriously damaged one of the plates, for which I was chastised. Besides these we had a tray and a frying-pan, a camp kettle and a pot; and our cabin was considered the best furnished on the frontier.
Like many of their neighbors, the Newport family found themselves under threat by displaced Native Americans. The family was forced to take refuge in a "fort," not so much a military stockade as a small settlement where several families lived--"if it could be called living," Anne would tartly write about life in such "pioneer forts."

After the early death of William Newport, Mary Newport remarried, her second husband a man named Butler, but he died in 1782 in an Indian raid. By 1785, in a terribly impoverished state, the widowed Mary Newport Butler moved her small family to Staunton, a small town in western Virginia, where she had relatives. She eventually took up a position as housekeeper for William Royall, a wealthy farmer in Sweet Springs, Virginia, who had been a major during the American Revolution.

William Royall seems to have recognized potential in the sixteen-year-old Anne--he undertook to have her educated, opened his library to her, and, in 1797, married the now twenty-eight-year-old woman.  

The couple lived together happily until William Royall's death in 1812; he left her the use of his estate in his will, but his family contested it, claiming the two were never legally married. Years of litigation followed, and although the will was upheld in 1817, that ruling was appealed, and in 1819 a jury annulled it.

Dispossessed of her husband's provision for her, Anne Newport Royall spent the next years traveling (primarily in Alabama) and writing, a collection of her observations about the state, later published by subscription as Letters from Alabama (1817-22). 

In 1824, she traveled to Washington, D.C., hoping to be granted a pension as a widow of a Revolutionary War soldier. (Her husband's family would, in 1848, claim her pension money.) There she met President John Quincy Adams, conducting what is sometimes claimed to be the first presidential interview by a woman. 

Adams also bought a subscription to support her publication of a new work, one that would recount her travel through New England. Leaving Washington, she traveled in New England. Her Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States was published in Hartford, Connecticut, under the pseudonym "A Traveller" in 1826. 

Her forthright critiques--she did not shy away from describing honestly what she saw and experienced--caused problems for her, with one critic deriding her as a "literary wildcat from the backwoods." Back in Washington, she suffered further indignities after she raised objections to a group of Presbyterians being allowed to meet in a publicly funded firehouse. A member of the congregation claimed Royall had cursed her and, once again, she found herself in court, where she was convicted of being a public nuisance, a "public brawler," and a "common scold"; she was fined ten dollars, her fine being paid by two local newspapermen.

Royall turned once again to traveling, publishing a novel, The Tennessean, in 1827, and then further selections of her travel writing: The Black Book, or, A Continuation of Travels in the United States, in 1828, and Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania, or, Travels Continued in the United States, in 1829. Her Letters from Alabama was finally published in 1830), and Mrs. Royall’s Southern Tour, or, Second Series of Black Books appeared in 1831.

Back in Washington in 1831, she also began publishing a weekly newspaper, Paul Pry, the first issue appearing on 3 December of that year. The newspaper included her own editorials, "excerpts from other papers, advertisements, letters to the editor–-and her lengthy replies." She was intent on exposing government corruption--and when postmasters refused to deliver her papers, she published their names, along with the names of subscribers who were late with their payments.

The title of her newspaper was later changed; under its new name, The Huntress, publication continued until 2 July 1854, just two months before her death, at age eighty-five, on 1 October. During those years, Royall continued to pursue cases of governmental corruption, fraud, incompetence, nepotism, and graft. She exposed corrupt practices that defrauded Native Americans, and while she opposed slavery, she also opposed the tactics of abolitionists. For good measure, although she disliked both alcohol and drunkenness, she also opposed temperance activists.

In assessing Anne Royall's longevity and her acquaintance, J. D. Thomas notes, 
 Her personal knowledge of the public men of her time is most remarkable. She met and talked with every person who filled the presidential chair, beginning with Washington and ending with Lincoln. It was probably on the occasion of his visit to Sweet Springs in 1797 that she saw General Washington. She chatted with John Adams in his own home when he was eighty-nine years of age. Lincoln she must have seen during his one term in Congress. She even met Lafayette on his visit to Boston in 1825. The great Frenchman gave her a letter in support of her pension claim.
(The persistent Royall finally got her pension when she was eighty years old, but it was--successfully--claimed by her deceased husband's relentless family.)

While I am always bitching about the Encyclopedia Britannica for its failure to include women, there is a brief article there on Anne Royall. So, yay?

For an excellent essay by Cynthia Earman, "Uncommon Scold," click here.

Sarah Harvey Porter's 1908 biography of Anne Royall is available in full by clicking here. Elizabeth J. Clapp's recent A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America is also available.

Many of her works are available online--the Internet Archive offers full texts for most of her works, while Letters from Alabama, for example, is at Google Books