Anne Royall

Anne Newport Royall (1769-1854) was a pioneering travel writer, political journalist, and newspaper publisher. She embarked on a writing career to support herself in 1819 after a jury nullified her late husband's will, leaving her penniless. She is most noted for her nine-volume work on her travels in the United States and Letters from Alabama on Various Subjects in 1830.

Royall was born on June 11, 1769, to William and Mary Newport near Baltimore, Maryland. Anne was the older of two daughters. The family moved to western Pennsylvania and then settled near Hannastown (or Hanna's Town). Royall's father died around 1775, and her mother married a Mr. Butler, who died around 1782, shortly after the Hanna's Town Massacre of July 13, 1782. In 1785, Anne and her mother moved to Sweet Springs in present-day West Virginia, leaving Anne's younger sister with friends and taking her baby half-brother with them. Mother and daughter became servants to a wealthy Revolutionary War officer, Maj. William Royall, who took Anne under his tutelage. He encouraged her to read great authors such as Shakespeare and introduced her to the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire. In 1797, William and Anne were married; they had no children. In December 1812, Major Royall died, and Anne inherited 7,000 acres and seven slaves. Anne sold the plantation and perhaps four of the slaves and spent the next decade traveling in the South with three remaining slaves. She spent much of her time in what were then the Mississippi and Alabama territories. Royall wrote animatedly of her travels to Matthew Dunbar, her friend and lawyer.

In 1819, Maj. Royall's will was overturned. The details of the suit are not available, but creditors plagued her after the will was nullified, and she was left without any income. Between March 1819 and April 1821, Royall appears to have ceased writing letters to Dunbar, and Lucille Griffin, editor of the 1969 edition of Letters from Alabama, surmises that she travelled to Virginia to fight for her inheritance. In the meantime, she also decided to collect her letters to Dunbar in a book and publish them for income. In 1823, Royall travelled to Washington, D.C., to request a pension as the widow of a Revolutionary War soldier. Royall met with the Marquis de la Lafayette, who provided her a letter confirming that her husband had served under him during the Revolutionary War and appealed to then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who agreed to help her win a pension. At the same time, Adams purchased subscriptions to two volumes of travel books she was working on.

Travel writing was a popular genre as the nation was expanding, and Royall wrote in a lively, frank style, composing "pen-portraits" of famous people and sketches of the landscape where she travelled. She depicted everyday life and offered vivid, unapologetic descriptions of the language, habits, appearance, and manners of the people she met. A devoted fan of Andrew Jackson, she describes him in one of her Letters from Alabama at Melton's Bluff, Lawrence County, nursing the Mitchell family during a fever. She says he boiled and carried water to the ill, bathed them, gave them medicine, and ministered to the needs of the whole household, both the black and white members. Though Melton's Bluff seems to have been her favorite place in Alabama, she also spent extensive time in Huntsville, remarking on its expansion between her first visit in 1817 and 1822. She wrote about prominent residents such as LeRoy Pope, wealthy founder of the Indian Creek Navigation Company and the Episcopal Church in Huntsville and co-founder of the city of Huntsville as well as its first bank. Royall's narratives extend beyond descriptions of the people, however, and provide valuable geographical, agricultural, economic and political information about the time period in which she lived. She wrote to Dunbar of crop statistics, progress in road building and water transportation, humorous and tragic scenes she experienced in taverns and hotels, the language patterns of the common people, and plans for new buildings and enterprises in the many towns she visited. In her early letters to Dunbar, she presents details and descriptions of people and landscapes merely as correspondence, but after losing her inheritance, she honed her style for the commercial publishing market.

With Washington, D.C., as her home base, Royall travelled to every important city in the United States from 1823 to 1825 and met with prominent national politicians and businessmen who became a mainstay of Royall's writing. Pen-portraits of people such as Noah Webster, James Fenimore Cooper, and Ann Bailey were collected in Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States (1826), and she is reputed to have interviewed every president from John Adams to Franklin Pierce.

Royall's sharp humor and political leanings pepper her later books, including The Black Book, or, A Continuation of Travels in the United States (1828-1829), and Mrs. Royall's Pennsylvania, or Travels in the United States (1829). Royall praised her supporters, especially the Free Masons who had helped her financially, and wrote unflattering sketches of those who refused to help and of Christians who, in her opinion, did not behave in a Christian manner. A defender of the separation of church and state and a zealous critic of evangelical Protestantism, Royall became embroiled in legal troubles with the members of a nearby Presbyterian church in 1829 when children from a Sunday school class pelted her windows with rocks. She confronted their parents, reportedly cursed repeatedly at the congregational leader, and was arrested and charged with being a "common scold," an accusation of being a public nuisance that was carried over from England and used only against women. She was convicted and sentenced to pay a $10 fine and a $100 bond to ensure one year's good behavior. Two newspaper reporters paid her penalty in the spirit of defending the press.

The publicity from Royall's trial boosted sales of her books, and in 1830 she headed south for material for the three-volume Mrs. Royall's Southern Tour, or Second Series of the Black Book (1830-1831), in which she continued her descriptions of people and places and devoted even more energy to attacking political corruption and waste. In 1831, she settled down in Washington, D.C., and founded Paul Pry, a weekly subscription-supported newspaper that she printed in her own kitchen. In its pages, Royall's fiery wit took aim at government waste, incompetence, and fraud; she often visited the U.S. Senate to gather information. In November 1836, Royall reorganized the Paul Pry as The Huntress, continuing in much in the same style but also including literary material such as Charles Dickens' fiction. In 1848, she received her small widow's pension and continued to print The Huntress until July 1854. She died on October 1, 1854, and was buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Works by Anne Royall

Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the United States, by a Traveller (1826)

The Tennessean, a Novel Founded on Fact (1827)

The Black Book, a Continuation of Travels in the United States (1828-1829)

Mrs. Royall's Pennsylvania, or Travels in the United States (1829)

Letters from Alabama on Various Subjects (1830)

Mrs. Royall's Southern Tour, or, Second Series of Black Books (1831)

Further Reading

  • Clapp, Elizabeth. A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.
  • James, Bessie Rowland. Anne Royall's U.S.A. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972.
  • Porter, Sara H. The Life and Times of Anne Royall. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Torch Press Bookshop, 1909;
  • Stepno, Bob. "Anne Royall, No Cure for a 'Common Scold'." Newspaper Heroes on the Air. March 8, 2011;

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