Anne Newport Royall is considered “The first American newspaper woman” but she didn’t begin her newspaper career until she was 62. From the age of 51 to 62 she was a travel correspondent before settling down as the editor and publisher of the newspaper Paul Pry (later renamed as The Huntress).
In her years as a reporter and editor she had a very confrontational style. She continuously campaigned government corruption in Washington. In an expose she unmasked a nepotistic clerk in the House of Representatives who was padding the office payroll. Anne Royall’s interview of John Quincy Adams made her first time female reporter to interview a US president.
The story of Anne’s life is told, in detail, in A Centennial History of Alleghany County Virginia by Oren F. Morton in our American County Histories collection.
Anne Newport Royall
Anne Newport was born near Baltimore in 1769. In 1772 her parents moved to the mouth of the Loyal Hanna in the west of Pennsylvania. There the family lived in a log cabin only eight feet broad and ten feet long. It contained a bed, a puncheon table, and four stools, but there was neither a trunk nor a box, nor was there a tablecloth in the hut. Anne never saw a metallic pin until she was a grown woman. On the frontier thorns were used as pins and mussel-shells as spoons. But in possessing knives, forks, and spoons, the Newports were better off than most of their neighbors.
From the door could be seen a tree in which was the nest of an eagle.
Mr. Newport died before Anne was grown, and the widow married a man named Butler. An Indian raid in 1782 made her a widow a second time, and three years later she was at Staunton, Virginia, near which town she seems to have had relatives.
To find relief from a skin ailment, Mrs. Butler went with her children to Sweet Springs. Major William Royall, a well educated but reclusive local luminary and a zealous patriot of the American Revolution, invited her to become his housekeeper, and she accepted. Anne seems to have interested the old planter at once. She had a bright, retentive mind.
In 1797 the hermit-philosopher and the forest-bred girl were married. Their sixteen years of wedded life were childless but happy. The wife idolized her husband and his views were her views. Whenever the district court sat at Sweet Springs the house was full of guests. Toward the end of his life Royall was an invalid and was tenderly nursed. He died in 1813, making his wife and a nephew his executors. With the exception of one tract of land, he left his wife during her widowhood the use of all his estate. The will was at once disputed by another nephew and ten years of litigation followed. The relatives of Royall would not accept the widow as a social equal. They even denied that there had been any marriage, but this contention was overthrown by the courts.
Mrs. Royall was now quite alone. For a time books lost their charm and she had a great desire to see the world. It was doubtless the persecution by the relatives of Royall that made her say she could not love the mountains any longer. Yet it was an article in her creed that “one learns more in a day by mixing with mankind than he can in a year shut up in a closet.”
She sold a house and two lots and began her travels. From 1817 to 1825 she was much of the time in the South, especially in Alabama, for which state she had a liking. It was while she was there that the lawsuit was decided against her. She was dispossessed of her inheritance and even jailed as an imposter. The shock made her ill and to relieve her mind she began writing her first book. Yet she did not let this work interfere with going to Washington to secure the pension, to which as a widow, she was entitled.
Mrs. Royall’s first visit to the national capital was in July, 1824. The first statesman she met was John Quincy Adams, who paid her five dollars for an advance subscription, asked her to call on Mrs. Adams, and promised his aid in securing a pension. This promise he faithfully observed. She spent six weeks in Washington, and then journeyed to New England to collect further material for her book and to secure more advance orders. Under the title of Sketches of history, life, and manners in the United States., her first book was published at Hartford, Connecticut under the pseudonym A Traveller.
During the next five years Mrs. Royall visited nearly every town of consequence in the twenty-four states which then existed. Meanwhile she wrote a novel, The Tennessean, and nine more volumes of descriptive sketches. This prosperous period was brought to a close by the enemies her writings had created. Through a forced interpretation of a moss-covered law, Mrs. Royall was convicted of being a common scold, fined ten dollars, and bound over for one year. She was the first woman in America to be subjected to such an indignity. She would have retired to a farm, but had no means to purchase one. A trip South in 1830 yielded meager returns in a financial way, and on her return she was nearly worn out.
In 1831, Mrs. Royall took up her residence in the city of Washington, then a straggling town of cheap houses, muddy streets, unhealthful marshes, and perhaps 15,000 inhabitants. The national capital was her home for the remainder of her life. For the greater portion of this time she lived in a rented house standing in the northeast corner of the present grounds of the Library of Congress. There were shade trees in the yard and a good well. Then as now, the city covered a large surface and the widow could keep poultry. One day Richard M. Johnson, while vice-president, helped her catch a hen as he was passing the house.
Mrs. Royal was now sixty-two years of age. To keep the wolf from the door she set up a printing press in her own house, taking out a sink to make room for it. As sole editor and proprietor, she began the publication of a weekly newspaper. Her choice of title was not a good one. The name, Paul Pry, is calculated to make one think it was a yellow sheet, devoted to sensation and scandal. On the contrary, it was clean. The first issue appeared December 3, 1831. The first page was given to literary articles, the second and third to editorials, news, jokes, and miscellaneous matter, and the fourth to advertisements. In 1837 the title was changed to The Huntress. In the new form the paper was a distinct improvement, though less a financial success, owing to the antagonism of Calvinistic Protestants. Nevertheless, Mrs. Royall continued its publication until July 2, 1854, her death taking place three months later at the age of eighty-five.
In personal appearance Mrs. Royall was short and very plump. She had pink cheeks, fair hair, very bright blue eyes, and in her dress she was scrupulously neat. She was a good talker, was quick to laugh, and had a keen sense of the ridiculous. She was loyal to her friends, and young men admired her for her courage and her aptness in repartee.
Anne Royal was broad and intense in her patriotism, and she fervently desired the preservation of the Federal government. She was proud that the United States extends to the Pacific. She was enthusiastic over the Great West. She admired New England, where her books sold well. The people of New York she found immersed in business and lacking in refinement, and yet less aristocratic than those of Pennsylvania and the South. For the east of Virginia she had little liking, probably because her husband had turned his back upon it. With respect to slavery she was tolerant, and yet she did not think well of the institution. Major Royall was a slaveholder, but emancipated a boy.
Her newspaper was a free lance in a political way, and wielded an influence not to be despised. The things it stood for were usually those that make for social betterment. She was quick to detect graft and political schemes. On one occasion she was offered $1,000 if she would keep silent on a certain matter. She replied that she was not for sale.
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.
During her widowhood Mrs. Royall was very poor, and yet she was always generous. That she managed to travel so much is rather surprising. But when she made up her mind to go anywhere, she set out, and she managed to accomplish her purpose. Her husband was a freemason, and he had told her not to hesitate to call on the brethren of the mystic tie when help was necessary. She never called on them in vain. The Catholics and the Jews also showed her much kindness.
But Mrs. Royall was her own worst enemy. She did not mince her words at any time, and often they stung like a hornet. Her pen was caustic, because she had no patience with sidestepping and subterfuge on questions clear to herself and which she earnestly believed to be for the good of the public. It was the public men she flayed without mercy who were the means of keeping her out of a pension until she was more than eighty years old. Yet she never gave up the fight and was finally granted $40 a month.
All in all, however, America is the gainer that Anne Royall lived in it. Her greatest error lay in her shortsightedness while viewing the tares among the wheat.