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Her Mother’s Daughter
Mrs. Royall has again appeared before the public, in her character of authoress. We know of no American lady of the present day, whose writings attract so great attention, or evince so close an observance of men and manners. The mother and a brother of Mrs. Royall live near us, with whom we have been acquainted several years—with the brother very intimately so. They are both persons of intelligence, and the old lady, apparently 90 years of age, retains a distinct recollection of the principal characters of the Revolution—particularly those of Virginia, her native state.
—CENTREVILLE (INDIANA) WESTERN TIMES, JUNE 27, 1829
In the spring of 1772, departing with the tides of migrants crossing the Allegheny Mountains into southwestern Pennsylvania for new land opportunities, Mary and William Newport packed up a three-year-old Anne and her baby sister, Mary, and left their native Baltimore, Maryland.
“I am genuine backwoods,” Anne declared upon her return to southwestern Pennsylvania in her late fifties. “A literary wild-cat from the backwoods,” a newspaper had responded. Anne shrugged at the lack of an available carriage or stagecoach to take her to her childhood home on Mount Pisgah in Westmoreland County and saddled up an old family friend’s horse, Fly, before setting off with great excitement into the rugged country for a rendezvous with her past.
Much that we know of Anne Royall’s early life, in fact, is based on her insightful yet often contradictory notes—written when she revisited an area or encountered a member of the family or an old friend—that peppered various books.
Ye who have been torn from the haunts of your childhood, and after a separation of half a century to enjoy the felicity of seeing those sacred spots, endeared by innocence and a thousand recollections, will know what I felt! To be borne on the stormy sea of life almost an age, far from the scenes of youthful innocence, to which your heart was wended, and would give worlds to see! Thus, on a sudden, to hail those dear and “long between” but never forgotten shades, where often I used to sit and weave the many colored leaves, and stray after a Mayapple, was joy unutterable!
While the joys of nature on the Newports’ family farm on the slopes of Mount Pisgah didn’t last long, they provided the background in Royall’s writings of some of the earliest American descriptions of the area. Anne recalled witnessing wolves and other predators trotting by her well; she penned portraits of traders who emerged from the forest, writing about her first look at a cube of sugar; she chronicled the life of a German hermit, draped in gourds, who lived peacefully among the various indigenous tribes that had continued to push back against the encroachment of the unyielding settlers.
Such experiences in nature, and her place in it, shaped much of Anne’s literary form and identity as a self-described “backwoods westerner.” The imprint of this backwoods upbringing defined much of Anne’s relationship with the rest of the world: at once in denial and defensive, and also haughty and defiant. Years later, feeling snubbed by the famed Noah Webster, the eminent Federalist editor and author of An American Dictionary of the English Language, who once eyed Anne with “ineffable scorn,” she quipped to her readers that “we backwoods folks are not learned ourselves,” but “we have a warm liking for learned people.”
Anne, of course, wasn’t the first to invoke the backwoods badge of courage. In 1827, Tennessee pioneer Davy Crockett had already taken Washington by storm, “fresh from the backwoods, half horse, half alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle.”
Nor did literary endeavors take it on the lam in the backwoods. Anne excitedly pointed out where the log cabin schoolhouse once stood. Describing how her father taught her to read at an early age, Anne recalled sitting alone on a stump before the cabin door and reading until nightfall, in the backdrop of nature’s immense arena.
But the beauty inimitable of the scenery arises from a happy combination of images: like a well woven wreath, every thing is in its place—every shade and attitude is happily matched. The Loyalhannah, rough and foaming, but straight, the Connemaugh, winding in a smooth serpentine; the Kiskaminitas, flowing in a broad, smooth stream; the symmetry of the canal; the rural village; the sealike meadows, all intermingled with a towering foliage in nature’s richest dress. Imagine yourself raised to the sudden height of from three to four hundred feet, and embracing an extent of three counties, in harmonious stillness, while you are seated aloft upon an even green, which seems to sit smiling at the rolling streams, and all the airy gems of polished nature. Such is the view from Mount Pisgah: but chiefly I loved to dwell upon the Loyalhannah. It was the only image of the whole I recollected.…
When I took my last look of this, I seemed to leave my soul behind! The spring, where the wolves passed the dim path, where lay the snake—the slope, up which the hermit Stephen used to come. But how shall I bring my swelling heart—yes, how—to touch the tender string which, and forever, binds me to the small tranquil spot, where waves a small sugartree, as if to perpetuate the day, when surrounded by the lords of the forest, I sat upon the low stump at the cabin-door and learned to read.
The so-called lords of the forest did not accept the infringement of Anne’s settlers. Requiring more protection from indigenous attacks, the family moved from Mount Pisgah to the far western margins of Pennsylvania, near the Hanna’s Town settlement, where the first English court had been founded west of the Allegheny mountain chain. By 1775, Anne’s father vanished from the narrative, and her mother remarried another settler named Butler, had a son, and soon lost her second husband. The worst tragedy, however, took place on July 13, 1782.
Despite the surrender of the British in the fall of 1781 and the authorization of peace treaty negotiations by the British crown in the spring of 1782, battles of vendetta continued to rage across the Ohio River Valley and into southwestern Pennsylvania.
Considered by some historians as one of the last acts of the American Revolution, British troops joined Seneca leader Sayenqueraghta in a full-scale attack on the settlement of Hanna’s Town in the summer of 1782. Given its historic importance as the county seat and courthouse for Westmoreland County, a rival to Pittsburgh, and in retribution for the earlier Patriot burning of Sayenqueraghta’s village, the community was leveled by the joint forces, who torched 30 cabins and all the buildings with the exception of the fort, where town residents, including Anne Royall and her mother and siblings, took refuge. Only two people were killed. The attack, though, left nothing but charred ruins, which nature soon reclaimed. Hanna’s Town disappeared from the map.
Anne never forgot the traumatic experience; it informed her sense of survival and, strangely enough, provided a context for much of her longtime defense of Native American rights. “The present generation have scarcely any idea of the privations and trouble of settling the country,” she wrote in her chronicles. She saw the American flag for the first time in Hanna’s Town, she noted in a letter, and forever returned to that moment when she viewed the flag in other places. “And with it all the sufferings of those trying times. I suffered all that human nature could bear, both with cold and hunger. Oh, ye wealthy of those times, little idea had ye of what the poor frontier settlers suffered.”
Perhaps that last line could have been aimed at her future husband, William Royall, and the sneering Sweet Springs inhabitants in western Virginia who doubted her pedigree. “On that day,” she added, referring to the attack on Hanna’s Town, “my heart first learned the nature of care.”
Later in her life, newspapers and historical accounts went off the edge of romance in recasting Anne’s fate in the frontier attack with her eventual rendezvous with William Royall. Placing her into the pages of the novel The Last of the Mohicans, which was published in 1826—the same year as her first book—one writer described Anne as a larger-than-life “Indian captive” who “remained with the savage tribe until she reached womanhood.” Another magazine finished the story: “Captain Royal [sic], an officer in the Continental Army and one of the heroes of Valley Forge, hearing that a young white girl was a prisoner of the Indians on the banks of the Ohio River, resolved to rescue her.” The dashing young soldier married the girl, who, “save in color and the Anglo-Saxon mold of her features, was of Indian blood.”
In reality, Anne and her mother and her half-brother James packed up their few belongings and joined a wagon party to Staunton, Virginia, in 1782, where a family relative resided. A single woman who hired herself off as a laborer, Anne’s mother fell from the status of a pioneer farmer to the indigent lower class, taking her children down with her. Anne’s first biographer, Sarah Harvey Porter, wrote that Anne winced at the fact that she had to sit in a different place in church on Sunday, separate from her upper-class school friends. However, in visiting Staunton in her later writings, Anne noted the “mingled emotions” of joy and sorrow, pleasure and regret, and the “thousand (nay, ten thousand) vicissitudes [that] rendered those objects melancholy pleasing.” Her most painful memory of their short residence in Staunton, though, involved another woman, who had sought to cross a river by ferry. “She looked tired, hungry, miserable,” Anne wrote, perhaps recalling her mother’s desperation or foreshadowing her future as a penniless traveler. The ferryman, who Anne identified as a local Presbyterian, refused to accept the woman’s few coins as payment, despite her cries that she urgently needed to cross the river. As he readied to leave without her, the desperate woman tore a handkerchief from around her neck and offered it. The ferryman took her coins and scarf and departed, leaving her in tears.
Such brutality and contempt for aggrieved women should have hardened Anne’s heart for her introduction to Sweet Springs, in western Virginia, her next stop on the road. Despite the kind entreaties to stay from family friends in the Staunton area, Anne and her mother understood their bottom rung in society.
Perched alone on a plantation on Peters Mountain in Sweet Springs, the eccentric William Royall adhered to a different order.
In the mid-1700s, Royall carried the mantle of one of the most aristocratic families in the Tidewater. The first Royall had arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, aboard the Charitie from England in 1622, when European inhabitants numbered in the thousands on the eastern shores of North America. A Powhatan uprising that year added to the precariousness of the unrelenting colonists’ survival. Within a generation, the Royall family possessed a prime thousand-acre plantation along the James River. The settlements grew and continued to push further west.
The second son of the county court justice, sheriff, and vestry for the local Anglican church, William Royall spent more time with his dogs and guns along the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers than among the circles of the wealthy planters.
Failing to finish his legal studies, Royall preferred the beguiling works of writers from the French Enlightenment, especially Voltaire, another aristocrat who had spurned his father’s career plans and dedicated himself to the defense of reason, religious tolerance, and civil liberties in an age of an absolute monarchy. Shipped off to run a tobacco plantation in Amelia County in western Virginia, the 20-something Royall suddenly found himself heir to the family fortune when his older brother and father both died in 1774.
Far from settling among the idle rich, Royall set out to use his wealth to provide supplies to Massachusetts after the English blockade of the Port of Boston cut off provisions under the Intolerable Acts. The young heir joined the Virginia militia, serving as both an officer and donor to the revolutionary cause, often outfitting his soldiers and contributing horses. By 1776, Royall rose to the rank of captain of the 2nd Virginia Regiment in the Continental Army, heading forays into some of the worst battles in the Carolinas. In a memorial filed right before his death, Royall chronicled his seven years of service in the revolutionary forces, from which he declined any pay or reimbursement of his expenses. Surrounded at one point by the British army, Royall barely escaped his death, fleeing on a horse as he assisted the Marquis de Lafayette against Lord Cornwallis in Virginia in the final days of the American Revolution. The tide turned, of course, and the Patriots, thanks to their French allies, rebounded in Virginia.
In the aftermath of Cornwallis’s surrender to George Washington at Yorktown in the fall of 1781, Royall took his rightful place as a House delegate from Amelia County in the Virginia General Assembly. But the allure of political power and its intrigues had little sway over his passions, and he disappeared without a word. One of his French Enlightenment heroes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had earlier admonished his fellow human beings in his “Discourse on Inequality” to be true to one’s “state of nature.”
Now in his early thirties, William Royall removed himself to the far reaches of Appalachia, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains, slowly fording a succession of saddled ridges toward a small valley settlement near the mineral waters of Sweet Springs. He secured a plantation along Peters Mountain in today’s West Virginia. The hemlock, white pine, and red oak, the drapes of spring flowers, the basins of streams inhabited by ruffed grouse, black bear, and bobcats—these would have all fascinated a naturalist like Royall, though he was hardly a stranger to the mountains.
Anne loved to recount the story of why her husband had abandoned the Tidewater elite for the rugged hill folk of her “Grison Republic,” which she nicknamed after the independent canton in Switzerland. Back in the summer of 1781, when the British forces moved across Virginia with little pushback, the General Assembly fled across the Blue Ridge to establish their temporary capital in the town of Staunton. Receiving word of the quick advance by the notorious British commander Banastre Tarleton, who carried out the infamous Waxhaw massacre of American Patriots, the General Assembly and militia members scattered from Staunton in all directions—with the exception of William Royall and, according to his wife, a gaggle of “old gray-headed men, and little boys, with their guns and shot-pouches on their shoulders, marching cheerfully on to meet the foe.” Tarleton’s attack never came, though, as the British leader returned to Yorktown. Outraged by the lack of courage by the elite legislators, Royall declared to the mountain folk, “You are fine fellows—I will disown my country, (meaning East Virginia) and come and live among you.”
Staking out his libertarian claim on Peters Mountain, Royall mingled among the constant influx of travelers to the valley, which was well known among the indigenous and colonists as a curative station, and earned the respect of the small community, including the Lewis family, who had designs on fashioning Sweet Springs into a resort town and area courthouse. He kept his door open to visitors, especially to his brethren in the Masonic Lodge. When a temporary courthouse was finally appointed in Sweet Springs, Royall served on the juries for the first few years before stepping away.
Author Van Wyck Brooks, in The World of Washington Irving, referred to the fledgling mountain resort as the “marriage market of the South,” where old men discussed politics as “invalids rejoiced in the breeze and healing waters,” and “young men and girls danced and flirted.”
While far from being a hermit, Royall clearly retreated from post–American Revolution society, which was undergirded by the rising merchant class and land speculators; instead, he wanted to replant the benevolent seeds of his eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers among the nature-bound mountaineers. He brought his library from Amelia County, and it included works by political radicals like Thomas Paine, the volumes of natural history by French writer Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, the satires and plays by Voltaire, and the works of English philosopher John Locke, who stressed the separation of church and state.
William Royall remained a bachelor for the next several years, emancipating some of his enslaved workers—though not all—who tended a farm that amounted to little more than a few head of cattle, and engaging in notable bouts of heavy drinking. Sarah Harvey Porter uncovered a fascinating detail on Royall during this time in an oral history that had been passed down by neighbors: the “eccentric” farmer, as he was considered, kept “cattle and horses in their natural state; there were neither geldings or steers to be found in the herd.”
The “quiet country” neighbors raised their eyebrows more than once at Royall’s affairs, especially when an ailing woman named Mary Newport Butler, afflicted by “nerves,” blood poisoning, and eczema, and her teenage daughter Anne and young son James appeared in Sweet Springs in 1787. Encouraged to visit the curative springs by the Lewis family, who had met the travelers a few years earlier in Staunton, the 18-year-old Anne—then Anne Newport—along with her sick mother and half-brother, found work at Royall’s plantation as servants. Whether he hired her out of pity or need, Royall’s employment of Anne’s mother as a maid caught the attention of the neighboring community as well. The same oral history passed along to Porter by relatives in the area recognized the disturbing role—at least for some—of Mary as a “wash-woman and menial—a subject of reproach of course to the slave-owning aristocratic neighbors; for few white women on our frontier had to be menials, and those only of the lowest class.”
William appreciated the inquisitiveness of the servant’s daughter at the door of his library. Her mother had always made sure Anne had access to books, purchasing a series of “little histories” that included classic stories like Moll Flanders, Seven Wise Masters, and Paddy from Cork when Anne was in her early teens. Now William opened the doors to Shakespeare; his beloved Voltaire; the French, German, and English thinkers in the Enlightenment; Paine’s “Age of Reason”; and a century of classics. “Had I not fortunately fallen in with a person of learning,” Anne wrote later, “I should have delved at ‘little histories’ all my life.”
As their relationship grew beyond the rapport of plantation owner and servant’s daughter, Anne soon spent more time in the library than at work, memorizing the lines from John Dryden’s Palamon and Arcite translation of The Canterbury Tales: “Some pray for riches—riches they obtain.” William invited Anne for walks; they toured the valleys on horseback. She became his confidant as much as his co-conspirator in his freethinking salons. She joined William in the evenings around the fireplace, and he beguiled her with stories of the American Revolution, lectures on Locke’s theory of natural law and natural rights, and tales of his hunting exploits with his dog, Spad. He invoked his role in the secret society of the Masonic Lodge.
William’s role as the master dominated their relationship; she was 18 years old, he was 40. She became his common-law wife. She openly took a seat aside William in the parlor rooms when visitors arrived. Anne variably recalled either a 20- or 23-year age difference.
The Lewis family refused to visit Royall once the relationship between master and servant’s daughter became clear. How dare Anne become the host of the plantation when Masonic brothers or outside visitors appeared there? William Royall treated her as an equal at the dinner table. They shared knowing winks one evening, Anne recalled, when William allowed a visiting lawyer to pontificate erratically on the historical roles of Cicero and Demosthenes. The Royalls remained quiet throughout the lecture, trading only raised eyebrows, until William could take it no more and blasted the aristocratic lawyer for being a “laughingstock” and knowing less than the family dog, Citizen. “What a pity this gentleman had not chosen the profession of a preacher,” Royall quipped.
While Anne was out sowing seeds one day “when dogwood was in bloom,” a servant with a “saddle horse” came for her and told her it was time to get married; a circuit-riding preacher had crossed over Peters Mountain on November 18, 1797. Anne and William married that day—she was in her late twenties, Royall in his late forties—though their certificate would not be officially registered until the spring.
Their marriage may have become official, but it remained tenuous to some. Anne wrote of her fear, especially in the presence of others, of laughing at or mocking her husband in any way. “My husband never laughed,” she wrote years later in a letter. “And [he] had a fashion of leaning forward, when displeased” that always made Anne tremble. “Nor did I rise from the table till he made the signal.”
Moments of tenderness did exist, Anne wrote, in what she described as a happy marriage, especially when she struggled through the “pouts,” a cryptic reference she made several times to lingering bouts of depression and “splenetic fits” of melancholy in the harder months of winter. The elder Royall always managed to restore her to “good humor,” often by using pet names.
For Elizabeth Roane and her husband, James, Royall’s anxious niece and nephew, the official announcement of matrimony was devastating. The interference of a wife into William Royall’s holdings only spelled trouble for them. Nonetheless, they remained in touch with their uncle through letters. In 1806, adding to their fears over inheritance, they learned that Anne’s young niece (from her sister who had remained in Pennsylvania) had come to live on Peters Mountain, introducing the first and only child at the plantation.
During their 16 years of marriage, the Royalls operated the small farm and added a lumber mill; they invested in land schemes near today’s Charleston, West Virginia. As William Royall’s addiction to alcohol became more apparent, even to outsiders, Anne began to oversee more and more of the daily operations. In a rare admission during a later dispute over a land deal, Anne noted the fraudulent nature of a transaction by William, given that he was “much intoxicated at the time.” Her duties, therefore, included handling a drunk and occasionally belligerent husband by any means necessary, though Anne claimed in court she had never performed an “intentional act of cruelty.” Stories began to circulate in Sweet Springs of strange sightings on Peters Mountain: Anne and her enslaved workers holding down the master, pouring cold water or even ashes to sober him up; William, running from the manor. Other friends, though, testified that William Royall typically ended up in a “fitt of frenzy” by the night’s end.
After William Royall’s ceremonial visit in 1808 to his family’s Tidewater homeplace, including a less than pleasant visit with the Roanes, it was clear that he had no intention of leaving his fortune behind for his niece Elizabeth Roane and her son, named after William. In an act of desperation, the Roanes sent young William, then a teenager, to visit Royall on Peters Mountain in 1811. The encounter didn’t go well. Young William made the rounds of the Sweet Springs taverns and collected stories about Anne, her nefarious reputation, and her mistreatment of his uncle. Roane sent a follow-up letter to his uncle, detailing his findings, including gossip that Anne had become intimately close with a young law student named Matthew Dunbar, a family friend who often visited the Royalls in the evenings and shared the family’s intellectual interests.
William dismissed the young Roane as a dilettante, especially compared to the curious Dunbar, one of the few young men in the Sweet Springs area that valued Royall’s library. Roane’s letter resulted in an unforeseen backlash. Most likely with Dunbar’s assistance, Anne took him to court for defamation of character and libel in his letters and actually won. Worse yet, Roane didn’t even know he had already been removed from William’s final will, which designated a distant relative and former Revolutionary War comrade, William Archer, as the new heir. Anne, in fact, was only to receive a typical dower and use of the plantation; her niece was granted a modest section of land.
The Tidewater relatives, emerging from their decaying plantations along the faraway coast, sought to diminish Anne’s presence and demand their rightful inheritance. As the only niece of the childless William, Elizabeth Roane and her debt-ridden husband had always been reliant on the benevolent uncle, who had gifted them estates and enslaved workers from the Royall family’s vast landholdings in the Charles City area, and had even waived $2,000 in a bond when one of their debts ended up in the Supreme Court of Appeals in Virginia.
The Roanes had effectively planned their future—and that of their son, William Roane—on their uncle’s assumed wealth and landholdings. Until 1808, in fact, William Roane had been the designated heir, at which time William Royall had made his last trip back to the Tidewater. Everyone noticed, especially the Roanes, that his health was in decline, and William Royall was a changed man. Something had happened back at his plantation in the mountains.
Within a year of William’s death on Peters Mountain in 1812, the Roanes filed their objection to the will in the southwestern Virginia county courthouse. They contended that the hastily drawn will in William’s shaky handwriting did not reflect his longtime promise of inheritance to the Roane family and was thus a forgery engineered by Anne. More so, Anne’s questionable character became the focal point of their petition: “William Royall never did intend to give his property” to Anne Royall, “a woman with whom he at first cohabitated without marriage, but whom he was afterwards induced to marry.” They pointed out possible errors in the will, including the date of the signatures by the witnesses.
The grand scope of William’s wealth, however, was misleading. Most of his eastern land holdings had been sold or given away. His remote Peters Mountain estate tended more toward nature than plantation; very little of the grounds could be cultivated. Only days before his death in the winter of 1812, Royall, aided by Anne, filed a petition with the Virginia House of Delegates for long-deferred compensation for his revolutionary service, nearly half a century late. “Untoward circumstances in this his grand climacteric of life, has in some measure already,” the Royalls wrote, “and may without the timely interposition of your honorable house reduce him to abject penury and want.”
Nearly seven years later, in the summer of 1819, Anne stood before Judge James Allen in a small courtroom in Fincastle, Virginia, with only two windows to one side and a chimney in the back, for the last hearing of a seemingly never-ending legal battle. Compared to the overflowing crowd of curious bystanders Anne would one day face in Washington, the Virginian courtroom was hauntingly empty, with no fans and a divided family. Only Anne, the two attorneys, and a handful of witnesses took seats; Elizabeth and James Roane were also in attendance. The Roanes had been challenging William Royall’s will since they received word of his death in the early winter of 1813.
At this point, of course, Anne had no public relations platform to defend herself; she was a distraught widow whose marriage of 16 years—after ten years of a quiet courtship—had seemingly disintegrated the minute the master left the house. In the words of a Revolutionary War friend of William’s, whose family had known Anne since she was in her teens, the master had simply kept her as a “concubine.”
All eyes turned to the evil woman who had dared to enter the house of Royall. William’s purported last will was a forgery, they charged, pointing at Anne as the perpetrator.
By the time of the 1819 trial, in fact, there was very little left of Royall’s assumed wealth. William’s death triggered an avalanche of creditors as early as 1813, all of whom had deferred payment on various transactions during the elder man’s lifetime. Anne sought to relieve some debts through the sale of enslaved workers, including a young man who had grown up on the plantation, along with exchanges of land. Once the wintry clinch broke on Peters Mountain in 1813, the widow Anne packed up her niece, now promised to be married, and two remaining enslaved servants and moved to Charleston, where she claimed they had been planning to relocate for years. She left the sale of the Peters Mountain plantation in the hands of a local auctioneer; without her presence or any advocates, the remote mountain holdings and manor brought in less than $500, a fraction of what she had expected. The marriage of her niece siphoned off more of her finances and engaged her in more debt. Within four years, a series of investments in the Charleston area, including the construction of a tavern and a foray into the booming salt trade, had all failed to materialize in any successful way, further draining Anne’s assets.
It all came to a halt in 1817 when a local court ruled in her favor on the will. Anne took what was left of her dower and holdings, including the last enslaved black worker named Davy, and saddled up a horse to leave the state. She declared her intent to join the wave of migrants pouring into the newly created territory of Alabama. Anne wanted to head even further west. Her sojourn in Alabama, though it would figure prominently in her development as a writer, did not last long. The court summoned her back to the mountains in 1819.
After 48 years of her life in the Appalachian Mountains, Anne had endured the cloistered valleys long enough. “One learns more in a day by mixing with mankind,” she wrote, “than he can in an age shut up in a closet.” Years later, passing through the region, she would reflect on her “Grison Republic” after hearing a fellow passenger in the stagecoach rave over the beauty she had left behind: “I have little partiality for the mountains,” Royall wrote. “I have suffered too much amongst mountains; they are splendid objects to look at, and sound well in theories, but nothing wears worse than mountains when you take up your abode amongst them.”
Anne’s lament, of course, went beyond the rugged realities of a mountain farm. “Confined to their everlasting hills of freezing cold,” the mountaineers lacked the enterprise and industry of westerners, as well as the “energy of mind, politeness of manners.” Their close-minded Appalachian ways, Royall declared in a dismal fashion, “presented a distinct republic of their own.”
On the last day of the 1819 trial, Anne approached the bench in the Fincastle courtroom, the persistent Roanes on the opposite side, and heard a veritable breakdown of her character, her womanhood, even her youth. The Roanes and their witnesses, all of whom had objected to Anne’s entry into high society, reduced her to an evil woman who had manipulated an elderly man. This narrative would be reclaimed years later, after the publication of her first book, when a Charleston editor, offended by her comment that no geniuses had ever emerged out of West Virginia, stated that “Mrs. Royall was for several years a resident of our (Kanawha) county (in Charleston) … for when she was resident among us her fortunes were humble and that, far from having attained the celebrity which now enables her to command a handsome subsistence by the prostitution of her pen, she then found it a convenient mode of adding to her pecuniary resources by other questionable methods.”
The identification of Anne as a prostitute, first launched when she was still a teenager at the home of William Royall, clung to her for the rest of her life whenever the discourse over decency appeared. While she never denied or responded to the allegations of cohabitation, Anne complained bitterly to her young lawyer friend Matthew Dunbar, whom she had been writing from Alabama during the winter of 1817, in a cryptic reference over the prostitution charge: “Were you not present when the news of the unfortunate _____ was announced?” The space for the word remained blank. She added: “The whole posse, with rage (instead of pity for the frailty of the sex) in their looks, hunted down their prey, more like blood hounds than human beings, and the forlorn sufferer was spurned from society.”
Judge Allen read the jury’s verdict, reversing the earlier ruling, and ended the six years of litigation. William Royall’s last will was declared “cancelled and annulled” given that the ailing Royall “died intestate.” Anne had to relinquish her “slaves, goods, chattels,” and even her books; her small dower went toward restitution of the legal proceedings and other debts. Granting the Roanes possession of the Peters Mountain plantation, which had already been liquidated, among other holdings, the ruling unleashed a series of complicated legal suits over a mound of debts and transactions Anne had incurred over the past few years.
Most biographers then place Anne back on the road to Alabama, where she would reside until 1823. Yet there is a critical gap in her Letters from Alabama, which would be published as a book years later, from the trial in 1819 until the spring of 1821. As biographer Bessie James noted from courthouse files, the Kanawha County court issued orders for the sheriff to seize Royall’s “goods and chattels,” as well as “her body.” James concluded, without any details or speculation, that “at this time, debtors went to prison. Anne could not pay, if she had wished to.” In 1934, West Virginia state historian Phil Conley wrote that Royall “was next heard of as being confined in the jail of Greenbrier County for debt.” Without any reference or documentation, Conley added, “Through the indulgence of a creditor, she was released about a year later.”
No records of imprisonment have survived, nor did Anne ever mention such an episode in all of her writings. At the same time, her insistent inspections of debtor prisons in virtually every town and city might suggest a lingering experience she had never quite resolved.
Years later, Royall would look back at the trial in 1819 with her dark gallows humor. Judge Allen, a towering figure, had the “handsomest face in the world for his age.” Nonetheless, “he ought to have been impeached” for her treatment.
Anne’s final visit to her mother in Indiana in 1830, recorded in one of her Black Book travelogues, would bring her many trials and her family’s journey full circle.
Having migrated with her son James Butler in 1809 to Kentucky and Indiana, Royall’s frail mother never knew of her daughter’s humiliating treatment in the various courtrooms—or the court of public opinion. Mary Newport Butler received little news from her “evil” daughter over the years; Anne remained the young woman, in her mind, she had naively brought to Sweet Springs in search of a cure for her ailments.
At the age of 78, Mary awaited her daughter’s arrival in a log cabin, not far from the Wabash River in Indiana. Once the “handsomest of her day,” Royall narrated, her mother now stooped over with a curved spine, shaking violently from a “palsy” that had affected her for years. She drank from a tube. Still, Anne captured her eyes, “as brilliant as ever,” and leaned in closely to hear only one audible line: “Well, never, never, did I expect to see you again.”
Royall saw her mother in a different light that day. Mary’s role as an herbalist and natural medicine expert, which Anne once mocked, now appeared to be legendary among the community; despite experiencing “every vicissitude of fortune,” she could sit back and have the pleasure of seeing her family “respectable, wealthy and flourishing.” Except, perhaps, for her famous daughter.
Anne couldn’t bear to bring her mother up to date on the trials and turmoil of her last years—from the fallout over William Royall’s will to her debts and misfortune, her flight from the mountains, and, even now, her trial as a “common scold.”
“I had met with a sad reverse of my fortune since I last saw my mother,” Royall wrote. “But it is one upon which I have never been able to converse, and she dropt it.”
Copyright © 2017 by Jeff Biggers