Elizabeth Roulstone: Our first female publisher and elected official

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

So, it’s 1804 and you already have five children with another on the way. And your husband dies. You’re only 27 years old. What do you do? Well take over his business, that’s what.

This is the story of how Elizabeth Gilliam Roulstone became, arguably, Tennessee’s first female publisher. Born in Virginia around 1777, she moved with her family to what was then the Southwest Territory following the Revolutionary War. Her father, the dashingly named Devereaux Gilliam, was a veteran who fought at King’s Mountain. In 1785, he moved to what is now Knox County to establish Gilliam’s Station in East Knoxville near Forks of the River with land grants earned from his service in the war.

First issue of the “Knoxville Gazette”

In 1794, Elizabeth married George Roulstone. A native of Boston, he was lured to Knoxville by William Blount, then the territorial governor, who wanted him to bring his printing press along. George launched the “Knoxville Gazette” in 1791, becoming the state’s first newspaper publisher. His was the only press in the territorial capital that later became the state capital. He printed the Tennessee Constitution in 1796 and the first law books for the state. “The Laws of the State of Tennessee” were commonly referred to as Roulstone’s Laws.” George was also the elected, official state printer.

George was only 36 when he died in 1804. Women were not allowed to be executors of estates. Those duties were handled by Elizabeth’s father and brother. But they had no experience in running a printing press nor publishing. It is likely Elizabeth had worked along with her husband before his death.

As it were, George had been recently re-elected to his position of state printer before his untimely demise. While the male executors officially ensured the tasks that came with the position were completed, it was Elizabeth who knew how to get the work done as well as continuing the publication of the Gazette.

The position of state printer was up for reelection in 1806 when Knoxville was still the state capital. While the competition was apparently fierce, Elizabeth won out over George Wilson, owner of the only other printing press in town. Granted, she was elected by the legislature. But with that victory, she became Tennessee’s first female elected official (barring some unknown evidence to the contrary). There are documents from that time that bear her official stamp – “Elizabeth Roulstone, State Printer.”

Though her accomplishments were significant, making life as a single woman on what was still, basically, the frontier wasn’t easy. In fairly short order she remarried an older man, another Revolutionary veteran named William Moore. With that, everything that was hers for that brief period legally became his.

Though it all belonged to William, he essentially became Elizabeth’s apprentice at the printing trade. Following the death of one of her children in 1808, the Moores packed up their printing press and moved to Carthage, Tennessee. There they launched the “Carthage Gazette.” Both it and its Knoxville cousin have faded into history.

Elizabeth died around the age of 47 in 1824. Her place of burial is unknown. Her home in downtown Knoxville was on the southwest corner of Locust Street and Cumberland Avenue. It is believed her first husband is buried in the graveyard at First Presbyterian, but there is no marker showing where.

Knox TN Today credits the research and work of Curator Annabeth Dooley of the Tennessee State Museum for the information provided in this article.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com.

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