Roun’ the Ole Pock Tree

In the spring of 1816, they met on the “Cumberland Mountain.” William Rountree traveled towards Huntsville, having recently purchased slaves in North Carolina. Sally Rountree fled from Huntsville to her family’s home in South Carolina.

As the actual Cumberland Mountains stretch downwards from south-central West Virginia, hug the Big Sandy River that separates the Bluegrass from the Old Dominion, and finally file down into foothills in northeastern Tennessee – the Rountrees likely ran into each other not too far from modern day Knoxville.

Neither expected to see the other as they crossed the Carolinas, but fate does things like that.

William Rountree spoke to Sally and asked his wife why she crossed these mountains. “He learned to his astonishment,” that Sally Rountree intended to leave him. William’s 1822 divorce petition claimed that she did so without cause, possibly for the hell of it. Now, we have plenty of examples where a spouse left another due to flights of whimsy or prolonged affections for a previous lover. These seemingly unprompted desertions usually occurred during the first few years of marriage.

The Rountrees wed in 1793. They ran into each on “Cumberland Mountain” in 1816.

Unless Sally Rountree woke up after 23 years of marriage and realized that some far away South Carolina might be better than here, it appears that William’s petition might lack for facts.

Luckily, Sally sued him right back. Through her suit we encounter some far more likely causes of the Rountree separation.

Two years previous to this serendipitous meeting on the mountain, in 1814, Sally’s mother died in South Carolina. She immediately set out for her father’s house “and there remained for seven or eight weeks.” It never occurred to Sally Rountree that leaving her husband alone in Madison county might not be prudent. For although she left for only two months William Rountree managed to get into some mischief.

Upon her return she found her husband “severely afflicted with a disease… and it being of a contagious nature it was communicated to [Sally Rountree] on her first reception in the home of her family.”

Apparently William Rountree found himself among spinsters during her absence and “a complaint called the pock or clap,” found itself among William Rountree.

He denied everything, claiming “he had no criminal familiarity,” with various prostitutes. She believed him, for a time, but found it difficult to do so while laid low by “the pock.” Eventually the local doctor, a man named Higginbotham, came to tend her illness; he inspected her in a process that left Sally Rountree “indecently exposed,” and eventually suggested that “she ought to be bled and take a dose of salts.” A treatment program that Sally Rountree refused. Her reticence either stemmed from some belief in William’s denial of his whoredom or her awareness of the mortality so often associated with Heroic medicine.

Her condition steadily improved. In contrast, William Rountree’s web of lies slowly collapsed. The rumors and gossip of the town quickly reached her and assuming that “she was not bound by civil or moral law to live with a man of such base conduct,” fled from their shared home when the opportunity arose – which is how she ran into her husband on “Cumberland Mountain.”

She told him she was leaving.

Three years later William Rountree found himself suddenly responsible for an “infant child of his son,” who had been delivered unto him by a young woman. No mention is made of why William Rountree’s son could not help care for this child, or the exact nature of the anonymous young woman’s relationship with the junior Rountree. All we know is that William Rountree, a rich nineteenth-century man, had no idea how to care for an infant.

He reached out to one of the only women he knew.

Sally Rountree arrived back at his home under a few conditions. Firstly, William must no longer frequent prostitutes. Secondly, he must provide her with an alimony totaling one-half his estate as “a compensation for her silence.” Thirdly, they would live apart but still present themselves as husband and wife.

William Rountree quickly fell back into his whoring ways and nosy neighbors spread the news of their estrangement. Disgusted by her husband’s lascivious nature Sally Rountree demanded her full alimony and left for the home of one of her many local son-in-laws. Prior to her departure she selected a “nearly grown” enslaved girl named Visney, a bed, a saddle horn, and some other furniture to take with her. William Rountree also agreed to pay her five hundred dollars in three installments, either for her maintenance or silence – depending on which suit you find more credible.

Temporarily sated, she absconded to the far reaches of Madison county, yet when William Rountree failed to make more payments she threatened to sue for divorce. So he did it first. As we can see she quickly counter-sued and William dropped his original petition when Sally threatened to reveal his penchant for paid sex.

However, the judge eventually made a decision during Sally Rountree’s case. She had left for South Carolina, she had no witnesses as to William’s infidelity, and she currently resided elsewhere – having even received money and furniture from her husband as a form of support.

On May 17, 1824, William Rountree received his original divorce from Sally, during her petition of divorce from him. He needed pay her no more money, as the judge ruled all the previous gifts sufficient alimony, and he now exercised all the rights of a single man.

It sucked to be Sally Rountree.

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