Strong Pitt County Women: The Legacy of Rutha Dennis

by Maria Blais O’Laughlin

At the dawn of a new year, there are resolutions.  There are resolutions to lose weight, resolutions to save more, resolutions to live more simply.  New challenges to face, new adventures to enjoy. We’ve looked back at the previous year, made our decisions for change and detailed plans, and now we turn our faces to the horizon, looking forward.

We ask ourselves if we have the strength to carry out our plans. For, make no mistake – any resolution, be it small and personal or sweeping and epic – takes strength to achieve. Strength of character, strength of vision, strength of determination. An entire cottage industry is dedicated to building inner strength, and January is its biggest sales month.  Motivational calendars, books, and recordings will be available EVERYWHERE, convincing you that while you might not have what it takes on your own, you can get it with the help of several experts.  While I will concede that we all can use some help and guidance here and there, I firmly believe that the women of Pitt County are inherently strong.  

But, what if, when reviewing our 2018… we didn’t look back far enough?  What if the past has more lessons for us, more motivational stories, more examples of the kind of strength we’ll need to achieve all these new goals? What if I were to tell you that Pitt County women have ALWAYS been strong?

Rutha Dennis was strong. She was described as a tall and broad woman, a farm hand from near Ayden who in her young womanhood “could easily lift a barrel of turpentine and put it on a cart”.   Rutha was born in 1824, and by 1860, her parents having passed away several years earlier, was living with her older sister Martha and much younger siblings Jack Ann and Skilton.

The only boy and the baby of the family, Skilton was born when Rutha was seventeen. In 1862, the 21-year-old enlisted in the army,  and by June of 1864 found himself in a hospital near Richmond, smack in the middle of a smallpox outbreak. Word reached home to his sisters, and Rutha began to walk.

Rutha Dennis walked from Ayden, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia, and upon arrival at the makeshift hospital, approached a guard and asked for her brother.  The guard assured her that Skilton was indeed there, but that she could not be admitted without a pass.  Sliding a large, gleaming knife from the pocket of her coarse homespun skirt, Rutha replied, “If Skilton Dennis is in there, I’m going in if I have to wade through knee deep blood.” Not surprisingly, she was admitted without delay.

Conditions in the hospital were dire, and were exacerbated by the general scarcity of food, clothing and basic necessities by the end of the war.  Undaunted, Rutha stayed for weeks, tirelessly tending to the sick; nursing those who might recover and shrouding those who had passed on.  When her baby brother was considered well enough to travel, she walked right out the front door of the hospital with him and brought him home to Ayden.  The records show Skilton as “absent without leave” from September of 1864.  My bet is that no officer was willing to stand up to Rutha!

Skilton would go on to marry twice and leave eight children to sire the Dennis line that still prospers in Pitt County.  While Rutha never married, she lived to the ripe old age of 80 and was beloved by all who knew her. While she may have had a gruff and imposing exterior, Rutha was the embodiment of strength and compassion inside.

This tale of Rutha Dennis has been shared frequently through the years.  The guard at the hospital, Mr. Irvin, told the story to a Mr. Amos Joyner, who in turn told his sister, Mrs. Charles McArthur.  Amos’ sister wrote an article about Rutha which appeared in The Daily Reflector on 4 January 1941.  In 2001, Mr. Roger Kammerer submitted the article to the Pitt County Genealogical Quarterly, where I stumbled upon it online.

So, this year, as you tackle your resolutions? Think of Rutha. When you face hard times or experience unexpected emergencies? Think of Rutha.  Kids all have the flu at once? Think of Rutha.  Call it gumption, resolve, fortitude or strength – set your mind to the goal, and stay the course.  And remember that, just as Rutha Dennis was a strong Pitt County woman…so are we all.

For more information about the services of Maria O’Laughlin, professional genealogist and owner of Family Fondue Genealogy,
call 757-755-7900, email, or visit
the website at Whether it’s historical information or personal family history, Maria is equipped with
the right skills to assist you.

McArthur, Mrs. Charles, “Recites Heroic Incidents of the Civil War Days”, The Daily Reflector, 4 Jan 1941, Greenville, NC; submitted by Kammerer, R. as “Rutha Dennis Remembered” and reprinted in the Pitt County Genealogical Quarterly, Feb 2001, p 10, Pitt County North Carolina; image, Digital NC ( ) accessed 6 Dec 2018 
1860 U.S. Census, Pitt County, North Carolina, population schedule, Greenville, p 182 (written), dwelling 1488, family 1448, Martha, Rutha, JA and Skilton Dennis; image, ( accessed 6 December 2018; citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 910. 
US, Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865; Skelton Dennis, Company E, NC 55th Infantry Regiment; image, ( ) accessed 6 December 2018.