Elizabeth Virginia Dimitry Ruth: Lost American Writer

Elizabeth Virginia Dimitry Ruth is something of a missing figure in Greek-American historical accounts. As a member of one of the first prominent Greek families in the United States, the extended Dimitry/Dragon families, Elizabeth Ruth does see passing mention in survey accounts.  But, “ah there’s the rub,” as they say, this is exactly the problem–Ruth is only mentioned in passing. While Ruth is continuously described by contemporary writers as among the first professional women writers who published at least one novel and one book of poetry (each to critical acclaim), one would have thought, by now, she would have already been the subject of a dissertation or an extended journal article dealing with her as a neglected but in truth notable Southern women writer. This is far from the case.

Exploring the life of Ruth also takes us into an area only now beginning to be revealed the ultimate passing of Greek-American communities as self-identified cohesive entities. For the most recently arrived Hellenes, business men and academics mostly, this day has long come and gone. While the denial of one group of Greeks with Hellenic identify by another self-identifying group of Greeks is an old game among us it is now beginning to take on new force. And in this period of church 100th anniversary church historical volumes, community-based genealogical societies and the growing establishment of archival rooms in churches across the nation and even the construction of museum buildings this thought is not one easily accepted. Egoism, boosterism, and the dread Greeks feel at revealing themselves to all perceived outsiders prevents this thought from being considered. Nonetheless it is still the case that there are fewer self-identified Greeks attending specifically Greek events and organizations than at any time since the mass migration of the 1880 to 1920 era. Ignoring what is happening will not make it go away.

Unexpectedly, “who were the Greeks in North America” is the question slowly entering the common gaze. Families long considered as Greek in American historical accounts such as those from the New Smyrna Colony, the extended Dimitry/Dragon families, or the Colvocoresses have all slowly faded from the consciousness of Greeks of the massive waves of immigration. Gone are the days when AHEPA conventions, of say the 1940s, would host descendants of the Dimitry or Colvocoresses families to speak about their ancestors’ trials and accomplishments.

And just like some natural law of science as the Greeks descended from the 1880 to 1920 era (and even more so those of the post -World War II) have forgotten, these earlier Greek arrivals to American shores so have the descendants of those persons come forward—in ever greater numbers—to publically assert their own Greek heritage. New publications and the social aspects of the Internet have each in their own way come to serve a new dynamic where the average person realizes the historical accounts offered by the dominant culture ignores them. Unsatisfied they write and document their own family histories. I have been astonished with how Facebook has come to serve as a unifying forum for the extended Dimitry/Dragon families not only as a source for providing detailed history from one individual or branch may possess but also as a highly successful venue to raise funds to care for ancestral gravesites.

So how does all this involve Elizabeth Ruth? As one of those long-ago Hellenes, Ruth’s life can service as a cautionary tale of what we may expect from future historians concerning our own ultimate place within Greek-American history.

Andrea Drussakis Dimitry (1775-1852), a native of Hydra, was a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans.  He is buried in the tomb together with his wife Marie-Anne-Celeste Dragon (1777-1856), the daughter of Greek-born Miguel (Michel) Dragon (1739-1821) and Marie-Francoise Chauvin Beaulieu de Montplaisir (1755-1822). Alexander Dimitry (1805-1883), son of Andrea and Marie-Anne is buried in a different location within the same St. Louis No. 1 cemetery.

Professor Alexander Dimitry was one of the most distinguished intellectuals of his day.  Over the course of his life Dimitry was an American diplomat, linguist and scholar. Dimitry was fluent in classical Greek and Latin. He spoke English, French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. He graduated with distinction from the college, Georgetown College, DC. In 1842 he established the St. Charles Institute in Louisiana, which he headed as the first state superintendent of public education in 1847. During his period as superintendent (1847–1851) he organized Louisiana’s public school system. In 1854, Dimitry was a translator in the U.S. Department of State; in 1859 he was sent as Minister to Central America by President James Buchanan.

Alexander Dimitry met and married Mary Powell Mills Dimitry (1816-1894) in Washington DC. Mills came from a family with lineage to the oldest colonial settlers in the nation. Her father Robert Mills (1781-1855), among many other accomplishments was the designer of the Washington Monument.

Born, according to her tombstone, on September 21, 1839, Elizabeth was known among her many brothers, sisters and close family friends as Eliza. By virtue of her birth and family’s social standing Eliza Dimitry associated with the most respected citizens of what was then called Washington City. On December 31, 1856, when no more than seventeen, Eliza married Enoch Fenwick Ruth. Ruth, who had commanded an Arkansas company in the Mexican War, obtained the rank of Captain and later became Commissioner of Indian Affairs. During their eleven year marriage the Ruths had four children: Elizabeth Dimitry Ruth, Genevieve Dimitry Ruth, Margaret “Madge” Ruth, and Fenwick Dimitry Ruth. In 1867, Captain Ruth died in Washington, DC.

After the death of her husband, Eliza Ruth settled in New Orleans. While the prospects for a widow in this era were grave Ruth established and for many years kept a flourishing private school for boys and girls. Supplemental to her school duties Ruth became one of the pioneer professional women writers in North America, writing under the name of Virginia Dimitry Ruth. By all available accounts Ruth proved to be an energetic contributor to Southern literature in prose and verse writing regularly for the national press as well as seeing her works of fiction and poetry published to wide acceptance. In this regard various accounts frequently couple Ruth along with her brothers, fellow writers (and unlike herself editors of magazines) John Bull Smith Dimitry (1835-1901), Thomas Dabney Dimitry (1850-1936) and Charles Patton Dimitry (1837-1910) whose novel The House on Balfour Street (New York 1868) saw numerous editions.

Elizabeth Virginia Dimitry Ruth died on September 22, 1891, on her son-in-law’s plantation in Carencro, Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. Elizabeth Ruth was buried at the Saint Peter Catholic Cemetery in Carencro.

Elizabeth Ruth’s life has many lessons to teach. Of how the prejudices of a particular time period can hide notable individuals. It goes well beyond women of one era being largely ignored by the male writing class. How did she perceive herself? What did she in fact write? The lives of these earlier Greek arrivals to American shores now seem to bear portents to our own fate as real Greeks from Greece down-grade us to use-to-have-been persons of some Hellenic descent. How will the future understand us? Who will tell our tales?


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