To most people, Ruth Bowie, or “Miss Ruthie” as she was called, was just a friendly old lady with a sense of humor and a sweet tooth. What they didn’t realize was that she was also a historical figure in the county.
When she died in 1955, she not only was the oldest person in Frederick County (anywhere from 105 to 110 depending on which account was used), she was also the last person in the county who had been born into slavery.
As old as…
No one made an official record of Ruth Brown’s birth in the mid-19th Century. The 1900 U.S. Census listed her as 40 years old, but by the 1920 census, she had aged 25 years.
“Nobody knows just how old Miss Ruthie is, least of all Miss Ruthie herself,” Betty Sullivan wrote for the Frederick Post. Sullivan also noted that Ruth couldn’t remember ever celebrating a birthday as a child.
She is believed to have been born on the Asbury Mullinix Farm in Montgomery County. However, Kay Mehl wrote in the Sun Magazine in 1955 that Bowie was born elsewhere and “’just a toddler’ when sometime before the war she was sold in Montgomery County to a family named Mullinix.”
The Asbury Mullinix farm was located at Long Road off Long Corner Road in Damascus. It was part of a small community called Mullinix Mill, but the buildings burned down long ago.
Ruth’s parents were Wesley and Letha Brown.
Marilyn Veek, a research assistant at the Maryland Room in the C. Burr Artz Library, found the description of Asbury Mullinix’s slaves in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules. In these documents, slaves are listed by their description and owner rather than their name.
In 1850, Mullinix owned seven slaves, including female aged 28 years, 14 years and 6 months. On the 1860 Slave Schedule, he owned nine slaves, including three females ages 11, 8 and 4.
“Since Ruth Bowie’s obituary indicates that she may have been born between 1845 and 1850, it is theoretically possible that she could be the female slave aged 6 months in the 1850 and the female slave aged 11 years in 1860,” Veek wrote in an e-mail.
Veek also noted that Ruth’s parents were listed in the regular 1860 census, which implies that they have may have been freed. That census also only lists them as having a single daughter, 1 year old, named Ann.
“One possibility is that they had been freed by Asbury Mullinix, but that their older children had not, and remained as slaves on his farm,” Veek wrote.
Bob Hilton, a great-great grandson of Asbury Mullinix, suggested another possibility. The Browns may have been freed slaves who still worked for the Mullinixes.
“Asbury had a habit of freeing slaves at 30 years old,” Hilton said. “They just never left the place.”
This had to do with Mullinix’s view of slaves. Hilton has a set of letters exchanged between Mullinix and a doctor in Virginia. In the letters, the doctor argues that slaves aren’t even human while Mullinix says that, yes, they are human, but they are like children who need to be taken care of.
The Browns were still living in the same area in the 1870 census. They are listed as having three daughters, Ellen, Mary and Susan. Ruth Brown doesn’t appear in the 1870 census associated with them.