Sarah Dukes Offutt: A blank filled in

I’m doing what all genealogists are supposed to do (but especially during a pandemic): going through my folders and dealing with “the stuff.” I hold a piece of paper, consider its evidentiary significance, its value as an artifact, verify that I recorded the content and citation in my database, and then let it go….

But I can’t let go of this yellow piece of paper with my circular notes, because it represents the last family history conversation I had with my father (JSR). We didn’t have many of them.

That summer of 2008, I scribbled, scratched, and drew arrows as he provided the names of the siblings of his mother, Mary Ella Offutt, my grandmother, Moo-ma. The names were familiar to me (and I had met cousins of my generation as a child) but we had never tackled the topic in a methodical fashion. He died just a few months later.

At the bottom, I recorded: “Sarah Dukes is a blank.” Then, apparently incredulous, I wrote “No dates, No nothing?” He thought perhaps Sarah had died when his mother was 18 but, other than that, nothing. (He was off by just two years.) The loss my grandmother experienced at age 20 and carried silently throughout her life, is unimaginable to me. But I can imagine now that she learned stoicism from her mother.

I had a picture of Sarah, taken right here in Baltimore in the late 1870s, at 1 North Gay Street. A face without a story.

That void launched a satisfying journey of family networking, on-site research, and sleuthing from my desk. The article that resulted was published in the Maryland Genealogical Society Journal in August 2017, the issue that was also my first as editor. Here’s how I put it in the teaser:

Little was known about Sarah, but researching her story offered a chance to visit nearby repositories and sites that figured in her life. Three cousins—one known and two “new”—shared family letters.

If you’d like to hear echoes of Sarah’s voice and learn about her unusual coming-of-age, you can download the article below. And now that I’ve scanned the scrap of legal pad paper, I should be able to let that go. Right?

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