A rose for Susan

A photo of my great-grandfather labeled “Fred Athearn, brother of Mary Goodrich.” Shared by Eric Anderson of Houston

Next week’s fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing is sure to bring back strong emotions for many NEHGS members and staff. While I was removed from the drama by an entire continent, I remember feeling a certain newfound closeness due to genealogical work I’d just begun. I had previously never heard of Watertown, and all of a sudden I was reading about a shootout in that town where ancestors had settled in the 1630s. The strongest connection I felt, though, was when law enforcement announced that “persons of interest” had been identified through photographs … because I also had identified a “person of interest” that week in the same manner.

Like many orphans, my great-grandfather longed to know about the family he’d lost at an early age. Fred Goodrich Athearn had little trouble tracing his father’s family back to seventeenth-century Massachusetts, but all he knew about his mother was that she was named Susan or Susanna Goodrich; that she had been a friend of the Polish actress Helena Modjeska in Anaheim, California; and that she was probably an actress herself. From the family Bible he knew that she was born in February 1843, married his father in June 1873, and died in October 1877.

Three generations of my family went to their graves not knowing anything more about Susan Goodrich, but thanks to online genealogical resources and the very naïve faith of a beginner that anything could be found if only one used the correct search terms, I managed to track her down during my free trial of Ancestry.com.

I tried out various combinations searching for my great-great-grandparents’ marriage record. I didn’t find it at that time, but what popped up was even better: the picture of a little boy labeled “Fred Athearn Goodrich.” In addition to the unmistakably similar name, there was something about the eyes of this small child that felt most compelling. (OK, definitely not an acceptable level of genealogical proof – but it felt genuine, nonetheless!)

I tried out various combinations searching for my great-great-grandparents’ marriage record. I didn’t find it at that time, but what popped up was even better…

There were other pictures posted of people related to the little boy, including a mother named Suzane, and two older sisters named Eva and Mary. I was confused, because my great-grandfather had never indicated that he had sisters! Fortunately the man who’d attached the pictures to his online family tree responded immediately to my message.

One of the little girls pictured was his mother’s mother’s mother, and two different stories had been passed down in the family about her mother, “Suzane.” One said that she was an actress from Mexico or Spain, the other that she was a native of Los Angeles whose family owned tracts of land in Southern California. His mtDNA test indicated that his maternal line was from a West Coast Indian group. Other than that he knew very little, since his great-grandmother was orphaned[1] and had died as a fairly young woman.

Wedding portrait from 1873, when Susan married Frederic William Athearn, from an album passed down in the family of her second husband’s brother, Levi Starbuck Athearn. Shared by Kathy Downie of Drain, Oregon

I got busy (in all of my naïve newbie earnestness) and set out to find “The True Story.” Within a few days I’d uncovered many records that revealed the identity of our mysterious great-great-grandmother. “Susan Goodrich” turned out to be a California native whose first husband was a man from Maine named Fred Goodrich. My great-grandfather would be so surprised to know that he was named for his mother’s late husband, instead of bearing her maiden name as he’d always believed!

This was all very exciting, but I ignorantly thought it was the end of the line in tracing this lady’s family. Fortunately my distant cousin who owned the pictures knew about the Huntington Library’s[2] online Early California Population Project. Through California’s mission records, he was able to find the baptismal record for our mutual great-great-grandmother: Maria del Refugio Susana Elizalde was born 12 February 1843, and baptized the same day at the Los Angeles Plaza Church – consistent with the Athearn family Bible’s information. The same database allowed us to trace all of her ancestors back to the beginning of California’s Spanish colonization.

Discovering my great-great-grandmother’s identity substantially changed my own. Through her I am a ninth-generation Californian, and heir to a culture very different from the British, German, and Scots-Irish ones I grew up knowing about. When I visited Susana’s unmarked grave eighteen months later, I’d planned to bring flowers but couldn’t find any for sale. Then I noticed two ladies putting red roses on a nearby grave. With tears in my eyes, I asked if they would share a rose for the grave of my long-lost great-great-grandmother.[3] It turned out to be the perfect tribute to a woman whose name and identity had been obscured for more than a century: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

A rose rests on the unmarked grave of Susana (Elizalde) (Goodrich) Athearn in the Anaheim Cemetery.


[1] Mary and Eva Goodrich were enumerated in the 1880 census at the Los Angeles Orphan Asylum, an institution for girls run by Roman Catholic nuns. Their younger half-brothers, Fred and Levi Athearn, were boarding with a couple in Anaheim named William and Nancy Robb. Mary and Eva also had an older half-sister, Helen Goodrich, who was enumerated in 1880 with the family of her maternal uncle, Albion Baker.

Eric Anderson has another version of Susan’s wedding portrait labeled “Suzane Rivera.” In retrospect we’re not sure whether Rivera might have been her stage name; perhaps confusion occurred over the years because some of her ancestors were part of the company of soldiers led by Fernando Rivera y Moncada that explored California.

[2] http://www.huntington.org/Information/ECPPmain.htm

[3] Many thanks to the family of Gloria Lopez Hogue for their generosity!

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.

5 thoughts on “A rose for Susan

  1. Remember Pamela that Spanish children have two surnames. She may have been Rivera Elizalde or Elizalde Rivera. The census taker may have chosen to record only one surname. Another possibility.

    1. Thank you for the excellent suggestion. It is definitely tricky doing research for this time and place, with sometimes four or five given names and the possibility of double surnames (though in practice I have never seen double surnames on census records at this time). In this particular case I’ve been able to trace Susana’s family back in all lines to her great-grandparents and none had the name Rivera.

  2. Still enjoy reading this Pamela! It hits on all the finer points and you tell it so well. Happy for you to have found her.

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