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This Day in History: Annie Moore, first at Ellis Island

On this day in 1892, teenager Annie Moore becomes the first immigrant to pass through Ellis Island. Do you know about the mystery surrounding Annie? It’s only recently been solved.

 

Parts of Annie’s story were never in doubt. The 17-year-old left Ireland aboard the steamship SS Nevada late in 1891. For twelve days, she and her little brothers braved the Atlantic, intent on reaching American shores. Their parents were already in America; they’d gone ahead to establish themselves.

 

Annie was the first to leave her steamship when it arrived at Ellis Island. Some versions of the story claim it was happenstance: She left the ship because a longshoreman hollered, “Ladies first!” Others say it was a pre-arranged publicity stunt because Annie made an attractive “first” for the newly opened immigration center.

 

“There were three big steamships in the harbor waiting to land their passengers,” the New York Times reported, “and there was much anxiety among the new-comers to be the first landed at the new station. The honor was reserved for a little rosy-cheeked Irish girl.”


Clockwise from left: The Statue of Liberty in 1892, a sketch of Annie Moore by an unknown artist, and the original immigration center at Ellis Island.

As the first to arrive, Annie was presented with a $10 gold piece. “She says she will never part with it,” the Times noted, “but will always keep it as a pleasant memento of the occasion.”

 

And this is where the mystery of Annie truly started.

 

For decades, it was believed that Annie moved west with her family. The Moores were pioneers, living the American dream! It was said that Annie settled in Texas, where she married a man named Daniel O’Connell. She died tragically, run over by a streetcar when she was just 46 years old.

 

These events did happen to a Texan named Annie Moore, but few realized the wrong Annie had been identified. Nevertheless, the story had taken root to such a degree that even Texas Annie’s descendants believed it. Over the years, they were invited to—and attended—ceremonies at Ellis Island or in Ireland.

 

The real Annie Moore might never have been found but for genealogist Megan Smolenyak. She’d been working on a documentary about immigrants when she ran across an item in old Census records: Texas Annie couldn’t have gone through Ellis Island. She’d been born in Illinois.

 

It took Smolenyak years to solve the mystery.

 

As it turns out, the real Annie never left New York. Instead, she’d lived with her parents in a tenement in Manhattan. She eventually married a salesman at a local fish market. The couple had many children, but only 5 survived to adulthood. Annie lived in poverty, unfortunately dying of heart failure when she was 50 years old.

 

When Smolenyak contacted Annie’s relatives in Ireland, they were stunned. By contrast, Annie’s family in America had always known the truth, but they’d become resigned to the rest of the world being wrong.

 

“We’ve always known that Annie Moore, our grandfather’s sister, was the first person at Ellis Island,” Michael Shulman shrugged when the truth was finally uncovered. He’s a financial advisor in Maryland.

 

Indeed, while Annie lived in poverty, her descendants have thrived. Her story, in many ways, is the classic American one: The sacrifices and hard work of one generation set up future generations for success.

 

America has always been a place where hard work can get you anywhere.

 

“I liked that her family was typically American,” Smolenyak concludes. “Within just a couple generations, they climbed the socioeconomic ladder and they had married people with all sorts of different backgrounds. That, to me, is part of the magic. Annie’s story is our story.”

 

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