Life of First Ellis Island Immigrant Revealed

The first immigrant to disembark on Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a young woman who has gained near-mythic status in the years since her arrival from Ireland in 1892. But it turns out Annie Moore isn't the person she was thought to be. Now her real story has been brought to light. Renee Montagne speaks with genealogist Megan Smolenyak about Moore's life.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to the story of the first immigrant to disembark at Ellis Island. Her name was Annie Moore. She was just 15 when she arrived from Ireland in 1892. Ellis Island had just opened that day, and Annie Moore led hundreds down the gangplank to the sound of steamer whistles and bells into the arms of New York's dignitaries who bestowed upon her a gold coin. Then Annie Moore disappeared into the streets of New York.

That is until a century later. When Ellis Island was renovated, a bronze statue of Annie Moore was unveiled, along with the tale of what happened to her. She'd gone West the tale went - Texas - married a descendant of one of Ireland's great patriots and died tragically. It's a tale widely circulated today, and it's wrong.

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak happened upon the mistake by chance.

Ms. MEGAN SMOLENYAK (Genealogist): I was working on a documentary about four years back and it was on immigration. And so I thought it would be great to track down the descendants of Annie Moore for the documentary. And I went and did some digging on the family that the story's always told about. And, lo and behold, I find a document that says that that Annie was born in Illinois. And I dismissed it at first, because there are errors in documents all the time. But I went digging some more and found another one that said Illinois - Illinois. And I realized, well, obviously you didn't have to immigrate from Illinois.

MONTAGNE: This being a big moment in American history, how did the historians get the wrong Annie Moore?

Ms. SMOLENYAK: This is actually a classic situation. We all have exaggerated family stories, and they get passed on and embellished with each generation. And this particular family had a real Annie Moore in their family, and her daughter, when she became elderly, decided that her mother, who had died young, was the Annie. And so she told her relatives and, you know, you never question Grandma. And so they just spread it amongst the family.

But this happened to coincide with the reopening of Ellis Island. There was actually a documentary run on PBS all about Ellis Island, and it talked about the real Annie. And so somebody from the family picked up the phone and called the folks in the documentary and said, hey, that's my great-grandmother. And before you knew it, the story started spreading. Nobody bothered to question it. Nobody looked at the paper trail.

MONTAGNE: So you sort of figured out something was wrong. I gather you offered a $1000 prize this summer to anyone who could actually help you find the real Annie Moore that was the first person at Ellis Island.

Ms. SMOLENYAK: I did. I dabbled myself over the years. I tried to find the real Annie Moore. But Annie Moore, it's like being named John Smith. It's looking for a needle in a haystack. I needed help. So I launched a contest on the Internet and I basically just opened the door.

I said, okay, $1000 for the first proof of the real Annie. And a bunch of gung-ho, eager genealogists all started sort of blogging, sharing their results, cross-posting. And we piggybacked off of each other's research, kind of tough going.

Finally, though, Brian Andersson, who's the New York City commissioner of records, he found what I refer to as a smoking gun document that proved that at least we were on the trail of the correct Moore family. That right there was a giant step forward. And from there, I did a bit of a surround and conquer to find some family members actually of her brother Phillip, one of the little brothers that came with her. And I managed to track down some distant relatives who were able to give me just enough tidbits to find the actual Annie and what became of her.

MONTAGNE: And found who?

Ms. SMOLENYAK: We found the real Annie. It's a classic immigration story. She had a tough, hardscrabble life. And she was not a Texan; she was a New Yorker. So she spent her whole life actually in New York. And very typical of an Irish Catholic immigrant, she had a lot of children, at least 11 of them, watched over half of them die by the age of three. Just had a really tough life.

But her family's gone on to do quite well for themselves. And she's got amongst her descendants, she's got investment counselors, she's got Ph.Ds. They've got pretty much every ethnic group you can think of. If you want Italian, if you want Irish, if you want Jewish, if you want Scandinavian, you can count them amongst her descendants.

MONTAGNE: When you called her descendants, what was a typical reaction to the news that their grandmother, great-grandmother, was the first immigrant to disembark at Ellis Island?

Ms. SMOLENYAK: It was interesting. When I called the descendants, most of them actually knew. And they had sort of resigned themselves to the fact that another Annie's story was being told. But there's one branch I located that had no clue. And they were all excited because actually one youngster in the family had just done an Ellis Island unit in school and had to take on the role of an actual Ellis Island immigrant having no clue at the time that their great-great-grandmother was Annie Moore.

MONTAGNE: Genealogist Megan Smolenyak will be joined by some of those descendants today at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society to officially announce the real Annie Moore.

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