Annie Moore entered the history books as the first immigrant to the USA processed at Ellis Island when the center opened on New Year’s Day, 1892. It’s unclear exactly how she came to be first off the boat, but one credible theory is that the ship’s captain called out ‘women and children first and other passengers stepped aside to let the 17 year old girl and her two younger brothers go ahead. The three youngsters were travelling by themselves to join their parents who had already settled in New York. That teenage girl stepped into the history books that day, but her path hasn’t been easy to trace.
Over the next 60 years, more than 12 million immigrants would follow in their footsteps through Ellis Island. The processing center was part of a new approach to immigration to the USA. Previously, states had regulated immigration – or not. So the Irish fleeing the famine did not go through Ellis Island, which means their descendants have a tougher job tracing them.
Ellis Island is an incredible resource for many Americans tracing their family trees back through time. And the story of Annie Moore’s posthumous fame illustrates the difficulties genealogists face. She had an extremely common name, making it hard to determine which Annie Moore was her.
Another issue is that many people with names that were difficult for Americans wound up with new spellings or in some cases new names. For Irish Americans, it is helpful to know that great-grandpa John Burns was Sean Byrne before he arrived.
Annie and her brothers Phillip and Anthony had boarded the SS Nevada in Cobh, County Cork on December 20th and spent nearly two weeks at sea with 146 other steerage passengers. When Annie was processed, the center’s superintendent presented her with a $10 gold coin, a considerable amount then. The local news was full of blatantly false reports. Papers gave her brothers the wrong names and claimed she had arrived on her 15th birthday.
Who Was Annie Moore?
The false news did not stop until long after her death. Journalists mistook her for another Annie Moore who lived in Illinois and Texas and is believed to have married a descendant of Daniel O’Connell. That Annie Moore was killed by a streetcar. Eventually, her descendants attended commemorations of the other Annie Moore’s arrival. No doubt they believed it was their own relative.
The truth was only discovered when genealogist Megan Smolenyak was researching a documentary on Ellis Island for PBS in 2002. It turns out the Annie Moore who famously arrived at Ellis Island never left New York City. She married a German-American baker and had 11 children. But her life was tragic and short. She died of a heart attack before she turned fifty, and six of her children died before her.
Because so many Irish immigrants to the USA departed from Cobh, there is some doubt that all of those arriving in the USA who the record show as being from County Cork actually are. But Annie Moore was. She and her brothers remained in Cork with an aunt and uncle until their parents could send for them. Some speculate that papers said she was 15 because her parents fibbed to get her a cheaper ticket.
Genealogy is a complicated thing, especially when your ancestors had popular names. Assume nothing when you are tracing your roots. Look for different details to ensure that the record you’ve located is for the correct person of that name. It took an experienced expert to correct the record about Annie Moore!