When the first federal immigration station opened on Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, a 17-year-old from Ireland became the inaugural passenger to pass through its doors. On Ellis Island’s anniversary, learn more about Annie Moore and how a case of mistaken identity obscured her true story.
While New York City ushered in the arrival of 1892 with the peals of church bells and the screeching of horns, American dreams danced in the head of a 17-year-old Irish girl anchored off the southern tip of Manhattan. Along with her two younger brothers, the teenager had departed Queenstown, Ireland, on December 20, 1891, aboard the steamship Nevada to start a new life in a new land. After spending 12 days, including Christmas, at sea, the girl from Ireland’s County Cork was just hours away from reuniting with her parents and two older siblings after spending the past four years apart.
Nevada had arrived too late on New Year’s Eve to be processed, which meant its third-class passengers would be the first to pass through the newly built federal immigration station on Ellis Island, which had previously been used as a gunpowder storage facility for the U.S. Navy.
At 10:30 a.m. on New Year’s Day, a flag on Ellis Island was dipped three times as a signal to transport the first boatload of immigrants. A chorus of foghorns, clanging bells, steam whistles and cheers serenaded a barge adorned with red, white and blue bunting as it ferried Nevada’s steerage passengers to the dock at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
The brown-haired Irish teenager was the first to bound down the gangplank with her brothers in tow. She entered through the enormous double doors of the cavernous three-story wooden building, described as “little more than a big business shed” by the New York Tribune, and skipped two steps at a time up the main staircase. Turning to her left, the girl was ushered into one of 10 aisles and up to a tall lectern-like registry desk.
“What is your name, my girl?” asked Charles Hendley, a former Treasury Department official who had requested the honor of registering the new station’s first immigrant.
“Annie Moore, sir,” replied the Irish girl.
Wielding his pen over a fresh piece of paper, Hendley inked Moore’s name and those of her brothers, Anthony and Philip, along with their ages, last place of residence and intended destination on the first page of the first registry book. Annie was then escorted into the next room where former congressman John B. Weber, federal superintendent of immigration for the port of New York, gave her a ten-dollar gold piece and wishes for a Happy New Year. A Catholic chaplain blessed her and gave her a silver coin, while another bystander slipped her a five-dollar gold piece before she passed into the waiting room and the arms of her parents. Over the course of the next 62 years, more than 12 million immigrants would follow in the teenager’s footsteps through Ellis Island, and it’s estimated that 40 percent of the country can trace its origins back to the immigration station in New York Harbor.
Why Moore was the first of the 107 immigrants in Nevada’s steerage to be processed at Ellis Island is not known. In one story, an Italian gave up his place at the front of the line after seeing her in tears. In another, a large German man had one foot on the gangplank when a sailor held him back and called out “Ladies First!” while pushing Moore ahead.
As Tyler Anbinder notes in his new book, “City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York,” Irish immigrants such as Moore composed just a small portion of the passengers aboard Nevada. Although there were twice as many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—primarily Italian and Russian Jews—aboard the ship as those from western Europe, an English-speaking, “rosy-cheeked” Irish lass was a typecast poster child for immigration at a time when Irish immigrants had already risen to the heights of American political and cultural life. Always seeking a good story, newspapers reported that Moore’s birthday was fortuitously on January 1. It wasn’t, and she wasn’t 15 as newspapers also reported—although Moore may have given that age herself to save money on the passage.
Following her brief moment of notoriety, Moore dissolved into oblivion. Not until decades after her death and the closure of Ellis Island was her memory resurrected as the immigration station underwent the largest historic restoration in U.S. history during the 1980s. Moore became the public face of the immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island, but it turned out that the face put forward was a case of mistaken identity.
For years it was thought that Moore had married a descendant of the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, moved to New Mexico and met a tragic end in a 1923 streetcar accident in Fort Worth, Texas, that left her five children orphaned. For years, the woman’s descendants were invited to ceremonies at both Ellis Island and Ireland.
It was discovered in 2006, however, that the Annie Moore who died in the streetcar accident was born and raised in the United States. Genealogist Megan Smolenyak and New York City’s commissioner of records, Brian Andersson, found that the Annie Moore who passed through Ellis Island lived her entire life in a few square blocks on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “She had the typical hardscrabble immigrant life,” Smolenyak told the New York Times in 2006. Moore married Joseph Augustus Schayer, a German-American who worked at the Fulton Fish Market, and gave birth to at least 10 children, five of whom died before the age of three. The family had enough money for a family plot, but Moore’s children were buried without headstones, as was she after her death from heart failure in 1924 at the age of 50. Moore was an enormous woman, and according to family lore her casket was too big to squeeze down the narrow apartment staircase, so it had to be transported out of a window.
The massive wooden immigration station that Moore passed through in 1892 was completely consumed by a fire on June 15, 1897. The blaze was not lethal, but it destroyed the collection of leather-bound registry books listing every immigrant who had landed in New York City since 1855, including the name of Annie Moore. Today, a pair of statues of Moore and her brothers stand at the Irish port of Cobh (the present-day name of Queenstown) and on Ellis Island, where their trans-Atlantic journey began and ended.