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Honoring Our Ancestors
January 19, 2017


Greetings Fellow Family History Sleuths,

Happy 2017! Those of you who have followed me for any time know of my grand obsession with Annie Moore, the Irish teenager who was the first immigrant to ever arrive at Ellis Island. January 1, 2017 marked the 125th anniversary of her arrival, so this month's issue is - not surprisingly - Annie-heavy! But as always, you'll find a cross-section of other genealogical goodies ranging from pirates to historical slang, so please have a browse. And if you're still in resolution-making mode, how about making 2017 the year you apply for a Seton Shields Genealogy Grant for that special project of yours or maybe for your local historical society? C'mon - you know you meant to last year! I'll be watching for your applications. Until then,

Happy Sleuthing!



125th Anniversary of Annie Moore and Ellis Island

Photo: (Left) - Annie and her brothers as commemorated in a statue at Cobh Heritage Centre (credit: Katherine Borges) and (right) – on the day they arrived at Ellis Island (colorized)

“It’s good to remember that we are a nation of immigrants, of hopeful wanderers. And we cannot know who is coming across our borders today whose story will add a significant page to the American story, who will work hard, who will raise a family, whose new blood will strengthen the good fabric holding our nation together.” – Bruce Springsteen

On January 1, 1892, 17-year-old Annie Moore from Cork, Ireland became the first immigrant to ever arrive at Ellis Island, so both Annie and Ellis Island celebrated their 125th anniversary on January 1, 2017. Of course, hopeful wanderers from other countries had been teeming to our shores by choice or force for centuries by then, but perhaps because 40% of Americans have at least one ancestor who arrived via Ellis Island, it has always been synonymous with immigration in a nation of immigrants.

As the first, Annie became the poster child for immigration, which is why there are statues of her in both New York and Cork, and songs, books, awards, and even pubs sport her name and tell her story.

Almost from arrival, Annie suffered a series of indignities. No doubt appreciating the $15 in coins she received that day (a small fortune to her family), she was also overwhelmed by all the attention and used as a PR prop with the invention of a tale that it was her 15th birthday (she was 17 and her birthday was in May). And then, after her Kim Kardashian moment, she vanished from the pages of history into what was to be a sadly common, but somewhat hellish immigrant experience in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Annie and her family bounced from tenement to tenement as so many foreign born did back then, often in search of lower rents. At 21, she married Joseph Augustus Schayer and soon had the first of at least ten children she would bear over the next quarter of a century. Her first child died before his second birthday, but the next four were fortunate enough to make it to adulthood. And then things took a turn. Due to the family’s living conditions and likely to Annie’s own weakening health, only one of her final five children made it past the age of three, and the lone survivor died at 21. Even with the infant mortality rate in New York City at that time hovering around 34 per 100, it's apparent that the Schayer family suffered more than most, and though we might want to convince ourselves that such high loss rates must have better equipped parents to cope, it’s not true. Frequency and familiarity did not render the death of a child any less painful than it is today.

The causes of death from her children’s records all point to the underlying culprit of poverty. Annie herself managed to make it to 50 and to Calvary Cemetery where my husband and I discovered that she had been buried without benefit of a tombstone in a plot with ten others. Still, her family was luckier than some as the child of a friend who couldn’t afford a grave is mixed in with Annie’s – a kindness immigrants often extended to others in need.

It’s appropriate that Annie should have been the first at Ellis Island, as her story is so representative and American. In a precursor to what many of us wrestle with today, Annie numbed her sorrows with food – possibly at least in part with the macaroons her German-born father-in-law received a patent for – and struggled with her weight. Family lore has it that she was too large to be taken down the narrow tenement staircase when she passed, so was lowered out the window.

On a more positive note, as is so often the case with immigrants, her sacrifices led to greater opportunities for her descendants who have since flourished. At least one remained in the Lower East Side until this century, but most fanned out to New Jersey, Maryland, Wisconsin, Arizona, and elsewhere. They took on a variety of professions, worked their way up the economic ladder, and married others with diverse backgrounds so that Annie’s Irish genes have now blended with Hispanic, Jewish, Scandinavian, and more.

This is the pattern we see again and again: the immigrant struggles, but ensuing generations reap the benefits. So Annie’s tale is a fitting one for the poster child of the immigrant saga, but until I found them in 2006, most of her scattered descendants did not know about her because a usurper had taken her place, a discovery I tripped across while working on a documentary in 2002.

Descendants of another Annie Moore unwittingly asserted that their ancestor was Ellis Island’s first (a forensic analysis of sorts revealed that a commemorative plate, of all things, triggered a chain of events that allowed this error to germinate and spread), and curiously, no one troubled to verify the claim for years, even though the few relatives of the real Annie who knew of her all along had tried to raise the issue. Most likely this is because the other Annie’s story was a wild ride involving Western-migrating adventurers and revolutionary Irish kin – the way we like to see ourselves, I suppose – but it little reflected the harsh and selfless reality of most of our immigrant ancestors.

So the genuine Annie was a victim of historical identity theft by another Annie who wasn’t even an immigrant (the giveaway being her Illinois birth). By the time I found her resting anonymously under a bit of grass in a Queens cemetery, 114 years had passed since her arrival at Ellis Island and 82 since her death, so January 1, 2017 was the first milestone anniversary since we’ve known who she truly was.

And the timing is, well, interesting. Just as we should be celebrating Annie and Ellis Island’s 125th, we are instead in the midst of an anti-immigrant fervor. The attempt to otherize immigrants is gaining momentum and hearkens back to the days of Know Nothings, exclusion acts, and internment camps.

All of this makes now an especially relevant time to reflect on the Annie Moores in our own family trees – those pioneers who made a leap that so drastically altered the trajectories of their descendants’ lives for the better. In my own case, I think with gratitude of Ellen Nelligan, Peter Smolenyak, James Reynolds, Padonia Lukacz, and others whose choices and challenging lives have given me the opportunities I have.

Welcoming today’s Annies – those hopeful wanderers that Springsteen speaks of – requires generosity of spirit that doesn’t always come naturally, but it’s our legacy, and centuries of American history make it clear that the return on investment from this particular form of speculation is exceptional. Then again, maybe we should do it simply because it’s the right thing to do.

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Seton Shields Genealogy Grant #198

When some people hear about my Seton Shields Genealogy Grant program, they ask who Seton Shields is. She was my mother and in her later years, she went on to become the rarest of creatures – a female CEO in the 1980s. To this day, she’s the only CEO I’ve heard of who could run a corporation by day and whip up a feast for a dozen or sew Halloween costumes for her grandchildren by night. The photo above shows Mom with the first of her grandchildren.

In honor and recognition of Annie Moore's 125th anniversary, this quarter's grant was awarded to The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation to assist with the building of the new Statue of Liberty Museum. If you have Ellis Island ancestors and/or would simply like to help support this project, there's information about how you can contribute here.

To apply for a Seton Shields grant, fill out and submit the form here. To see the types of cool projects I've had the opportunity to contribute to over the years, look here.

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Genealogy Round Up, January 11

The Dark Secrets of a Tiny Tropical Island Occupied by Descendants of Pirates – I've always found Pitcairn Island so darn fascinating - but yeah, kinda creepy too.

OK2Explore – Thanks to Brooke Schreier Ganz for the good news about this index to Oklahoma births and deaths now being online! I just went to experiment and found the death index working, but the birth one offline, but this is presumably a temporary glitch.

Green's Dictionary of Slang – The awesome dictionary of retro slang (yes, including awesome) you never knew you needed to bring your genealogical writing to life. A few of my favorites include abbey clogs, mek-mek, and tollywhackers!

10 reasons why Barack Obama Plaza is the best place on earth – One of the stranger outcomes of my sleuthing - been open for years, but still sort of mystifies me

Dusty tapes to innovative website, tales from African Americans' Great Migration – Thanks to Tara Penelope Calishain for bringing this amazing project to my attention! Check it out!

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Genealogy Round Up, January 4

Photo Credit: Mr.TinDC

Fort Washington – Spent a chunk of my teenage years just down the road from this place, so feel as if I've known about this for most of my life. In fact, when they added a new zip code, my address suddenly changed from Oxon Hill to Fort Washington, even though we hadn't moved.

NGO challenges Czechs to dig into their family roots – Yay, Czechs! "Czechs tend to know more about the family history on their mother’s side."

Kim Cattrall "doesn't know" relative who sparked Liverpool family grave row – A grave dispute for #WDYTYA alum, Kim Cattrall.

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Genealogy Round Up, December 28

Photo Credit: Beverly & Pack

Airman Missing From World War II Identified (Pitonyak) – So I guess today is a sort of book-ending day? I just posted a soldier's case I researched in Jan 2001 and then found this announcement for a soldier I researched this past August.

Welcome home and RIP, 1st Lt Francis J. Pitonyak.

Incidentally, Lt. Pitonyak jumped out at me because I recognized his surname as being from the same area as my Smolenyaks - from the neighboring village of Zdiar. Small world.

Soldier Missing From Korean War Identified (Pelletier) – Whoa! I researched this case in 2000 - no kidding. Submitted it on January 2, 2001. And now, almost 16 years later, Cpl. Joseph N. Pelletier has been identified. A long overdue Christmas homecoming for this hero.

On tiny Weehawken Street, a historic building will pay homage to Manhattan’s roots – Full circle.

The Rooms They Left Behind

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Genealogy Round Up, December 21

Photo Credit: New York Public Library/Public Domain

In China, Searching to Fill Mysterious Gaps in the Family Tree – There's an especially cool story about a particular Chinese family in my book, "In Search of Our Ancestors."

US completes search for missing WW II airmen in Arunachal – Worked on a number of these cases. Hoping some of these men will be identified.

125 years ago, Annie, Anthony, and Philip Moore of Cobh/Cork, Ireland began their journey to America. Annie would be the first immigrant at Ellis Island.

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Upcoming Events

After traveling around and speaking in 40 states and half a dozen countries, I decided to take a breather from the road to tend to some projects. That said, I'm sharing exceptions here. And by the way, you can see if I’ll be in your area any time by checking my Events Calendar.

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