“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.