In this scene from "Annie Moore - First Immigrant," Paul Linehan plays Ellis Island Commissioner Col. John B. Weber, who handed a $10 gold coin to Irish immigrant Annie Moore (played here by Norah King) upon her arrival. Linehan was inspired to write a show about Moore's story after learning she was his cousin.
CNN  — 

Paul Linehan loved the melody of a ballad he performed onstage for years, but the place and person it featured felt far away from his life.

… the first to cross the threshold

Of that isle of hope and tears

Was Annie Moore from Ireland

Who was only fifteen years

Annie Moore was the first immigrant who walked through the doors when Ellis Island opened more than 130 years ago. These days, there are statues of her in Ireland and at the historic US site. Her name is on a pub in New York City, a National Park Service boat and even an AI platform that aims to help match refugees with communities where they can resettle.

Linehan is a 54-year-old primary school teacher and professional singer in County Kildare, Ireland. And as far as he knew, when he started performing “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” as part of his repertoire, being Irish was the only thing he and Annie Moore had in common.

“I enjoyed singing the song,” he says, “but it was about a remote historical figure for me.”

A surprising discovery in 2016 changed his perspective on the tune – and changed his life in ways he never expected.

That year Linehan learned the first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island wasn’t merely a remote historical figure. She was his cousin – more precisely, his first cousin three times removed.

All those years as Linehan had been singing the ballad, an American genealogist had been searching for Annie Moore’s descendants. With the help of a fellow genealogy buff in Ireland, she tracked down several of Linehan’s family members. Linehan says they were as shocked to learn of the connection as she was thrilled to find them.

“This was completely out of the blue. … We didn’t know anything about this,” he says.

More than 4.5 million Irish immigrants arrived in the United States between 1820 and 1930. And now, about 31.5 million people in the US claim Irish ancestry.

Linehan notes it’s not uncommon for people living in Ireland to pass down stories of relatives who left. But that hadn’t happened in his family.

After discovering his family’s connection with the first of more than 12 million immigrants to pass through Ellis Island, Linehan was inspired to go on a journey of his own.

“The story of Annie Moore has led me places and has gotten me involved in a creative process I never expected,” he says.

This spring, he’s back onstage singing “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” once again. And he’s singing a collection of new songs, too, as part of a show he’s written about Moore’s life.

There’s still so much to be learned from Annie Moore and her story, Linehan says, and he’s determined to share it with a wider audience.

‘A rosy-cheeked Irish girl’ arrives in New York

The story of Annie Moore captivated audiences from the moment she arrived on American shores. On January 1, 1892, reporters from New York newspapers looked on as Moore walked through the large double doors of the new federal immigration depot at Ellis Island. She’d traveled on the SS Nevada on a 12-day journey from Queenstown, Ireland, with two younger brothers by her side.

This archival photo from 1891 shows a view of the Ellis Island immigration station in New York Harbor.

In its headline describing the day, the New York Times described Moore as a “rosy-cheeked Irish girl.” The New York Tribune’s headline noted she’d made the journey to join her parents. “SHE GOT SEVERAL PRIZES,” the New York Herald pointed out.

According to the newspaper accounts, a Catholic priest blessed Moore and a top official handed her a $10 gold coin to commemorate the occasion. Then she and her brothers were escorted to a waiting room to reunite with their parents, who’d been living in New York for four years.

From there, the teenager’s celebrity faded. But her name became a storied part of American and Irish immigration history.

Visitors at Ellis Island in 2006 look at a statue that depicts Annie Moore, holding her hat in the harbor breeze. Ireland's president unveiled the statue in 1993.

Who was Annie Moore? And what became of her after her much-celebrated moment in the spotlight?

Those are questions that professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak has thought about for decades.

“She’s my grand obsession. Every time I reach the finish line, she finds a way to pull me back in,” says Smolenyak, who also works as a cold case researcher for federal investigators, delves into the family histories of celebrities and was once the chief family historian for Ancestry.com.

Smolenyak was working on “They Came to America,” a PBS documentary about immigration, nearly 20 years ago when she started to dive into records as she worked to tell Annie Moore’s story. Popular lore and even a few books had previously told the story of an Annie Moore who’d moved to Texas, married a descendant of a famous Irish patriot, been one of the first White settlers in New Mexico, run a hotel and died in a streetcar accident.

But Smolenyak, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, says she discovered something surprising when she looked up Census records: That particular Annie Moore was born in Illinois.

For years, historians had been telling the story of the wrong Annie Moore.

So what was the real Annie Moore’s story?

With so much uncertainty and a deadline looming, Smolenyak cut Moore from the documentary. But she kept asking the question.

Finding the answer seemed like an impossible task, given that a name like Annie Moore is almost as common as John Smith.

“It was like searching for a needle in a haystack,” Smolenyak says.

On her blog, Smolenyak offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who could help her unearth the truth.

In the end, researching Moore’s younger siblings gave her the clues she needed to unlock the mystery.

A phone call helps uncover the truth

Michael Shulman still remembers the call he got from Smolenyak.

“Is this Michael Shulman, the son of Anna Moore Shulman?” she asked him.

At first, he feared the caller was a debt collector. When she said she was a genealogist, Shulman says he knew instantly why she’d reached out.

“I said, ‘Oh, are you looking for Annie Moore?’” Shulman recalls. “And then there’s this pregnant silence on the phone.”

A National Park Service boat named for Annie Moore now circulates the waters near Ellis Island.

Smolenyak seemed taken aback by his response. But Shulman, a financial adviser in Chevy Chase, Maryland, says his branch of the family had grown up hearing about their connection to the legendary immigrant for years.

“We’ve always known that Annie Moore, our grandfather’s sister, was the first person at Ellis Island,” he says.

Shulman put Smolenyak in touch with his sister, who’d learned many details of their family history from their mother. She provided the last name of the baker’s son Moore had married: Schayer.

That, Smolenyak says, was a key detail that pointed her in the right direction. “At last, I had something to go on,” she says.

Another key piece was a naturalization certificate New York’s records commissioner helped track down for Philip Moore, which helped confirm that family members had remained in New York City. Church records also helped verify more details of the story.

Smolenyak says she’ll never forget how it felt when things finally started coming together after years of searching.

“That moment when you solve the mystery that you’ve been living with for a long time, that’s what motivates me,” Smolenyak says. “To finally get traction on her, that’s the first step to tell her story. It was a very special moment.”

Records revealed the real story of Annie Moore

Despite what the song lyrics say, Smolenyak says the real Annie Moore was 17 when she arrived at Ellis Island. Some records give a different age; Smolenyak says that’s because Moore likely lied about her age to get a lower fare, a common practice.

The real Annie Moore never traveled out West, founded a hotel or perished in a streetcar accident. Her story, Smolenyak says, was far less eye-catching. And that, according to the genealogist, is what makes it so powerful – and important.

“She was so much more representative of the American immigrant,” Smolenyak says.