Captured in Time: Syrian Immigrant Sultana Numeir upon Arrival in America in 1890

This Picture Is Worth Far More than a Thousand Words

Megan Smolenyak
15 min readFeb 13

Sultana as seen in original photo and after colorization and enhancement (via MyHeritage and Photoshop Elements)

The fact that this image exists is remarkable enough, but the story that spilled out of it is even more so. Included in a scrapbook of immigrant photos taken between 1890 and 1892 by E.W. Austin who worked at the Barge Office while Ellis Island was being constructed (well before the widely known Augustus Sherman and Lewis Hine collections), it’s clear that it meant more to him (or perhaps the recipient) than most as close inspection reveals that it had once been framed. And then there was the caption which was more detailed than usual: “Sultana Numeir, age 18 — Lebanon, Syria — speaks English & Spanish.”

Wondering whether I could pick up Sultana’s trail to learn what had become of this striking young woman, I received a quick assist when I realized a neighboring photo in the album also included Sultana. This one was described as “a family of 4 from Syria, Turkey — Two Hebrews from Oran, Algiers.”

Sultana with her mother, brother, and father along with two fellow travelers

It didn’t take long to find a matching family with a daughter named Sultana arriving around the expected time in New York passenger records. They had sailed from Italy which explains why the entries for Sultana and her brother said “figlia” and “figlio” (son and daughter) and their mother’s “moglie” (wife). Listed above them was their father/husband, Soliman Numeir.

Arrival record of Numeir family (Ancestry)

Ages were given for each and the family was entered as Moroccan. This last seemed a little odd since they were supposedly Syrian, but I’m accustomed to seeing contradictions in records of this vintage, so was still optimistic that this would give me enough to follow them forward in time.

I tried the usual resources for immigrants — census, naturalization, city directories, etc. — but came up empty. Where had they gone? Had they changed their name, moved elsewhere, or maybe returned home? Knowing it was a long…

Megan Smolenyak

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (