National Archives News

Standout Census Stories: Schoel to Samuel to Saul Through Four Decades of Records

By Editorial Staff | National Archives News

refer to caption

One Man’s Journey

Saul Fleiss, grandfather of retired National Archives education specialist Annie Davis, became the subject of a teaching tool, "One Man’s Journey." The lesson traced the life of an immigrant around the turn of the 20th century and through the decades that followed. Photo courtesy of Annie Davis.

WASHINGTON, February 10, 2022 — Editor’s note: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is scheduled to release the records of the 1950 Census on April 1, 2022. In anticipation, National Archives News is publishing a series of stories in the coming months about what can be gleaned from census records, and how personal histories can encapsulate entire eras. Our second Standout Census Story comes from Jenny McMillen Sweeney, archivist at the National Archives at Fort Worth.

Before becoming an Archivist in Fort Worth, I was an education specialist for the National Archives and Records Administration. I worked with students of all ages, helping them learn about the American government and our nation’s history through the agency’s rich holdings. I wish I had a dollar for every person who has told me that they think history is boring and there is no reason to study it, as I would probably be a pretty wealthy person by now. 

To combat this attitude, I created a fun activity many years ago, “One Man’s Journey,” which amazed students and adults. The activity followed one man’s life through numerous records, including a passenger arrival record, a draft registration card, and five census records. Working in groups, students answered a set of questions for each document or primary source. In the end, the group presented its own narrative of the individual’s life. To explore online activities using census records, visit DocsTeach.

The following is a brief overview of the records used in the activity. Saul Fleiss was the grandfather of now-retired Annie Davis, who was an education specialist at the National Archives at Boston and kindly provided family photos.

Meeting Schoel Fleiss
We first meet Schoel Fleiss when he arrived in New York City in July 1898 aboard the S.S. Werkendam. The Werkendam left from Amsterdam, Netherlands, but the ship’s manifest notes that Fleiss is Austrian. He was 17 years old and planned to join his “Brother Fleiss” in New York City.

refer to caption

1898 Ship Manifest - Schoel Fleiss - Line 11


1900 Census
Next, he appears on the 1900 census, but he is no longer Schoel but Saul. He lived with his brother Henry, who was head of household, two other brothers, and a sister. The census reflects that he is Austrian and that he earned a living as a tailor.

In 1906, Saul declared his intent to become an American citizen. He renounced any allegiance to the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. He raised his hand and swore allegiance to the United States and promised to support the . He was naturalized on April 10, 1906, in New York City.


1910 Census
From the 1910 census, we see that Fleiss moved across the country and lived in San Diego, CA, and went by the name Samuel. He was married to Annie and had a two-year old daughter named Margaret. The record states he was born in Russia with the word “Yiddish” written next to it, implying that he is Jewish. He rented his home on 7th Street and was employed as a cleaner of clothes.

refer to caption

Detail from 1910 Census - Samuel Fleiss - Line 58


Draft Registration, 1918
On September 12, 1918, Fleiss registered for the draft, as most American men were compelled to do during World War I. He was once again going by the name Saul. His physical description lists that he is of medium height, stout build, with blue eyes and dark brown hair. The document also lists his occupation as a motorman for the San Diego Electric Railroad.

refer to caption

Draft Registration Card, September 12, 1918 - Saul Fleiss


Bureau of Investigation Report, 1918
The next record reveals that one day later on September 13, 1918, a report was filed with the Bureau of Investigation (predecessor to the FBI) claiming that while Fleiss was registering for the draft, he made seditious remarks stating: “he was a naturalized American, but was sorry of it.”

refer to caption

Bureau of Investigation Report, September 13, 1918


1920 Census
The 1920 census reflects the family had grown, as a second daughter named Gladys appears in the record. As noted in his draft registration card, Fleiss had become a motorman and therefore improved his economic standing. He purchased his own home on Utah Street. The census states that his birthplace is Lemberg and his mother tongue is Polish, which is different from the information on the 1910 census. Lemberg is a city in current-day western Ukraine, close to the Polish border.


1930 Census
A decade later, the 1930 Census reveals that the Fleiss family had grown again as Saul and Annie welcomed a third daughter, Caroline. Margaret no longer lived in the home, but a nephew named Milton lived there. The record states Saul is from “Kutty, Austry,” and the language he spoke before coming to the United States was German. Today, Kuty is located in Ukraine near the Romanian and Moldovan borders. The family was clearly living a middle-class life as they moved up the street, more than likely to a larger home—worth $4,000—and owned a radio, the newest technology of the day.

refer to caption

Detail from 1930 Census - Saul Fleiss - Line 63


1940 Census
Sadly, the 1940 census reveals that Saul was a widower. Daughters Gladys and Caroline lived with him in the same house on Utah Street. His birthplace is listed as Austria, and he continued to work as a street car conductor.


The narrative of Saul Fleiss’s life can be pieced together by the census records and other federal records found at the National Archives. However, some of the more intricate details of his life, such as why he moved from the east coast to the west coast or why he was so upset with having become a naturalized citizen, causing him to make seditious remarks while registering for the draft, are not revealed.

Because of the varied answers provided in the records, some students over the years have questioned if Saul was on the up-and-up or if he was trying to hide something. 

refer to caption

Family photo of Saul Fleiss. Courtesy of Annie Davis.

What I would then explain to the students is that one must have an understanding of the historical context when a primary source or record is created in order to have a clearer understanding. I would also explain that by questioning the record and corroborating information, it allows one to verify information. We would then walk through some of their most perplexing questions.

For instance, why did this individual’s name change multiple times from Schoel to Saul, Saul to Samuel, and back to Saul again? A reasonable guess is that Schoel was his Hebrew name and he chose to anglicize it once in America, and maybe Samuel seemed too formal so he just became Saul.

Why did Saul’s place of birth change on the different records over the years? At the time the records were created, the borders of what is current-day Ukraine were ever-changing, depending on the occupying country. Sometimes his place of birth was part of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian empire, or Russia. The census takers were instructed to record where the city was at the present day, not the country it was a part of at the time of the individual’s birth.

Why did the records list his native tongue differently over time? Being Jewish, his native language was more than likely Yiddish. However, it is a good bet that he also spoke at least some German, Polish, or Russian, if not fluently.

How were we able to learn that Saul’s social and economic status had changed over the years?  When comparing the different records over time, it is possible to see how he was able to socially and economically climb the ladder. His salary increased, allowing him to purchase a home and have more disposable income to spend on things like a radio.

Once one knows to look beyond what is actually written in black and white, it is easier to gain a fuller and more complex understanding of an individual’s life and experiences. By truly looking at primary sources and asking questions about the times they were created, students are doing the work that historians do. This gives them skills that will come in handy in everyday life: learning to question information, why and how it was created, and if it is bonafide. From a personal standpoint, it was always so rewarding seeing students walk away from this activity realizing how cool history can be!

Read previous Standout Census Stories: 

Stay informed on the latest 1950 Census information: