Aug 14, 2023

The Census Tree

Kasey Buckles is more of an economist than a family genealogist. Most of her past work explores the economics of the family, demography, and child health.

But she decided to try the genealogy website FamilySearch because she was working with Brigham Young University economist Joseph Price on a study of intergenerational mobility. Buckles knew how difficult it can be to track and link the historical records of one person over time, especially women who change names when they marry.

She decided to look up her great-grandmother, and was surprised to see that some of her U.S. census records were already attached to her profile on FamilySearch. In 1910, the 2-year-old was listed as Mary L. Gaddie. A decade later, she went by her middle name of Lettie. And by 1940, she was a married woman: M. Lettie Caswell.

Buckles knew traditional research methods that attempt to trace a person by following the same name over time would have failed to make the connections.

“I had my aha moment when I looked at my great-grandmother and saw all the work that other people had already done,” Buckles said. “And then I did get into it, because it is a little addicting.”

The Notre Dame professor in the Department of Economics was able to use the research to revisit family memories with her grandmother before she died in 2019. “We had this really great afternoon,” Buckles said, “where I was able to tell her things about her past that she had forgotten or had never known.”

Other people, likely relatives Buckles doesn’t know, had used their knowledge of family history to connect her great-grandmother’s changing names. Working with Price, she realized that this goldmine of crowdsourced family knowledge could be used to build a powerful tool for all kinds of long-term research.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation, Buckles and Price created the Census Tree, a digitized database that uses genealogy research and machine learning to improve census linking from 1850 to 1940. The Census Tree website went live in late July 202

The same month, Buckles and Price presented the findings of their study of intergenerational mobility, the first working paper to use the data, at two sessions of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Summer Institute. Notre Dame doctoral student Haley Wilbert is also a co-author on the paper, along with Zach Ward of Baylor University.

Buckles said creating the Census Tree required a huge team, including dozens of undergraduate students from both Notre Dame and the BYU Record Linking Lab, multiple economics doctoral students from Notre Dame, and Cornell doctoral student Adrian Haws.

“This effort will link people across the censuses in a way that allows you to see them through the course of their life, and to see how their experiences—their early life, world events, public policies—have shaped them in a way we haven’t been able to do before,” Buckles said. “Our innovation is our connection to people doing their own genealogy research. I think this is an exciting symbiotic relationship between the public and academic researchers.”

You can read more in an article in the University of Notre Dame web site at: