Generating a Plausible Family Tree

· DNA, Family Trees


Unbeknownst to each other, three genealogists in the 1970s began in earnest to understand the ancestry of folks bearing the Owston/Ouston surname.  While each had his own sphere of specialization and interest, fate and a common zeal for understanding this low-frequency surname brought the trio together in 1990.  We crossed research paths simultaneously.

Fairly early in our combined efforts, our research concluded there were three Owston families that had their roots in the original East Riding of Yorkshire.  We mused about a connection – with some believing and others not that we were all related.  “Why should they be?” Owston/Ouston could just be another locative name that was applied to a number of people who happened to hail from the same geographic location – unrelated, but having commonality with being saddled with an unusual name that carried both Old Norse and Old English elements.


A montage representing the early research by Roger Ouston, Tim Owston, and Jim Owston. Click here for a larger version of this photo.

Linking the three families, which we named according to their origins from the villages of Ganton, Sherburn, and Thornholme, appeared to be an impossibility, as records did not exist. Documentation of two extinct Owston families provided a springboard for comparison; however, nothing could solidly forge a relationship among the three families; that is until . . .


Since Y-DNA is transmitted from father to son with few or no mutations, testing various subjects from the three families would finally provide a confirmation or denial of whether these groups had a common source.  The first participants were enlisted in 2010 and 2011 with several members from each family.  The majority representing the three families closely matched each other. This confirmed a common ancestor and, by having the same surname, the connection occurred within the genealogical time frame.

Since that time, we have increased the number of Y-DNA participants to 28 with eight of those having ancestral non paternal events (all have solid paper lineages to one of the three families).  Of the 20 matching participants, 15 have been extended 111 markers at Family Tree DNA (FTNDA).  Four have been tested with FTNDA’s Big-Y and we are currently awaiting analysis of these results by YFULL.  We plan to add a fifth Big-Y participant in June 2016.

Of the 23 lines of the Owston/Ouston families, we have tested representatives from 19. We have 100% lineage saturation with the Thornholme family, 86% saturation with the Sherburn family, and 60% saturation with the Ganton family.


Genetic distance (GD) from the Owston/Ouston modal haplotype at various testing resolutions.

Since Owston/Ouston is a low frequency surname with less than 300 named males worldwide, there are challenges. Attrition is one.  Three lines have only one remaining Owston/Ouston male. Two of these lines are highly unlikely to produce another male with the surname. The third contains only a minor who would theoretically carry matching Y-DNA results. Since he is a minor, we have not approached him to test.  Three additional lines have two Owston males: two have father and son pairs and the third has a pair of brothers.  Additionally, one line has a father and three sons.

Related to attrition, lack of diversity within lines is another issue.  While some lines have a four or more Owston/Ouston surnamed males, the potential participants tend to be very closely related at the second cousin level or much, much closer. This hampers the ability to determine if unique signatures exist or if the reported mutations are actually quite recent. We see this in the Toronto line.  Our two participants are first cousins, once removed.  The only viable candidates that remain are one participant’s father, two uncles, and a son.  Three additional Owston males descend from this line, but are the products of adoptions.

Finally, there are non paternal events (NPEs) where the Y-DNA haplotype does not match the family modal haplotype.  Of the 23 lines, six appear to have completely different genetic signatures.  Four other lines have a significant number of members who have ancestral non paternal events, but also have family members that match the modal haplotype within an accepted tolerance.

This is not an issue of multiple origins of the surname, as all lines that have NPEs have a solid paper trail to one  of the three families.   Some individuals are genetically related, as the surname was carried from unmarried Owston mother to her son.  One line even has a two step distance from a theoretically matching ancestral Owston male, as the surname traveled from a daughter to a daughter to two sons.

As we merged an autosomal project with the Y-DNA project, we now have a total of 43 participants. While DNA testing has confirmed that the Owston/Ouston families from Yorkshire’s Ryedale District are all related, the question of “how” remains a constant.


To begin to answer the “how” question, we must first enter into the dark realm of speculation. The earliest recording of the Owston surname in the Ryedale district occurred with the writing of the 1452 will of John Oustyn of Place Newton in Wintringham parish.  In 2011, I wrote a paper discussing the possibility John and Joan Oustyn of Place Newton being the same couple as John and Joan de Ouston of Pickburn in the West Riding.  De Ouston was a member of the Styghil (or Stile) family who began using the byname of Ouston after leaving the village of Ouston (now Owston) in the West Riding.


The chancel of St. Peter’s Church in Wintringham. John Oustyn was buried within the confines of the church building in 1453. This photo is used by permission of Graham White. Click here for more photos of this landmark church.

With the Owston surname ramifying in the region during the following century, it seems plausible that John Oustyn could very well be the progenitor of the Owstons of the Ryedale Distrct.  By my calculation, John Oustyn would have been at least 80 years old at his death.  Therefore, it would appear that the current Owston families are likely descended from either a grandson or great-grandson who is the most recent common ancestor of the three families.  Again, this is speculation at best, as we can never be certain.  But, we can be confident we are related.


To calculate how we are related, it was necessary to construct a hypothetical tree.  By using several 16th century wills and other documentation of two extinct families located in Staxton in Willerby and the neighboring parish of Ganton, it is possible with the use of naming conventions to begin to connect the three extant families.  While this is not gospel, I am confident that I have the relationships within a deviation of two generations on the various lines. If such deviations exist, the affected lines would be related more distantly and not closer.


One issue is the placement of Robert Owston.  If you notice, Robert is listed as being in both the Staxton in Willerby family and the Robert Owston of Ganton family.  This is based on the belief that they were one in the same.  If not, perhaps the connection is with two Robert Owstons: a father in the Staxton line and son in the extinct Ganton family with the same name. The later birth dates of Robert’s issue might warrant an extra generation. This is a possibility.

Another challenge was placing the Sherburn family, as it has no unique names (excepting Christopher which was represented once the Staxton family).  Since Peter Owston’s (d. 1568) eldest son was named William, he may have been named for his paternal grandfather, as later English naming conventions dictate. If so William Owston, who was a witness to John Owston’s 1520 last will and testament, may also be Peter Owston’s (d. 1568) father. Therefore, I have placed him as a son of the elder John; however, he could have been a brother or a nephew as his relationship was not specified in the will.

With all of these caveats in mind, the above chart represents my best effort in determining the plausible connections between the extant Owston/Ouston families and their extinct counterparts.  In a future installment, I’ll discuss the defining STR (short tandem repeats) markers found among these three families.  As the analysis from YFULL is forthcoming, in time SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) data from the Big-Y tests will be added.


Oustane, J. (1558). Will of John Oustane. Translation supplied in a letter to the author from Roger J. Owston dated 19 September 1994.

Ouston, R. J. (1997).  An examination of the early Owston data of the parish of Willerby and adjacent parishes.  Swanland, Humberside, UK:  by the author.

Ouston, R. J. (2004).  2003 Directory of Ouston/Owston families.  Highbridge, Somerset, UK:  by the author.

Oustyn, J. (1452). Will of John Oustyn. Translation supplied in a letter to the author from Roger J. Owston dated 19 September 1994.

Owston, J. (1520). Will of John Owston. Translation supplied in a letter to the author from Roger J. Owston dated 19 September 1994.

Owston, J. (1615). Will of John Owston. Transcription provided by Timothy J. Owston in The Sherburn family of East Yorkshire, 2011.  Available at

Owston, J.M. (2011). Rethinking the Owston surname source: A new theory suggesting Owston, West Riding, Yorkshire.  Available from

Owston, P. (1557). Will of Peter Owston. Transcription by Timothy J. Owston in The Sherburn family of East Yorkshire, 2011.  Available at

Owston, T. J. (2011).  Ancestor charts of old Ganton Owston families. Copies in possession of this researcher.

STR records for the Owston-Ouston Y-DNA project. Family Tree DNA.

STR records for the Owston-Ouston Y-DNA project at GeneTree. Copies in the possession of the author. 








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