It’s Raining Men – or is it?

· Statistics, What's In A Name


When encountering several individuals with our surname over the years, I have often heard the response, “I thought I was the last of the family.” Many of us have never met anyone bearing the surname outside of our immediate family. With the advent of the Internet and social media, we have become acquainted with our distant relatives from whom we have been separated by miles, oceans, and centuries.  We can now know that we are not alone.

Owston/Ouston, in any variation, is unique.  So unique, that in 2002 the UK Office of National Statistics rated Owston as 19,539th most popular surname in England and Wales.  Ouston ranked lower at 48,432nd.  In the United States, the 2000 census determined that Owston (there were  no US Oustons in 2000) was the 118,236th most popular surname within its borders.  It is tied with 717 other surnames at that spot. This begs the question, “How many of us are there?”

Several weeks ago, I theorized that only 300 males with the Owston/Ouston surname were alive at the present.  This estimate was based on the following factors: known numbers of individuals in the US and UK from the previous decade, a head count of Canadian Owstons/Oustons, and a 2011 social media analysis.  I estimated at that time that there were only 500 individuals with our name. This included men, women, and children. Of this number, spouses and former spouses bearing the name were counted.

It is difficult to track every living female born with the Owston/Ouston name, as many have taken their husbands’ surname upon marriage.  In addition, spouses (current and ex) compound the issue by bearing the name, but are not descended from the hereditary bloodline.  Since males rarely change their names, Y-DNA is transmitted from father to son, and the traditional path of surname transmission is through the father, I decided to count every known living Owston/Ouston male who can be traced to the Ryedale District of Yorkshire.

With a low frequency surname like Owston/Ouston, counting males can be accomplished with little difficulty.  So, I tackled the task and began counting males from the 23 lines of the surname.  Contrary to The Weather Girls’ song, we are not “Raining Men.” The situation is more like a bit of humidity and not a rainstorm. My estimate of 300 was rather close as we numbered 296 in total.  If we add a margin of error of 5% for those who may have been born without my knowledge in the last 20 years, the number jumps slightly to 311 – but still very close to my original estimate.  The number and identity of Owston/Ouston males is significant in identifying potential participants in our surname Y-DNA project.


Although Mark Twain erroneously attributed the above heading to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, its source is unknown.  However, it gives us a springboard for moving in that little understood area of statistical analysis. Our analysis, however, is very basic and requires no prior knowledge of probability, t-tests, chi-squares, or correlation coefficients.  Our statistical data is based on simple mathematical principles of counting and percentages – plus a guess. There are no lies and certainly no “damned” lines.


As for the number of Owstons/Oustons worldwide, it seems logical to raise the estimate from 500 to 600. This takes into consideration those women who have kept or returned to their birth surname and those who have married into it.  Counting the number of female Owstons/Oustons in several lines has yielded near equal results to that of the men.


While the two primary versions of the name are Owston and Ouston, we track an additional variant:  Owston-Doyle.  While there are several other hyphenated or double barreled versions of the surname, only Owston-Doyle is shared by a number of individuals and is multigenerational – spanning at least four generations of usage. The chart below indicates the percentage by variation.  These percentages do not account for females.


As suspected, Owston is the primary version of the name and represents 72% of the males.  Ouston, which extends over two lines and a single branch of the Sherburn family, has a respectable showing at 26%.  The remaining 2% constitutes the Owston-Doyles from the Thornholme family.


We have traced the Ryedale Owston/Oustons to three distinct families.  It shouldn’t be a surprise which family has the greatest distribution.  Of the 23 lineages, 14 are from the Sherburn family. The remaining nine are split between the Ganton (5) and Thornholme (4) families.  To understand the relative size of the Sherburn family by comparison, see the chart below.Family_OriginAs noted, 70% of the Owstons/Oustons worldwide are from the Sherburn family.  All Oustons descend from this family’s Holderness Branch.  The Ganton family, which is only found in two countries (England and the US), is the second largest at 21%.  The Thornholme family only numbers 9% of the total.  We can only account for 25 Thornholme Owston males.

Sixty-five percent of all Owston/Oustons are centered in the following six lines.


All Oustons descend from either the William Ouston or Richard Ouston lines.  While the surname variation only represents 26% of the whole, the fact that these two lines are in first and second place carries some significance. These two lines comprise the entirety of the Holderness branch of the Sherburn family.  The Yeoman Farmer branch places at the third through fifth slots and is nearly present in its entirety, save for the lone male from the Samuel Owston line.

Tied in the number one position is the Delaware, Ohio line of the Ganton family.  This line represents 68% of the Ganton family and 58% of all Owstons in the US.

When comparing this ranking to the Owstons and Oustons on Facebook from 2011, the same lines appeared in the top six spots.  However, the William Ouston line was clearly in first place with the Delaware, Ohio line ranking second.  The George Vasey Owston line and the Cobourg line were reversed in order.  These differences could be attributed to the number of females from these lines having a Facebook presence.  It is interesting that an analysis of Facebook could provide near identical results for these six lines.

In contrast, another six lines are in danger of extinction.  Two lines, the Lincolnshire line and the Samuel Owston line, only have one remaining Owston male. Four additional lines have two Owston males: the Michigan line (father & son), the John Owston (mole catcher) line (first cousins), the Snaiton line (father & son), and the Edwin Owston line (brothers).

As I previously observed, “This phenomenon of surname extinction was studied by Rev. Henry William Watson and Francis Galton in 1875. The Galton-Watson process mathematically determined that lineages that had an average of one son or less would surely experience surname extinction within a few generations. Those with an average number of sons greater than 1.00 would have a greater probability of survival” (Owston, 2012, p. 45).  Twenty-one Owston/Ouston lines have experienced surname extinction between 1902 and 2001.


We were also able to determine where Owston/Ouston men are currently living.  As expected, England, the home country for our family, placed in the number one slot with 43%. The United States ranks second with 25%.  The other locations are listed below by percentage.Geographic_Distributions

The majority of Owstons and Oustons live in three areas:  Great Britain – 46%, North America – 34%, and Australasia – 19%.


In counting names, we encountered 145 different forenames – some of these differences accounted for spelling of the same name, such as Steven, Stephen, and Steve and Graham and Graeme. The top ten forenames among males in our family are listed in the table below.



While I wish it were possible to trace living related females with our surname, this proves to be a difficult task.  With the exception to the forename information, similar results should be expected when females are added into the mix.  I found this a very interesting exercise and it provides a number of how many of us exist and where we live.  I hope you found this as enlightening as I did.


Ouston, R. J. (2004). 2003 Directory of Ouston/Owston families. Highbridge, Somerset, UK: Roger J. Ouston.  Additional data was added by James M. Owston between 2004 and 2016.

Owston, J. M. (2012). His name is my name too:  A Y-DNA study of the Owston surname and its variants. Retrieved from

Surnames of England and Wales – the ONS list: How common (or rare) is your surname?

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Genealogy data: Frequently occurring surnames from census 2000. Washington, DC: by the author.  Retrieved from

Watson, H.W. and Galton, F. (1875). On the probability of the extinction of families. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 4(1), 138-144.


Comments RSS
  1. Kathleen Owston

    Thankyou for doing all of this research and sharing it with us. I am a female Owston, and I didn’t change my name when I got married, choosing to keep my name, as it is so rare. My children have Owston as a middle name. My Dad and his family came from Scarborough in Yorkshire, England. I now live in Nicaragua, so another country to add, if you are doing the female line!

    • jowston

      Thanks Kath. We’ll keep this in mind should we tackle this task. There are probably several other countries that we are not aware of where members of this family currently live. We may be looking at Owston/Ouston used as a first and middle name in the future – so that information helps.

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