Friday, December 24, 2010

Finding Family on Facebook

Over the past decade, a number of user tools have been developed under the moniker of Web 2.0 applications and some are specifically identified as social media sites. While some of these applications were built on earlier ideas used in the pre-world wide web days, they are easy to use and do not require specific protocols (i.e., gopher, NNTP, FTP, TELNET, and others) to operate. These are web based technologies using hypertext transmission protocol (HTTP) and include but are not limited to the following:

  • photo sharing applications like Flickr and Picasa,
  • journaling tools like Blogger and Blogspot,
  • microblogging functionality with Tumblr and Twitter,
  • document collaboration as found with Google Docs,
  • publishing sites as Knol and Ezine,
  • collaborative information sharing as in Wikipedia and Wikia,
  • video hosting via Vimeo and YouTube,
  • special interest discussion forums like Google Groups and Yahoo Groups, and
  • social networking tools like My Space, Ning, and of course Facebook.

While all of the above can be utilized in relation to your genealogical research, I am going to specifically mention several ways Facebook can aid in your ancestral pursuits. While you won’t specifically find your ancestors per se, Facebook provides the opportunity to network with family members from around the world.

Reconnecting with Close Family

One of the nice things about Facebook is the ability to reconnect with close family members that you have not seen in years. If you are like me, the opportunity of seeing close relatives has been separated by the miles between us. While I typically only converse on the phone with my brothers and my mother, I really have not kept up with nephews, nieces, and cousins on a first hand basis.

Facebook allows you to reconnect with close relatives and friends. For example, I have been posting a number of photos on my Facebook page and sharing these with pertinent relatives. These family members have also shared their old photos with me.

Facebook provides the opportunity to keep in touch without interrupting the personal lives of others. It allows you the ability to transcend time and space and still have a bond with your relatives; albeit, the bond is somewhat of a superficial one. It allows family to be as open with you as much as they are willing and visa versa.

Connections with Lost Family Members

Because of circumstances, there may be close relatives with which you’ve never had contact. In my family this has been the case with the children of my dad’s half sisters. My father was the only child of his father and the sixth and youngest child of his mother. Of his older siblings, only three survived to adulthood.

One sister died prior to my birth and I had the opportunity to know the other two while they were still living. One sister lived about two miles from our home and the other sister lived part of the year in Detroit and the remainder of the year in Florida.

Adding to this was the untimely death of my father when I was almost seven years old. I never had a chance to really know his family. While my Aunt Nath lived across the street from the church that both of our families attended and I spoke with her every Sunday, I really didn't get to know her. My dad's other sister would visit about every other year, but these visits were short, and it wasn't until we started corresponding in the late 1970s that I got to know her better through her letters.

The three sisters had a total of 11 children, Although my Aunt Nath lived near my home, I never met either one of her sons. Both sons have since passed away. When I was eleven years old, I met the three daughters of my dad’s sister Blanche who died in 1945. They were all working in the local hospital and my mother and I were visiting her uncle who had recently had a stroke. She took the time to track down the sisters to introduce them to me.

On two different visits to Detroit, I had the opportunity to meet two of the daughters of my Aunt Ruth. Of the five cousins I have met personally, I only saw two of these more than once, and that was in 1982 when one from each family both visited my mother’s church one Sunday when I happened to be in town. Seven of my cousins I’ve never met and sadly all but one has passed on.

To exacerbate matters, an age difference separated me and these cousins. All of my first cousins on my dad’s side were older than me and some even had children older than me. There really was no contact with this side of the family other than the sporadic letter I would get from my aunt in Detroit.

Facebook has changed this, as I have connected with one of my three surviving first cousins on my dad’s side. In addition, some of his children and the children of his siblings are my Facebook friends. While I do not know much about their families, we have traded photos and opened limited relationships that previously did not exist.

My cousin has also agreed to join in our family Autosomal DNA project. I hope to get my dad’s two surviving nieces to participate as well. His results are pending, but we should share about 6.25% of our DNA as we are half cousins. A full cousin would share approximately 12.5%. He also has the same Mitochondrial DNA as my father and grandmother. So this will be enlightening in regards to our common grandmother's ancient ancestry.

Finding Distant Family

One of the projects I am working on currently is a Y-DNA Surname Project. Because of the extensive cataloging of Roger J. Ouston and the historical research in various archives of Yorkshire by Tim J. Owston, those who share our surname (both spellings Ouston and Owston) have a better understanding of their roots.

The three of us had been researching our respective families and we had connected at about the same time in 1989 and have corresponded since then. By the way, Roger is my ninth cousin and Tim is my seventh cousin once removed.

In our combined research, we discovered that there were three unique families that shared our unusual surname; however, there were no surviving records that connected any of the three groups. For simplicity sake, I have named these groups as Owston A, Owston B, and Owston C. They were alphabetized according to their most distant known ancestor.

OWSTON A – Ganton/Foxholes

Owston A can be traced back to John Owston who was living in 1490. This family settled in and around Ganton and Foxholes in the former East Riding of Yorkshire. This area is now in the newer county of North Yorkshire.

Although this is the oldest group, all of its descendants come from one couple: Thomas Owston (1753-1823) and Mary Vickerman (1753-1818). It constitutes the largest group of Owstons in the United States. While there are numerous Owston A descendants in the US, currently those with the surname are descended from two of Thomas’ and Mary’s sons: Thomas and Francis.

OWSTON B – Sherburn

The families from Owston B (which contains the Ouston clans) are descended from Peter Owston who died in 1567. This family settled in Sherburn and West Heslerton in the former East Riding of Yorkshire. These hamlets, along with Ganton and Foxholes, are now located within the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire. Sherburn is two miles west of Ganton.

Owston B is most diverse line of Owstons and consequently it is the largest worldwide. While the most distant relationship among Owston A families is at the 6th cousin level, Owston B relatives can be as distant as 10th cousins.

Due to non paternal events, a very large number of individuals from this lineage are descended from an illegitimate son who had taken his mother’s surname. Although still related to other Sherburn Owstons, this group will not share the same paternal Y-DNA as do other Sherburn Owstons. There is also a sizable contingency of Oustons in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia and a family of Owstons in Western Australia that are all connected to Owston B.

Three lines currently exist in North America: a family of Oustons descended from Robert Schipper Ouston in Canada, a family descended from John Beilby Owston who had settled in Detroit, and the progeny of Royal Navy warrant officer William Owston – the line from which I descend.

OWSTON C – Thornholme/Burton Agnes

This line developed south of the other two lines, but within 15 miles of Ganton and Sherburn. The hamlet of Thornholme and its parish of Burton Agnes are located in both the historic region and the current county named as the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The Owston C family is descended from Richard Owston who was living at about 1700. This is the smallest group of Owstons worldwide and at one time was the largest group of Owstons in Canada. This may no longer be the case as there appears to be more individuals named Ouston from the Sherburn line than Owstons from the Thornholme line currently living in Canada.

There have been several Owston C families in the US; however, the last individual bearing the surname from this line died about 20 years ago. Another line where the surname doesn't continue is of that of naturalist Alan Owston.

Married twice to Japanese women, Alan Owston's daughter from his first marriage was raised in Maine and the children of his second marriage settled in British Columbia following his death in Japan. These descendants, who were half Japanese, were also from the Thornholme line. Unfortunately, only non-Owston descendants survive from this family and the appellation Owston can be found used as a middle name among the survivors.

There is another Owston C family which had taken the hyphenated Owston-Doyle surname in the early twentieth century in England. Descendants bearing this hyphenated surname live in New Zealand.

The widest relationship among members of the Owston C line is at the eighth cousin level.

Tracking a Surname

Having an unusual surname makes it easier to find folks that have a potential relationship. According to the 2000 census, the Owston surname is ranked as the 118,236th most popular name in the US – with 136 individuals bearing the surname. In addition, 93.38% of those named Owston are listed as non-Hispanic whites; however, the racial and ethnic mix of the other 6.62% of those remaining is hidden with the exception of the category of non-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islander, which is listed as 0%.

The Census Bureau has suppressed data percentages for minority races and ethnicities when the numbers fall below a certain threshold. In the case of the Owston surname, information is not available for the following groups: non-Hispanic black, non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaskan native, non-Hispanic two or more races, and those of Hispanic origin. Since 0% is not listed as with Asians and Pacific Islanders, one may assume that the other categories are represented, however, in small numbers.

Additionally, the ranking of 118,236th for the surname is down from the previous census which garnered a ranking as the 61,384th most popular surname in the US. While the Census Bureau does not provide corresponding headcounts for 1990, there is an appearance that the number of individuals with our surname drastically decreased over the ten year period. Figures from the 2010 census are not yet available.

While the specifics are not known, it may be supposed that the drop in numbers can be attributed to several factors including, but not limited to, the following: a larger ratio of deaths in comparison to births, a larger percent of females marrying and taking their husbands’ surnames, and a larger number of divorces where the ex-wife reverted to her maiden name rather than keep her ex-husband’s name.

While over the years the surname Ouston has been in use in the United States, the numbers have never been in large in comparison to the Owston spelling. In regards to the spelling today, either a very small number of persons or none at all are currently living in the US under this alternative spelling.

In the United Kingdom, the Owston spelling, with 154 individuals, ranks at the 19,127th most popular surname. In Australia, only 16 individuals share the name and it is ranked as the 61,822nd most popular name. The Ouston variation represents a smaller percentage of the populace and does not appear in the UK database. Numbers were not available for either Canada or New Zealand where Owstons and Oustons both dwell.

Interestingly enough, there are three pronunciations of the name.  The majority of Owstons/Oustons worldwide pronounce the surname as OW-ston.  A large contingency of American Owstons from the Ganton line pronounce it as OH-ston.  Finally, a small Thornholme family in Canada call themselves by the name of OO-ston. 

It is probably safe to assume that less than 500 individuals worldwide bear the surnames of Owston and Ouston. While there is an appearance that some who are named Ouston may have different origins than East Yorkshire, the bulk of Owstons and Oustons probably trace back to one of the aforementioned families.

Those who have a more common surname will have great difficulty in repeating this exercise as the sources of these names may be radically different. In some cases a common name such as Smith may be descended from anyone whose ancestors were blacksmiths, tinsmiths, silversmiths, coppersmiths, and etc. Family origins were probably from a very wide geographic area.

It may be a case where the surname was Anglicized to Smith from a name meaning the same occupation in other languages as in Schmidt (German), Smits (Dutch), Kowalski (Polish), Herrera (Spanish), Ferraro (Italian), Kovacs (Hungarian), or Haddad (Arabian).

It also was a name that many adopted as a surname over the years for a variety of reasons - to become Americanized or taking a former slave owner's surname. Trying to connect various Smith families would be impossible as no connection is likely to exist. Therefore, common names have severe limitations in trying to do a wide surname search.

My first exercise in tracking my surname in the US and Canada came by doing directory assistance searches of the major cities in every area code in 1978. At this time, directory assistance was a free service through AT&T. I was able to contact a number of folks this way and it helped in either connecting to or distancing our line from other various Owston families as no connection seemed imminent. At the time, I was unaware of the Ouston spelling variation.

Using Facebook to Connect

I was one of the first with our surname to join Facebook when it was primarily a site used for students and educators. When it became available to anyone, the social networking site’s floodgates opened and hoards of individuals streamed in as users.

Immediately, others with the Owston surname were asking to be friends. I sought out a few myself and there is a small network of Owstons who only know each other through Facebook and are connected to one another by electrons and possibly by blood.

In preparation of doing a Y-DNA surname study, I began searching the surnames of Owston and Ouston on Facebook and tried to determine each individual's family of origin if possible. Since several people had more than one Facebook page, I counted these individuals only once.

The list includes those born as Owstons/Oustons, women who listed their Ouston/Owston maiden name as an alternative to their married name, those who currently wear the surname due to marriage or adoption, divorced women still using the surname, those with hyphenated names, and the occasional individual with a first or middle name of Ouston or Owston.

Individuals with the surname were found in the the UK (England, Scotland, and Wales), the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Nigeria, and the Philippines.

The numbers are as follows:

Owston as a first name1
Owston as a middle name1
Ouston as a middle name1

By comparing the names (and the names of the individual’s friends) and locations to Roger Ouston’s directory of Ouston and Owston families, I was able to ascertain the family group for nearly two-thirds of the individuals with the surname. The numbers are as follows:

Definitely Owston A4311.50%
Likely Owston A61.60%
Definitely Owston B12633.69%
Likely Owston B4612.30%
Definitely Owston C184.81%

Those listed as likely being part of the Owston A and Owston B lines are ascertained by their locations and/or who their friends are; however, I am unable to determine their exact relationship within their specific line. The large number of unknown individuals are those whose locations and friend information is not viewable by non-friends. Some of these accounts may be abandoned or duplicate accounts.

Removing the unknowns and combining the numbers of definite and likely members, the percentages of family members with the Owston/Ouston surname are probably close to the actual worldwide percentages.

Owston A4920.50%
Owston B17271.97%
Owston C187.53%

For those who are related to me in the Sherburn or Owston B group, I am able to trace the degree of relationship I have with these individuals. These numbers only include those who have the Owston or Ouston name associated with their profile – those who do not are not represented in these numbers.

Second Cousins2
Second Cousins Once Removed2
Third Cousins1
Third Cousins Once Removed2
Fourth Cousins1
Fourth Cousins Once Removed3
Fourth Cousins Twice Removed2
Seventh Cousins Once Removed3
Seventh Cousins Twice Removed4
Eighth Cousins8
Eighth Cousins Once Removed14
Eighth Cousins Twice Removed3
Eighth Cousins Thrice Removed2
Ninth Cousins10
Ninth Cousins Once Removed19
Ninth Cousins Twice Removed4
Tenth Cousins Once Removed5
Tenth Cousins Twice Removed9
Tenth Cousins Thrice Removed4
Wives, Ex-Wives, and Widows of Relatives19
Step Children of Relatives2
Likely Seventh Cousins5
Likely Ninth Cousins35
Likely Tenth Cousins6

If you notice, there are no first cousins (as my father was his father’s only child) and there are gaps at the fifth and sixth cousin levels. No Owston descendants have continued to the present from the siblings of my third and fourth great grandfathers.

While it took a while to analyze these 374 accounts, I found it an interesting exercise in trying to learn more about those who happen to share my unique surname.

Building A Community

One of the ways to connect on Facebook is to create a community page. When I first publicized this post, I heard from Sonia L. on DNA Forums. She provided a suggestion of setting up a community page on Facebook.

I have completed this task and the page can be found at Anyone with a connection to these families is free to join and participate. Hopefully, we can learn more about our surname and families.

Connecting the Three Families

While no documentation serves to connect the Owston A, Owston B, and Owston C families, certain circumstantial documentation indicates a possible connection. One circumstantial piece of evidence comes from the will of John Owston, son of Peter Owston - the progenitor of the Owston B line.

Within this document from 1615, the testator, John Owston (Owston B), forgave the debt of five shillings owed by Robert Owston of Potter Brompton (Owston A). Unfortunately this document does not indicate a relationship between Robert and John - only that John had lent money to Robert. While this apparent lender/lessee relationship existed, a family connection may not have existed.

Additionally, Roger Ouston theorized that a connection existed between the Ganton (Owston A) and Thornholme (Owston C) lines based on onomastic evidence of the similarity of early forenames found exclusively in both lines (but not in Owston B).

While considered a weaker form of evidence in connecting families, it is often the only piece of evidence that is available and genealogists have grown to accept its value in certain situations. Although Roger's argument was well constructed, it could not be considered conclusive in proving an absolute relationship.

Even with the short distance of their origins and the existence of other evidence suggesting a relationship among the three lines, nothing conclusively proves a familial connection among Owston A, Owston B, & Owston C lines. With the lack of documentation proving a relationship, only Y-DNA testing could prove that the families share ancestral ties along the paternal or surname line.

Through connections I have made on Facebook, I have asked members of the three lines to participate in Y-DNA testing. Currently, I have two from every line except the Owston C group. At present, only one individual from Owston C has committed to the project. I am looking for another from this lineage that is not a close relative to my first participant.

By comparing the results, it is possible to determine if all three or two of the three families share a common male ancestor. I am hoping that the results will show we have common roots; however, I will not know until all of the lab work is completed. Having been tested at the Y-DNA 46 and 67 marker level, my haplogroup falls within a Norse haplogroup that is variously identified as I1, I1*, and I1-M253.

Results of the Y-DNA tests should be available by January or February 2011. While there are several Owstons that have had a broken male descent and some with multiple illegitimacies, I have been careful in asking those who do not have non paternal events within their surname lineage. It will be interesting to see the results.

For more information on the Owston/Ouston Y-DNA Project, see or contact me directly.

While Facebook was not designed as a genealogical tool, it can become a means to an end. It allows you to reconnect with close family members. You can initialize contact with family members that have become distant because of circumstances. It is also interesting to see how much commonality you share with those who share an ancestral bond. Finally, it can aid in surname studies if your name is unique enough to easily track.


British Surnames and Surname Data: Surname Summary Data for Owston.

Genealogy Data: Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 1990. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, 1996.

Genealogy Data: Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau, 2009.

Ouston, R.J. A Directory of Ouston and Owston Families. Roger J. Ouston, 2003.

Owston, T.J. Owston Family: Sherburn Based Branch of the Family, East Yorkshire with Links to Other Branches. York: Timothy J. Owston, 2010.