Nicholas Otterson and Jane Middlemas
  Ryton, Sunderland and Jarrow - County Durham - England
  Winnebago County, Wisconsin, USA
This is a brief historical overview of Otterson families from Sunderland and other towns and villages in County Durham, England, tracing lines starting with the birth in 1783 of Nicholas Otterson, a sailor and later coal miner. Earlier than that, the picture is incomplete because of the absence so far of definitive historical evidence. Some 230 years later, although some of the Ottersons originating with Nicholas have spread out to other parts of England and overseas, the biggest concentration of his descendants carrying that name remains in the northeast of England. 

The name Otterson probably originated in Scandinavia. An examination of the worldwide distribution of Ottersons today still shows the name most frequently occurring in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. It seems possible that the Danish invasions of the east coast of northern England between 800 AD and 1000 AD account for the presence of Ottersons in the area a thousand years later. Some researchers have also suggested an ancient English origin for the name. 

It seems likely that some Ottersons moved to nearby Scotland, and from there to Northern Ireland in the “plantations” of the 1700s. Today, there are still more Ottersons in Northern Ireland than in the Irish Republic to the South. Most of the Ottersons who went to America from the British Isles in the 1800s appear to have emigrated from Ireland. There may also have been migration into England from Scotland and Ireland, and more research is needed.

The earliest known Otterson known to have lived in the Sunderland area is Thomas Otterson or Outerson who, with his wife, the former Ann Spraggon, had six children. It has so far not proved possible to connect a direct line of descent from Thomas, but it seems reasonable that one of his three sons - Thomas, Joseph or William - could be the father of the Nicholas Otterson born in Sunderland about 1783. Then, Sunderland was just a rural coastal village, but like much of Britain it would soon be transformed by the coal and shipbuilding industries of the Industrial Revolution.  Most of the known Otterson families in northeastern England today - and many other families with different surnames - trace their lines back to Nicholas and his wife, Jane Middlemas, who he married at Ryton in 1812. Jane, still in her late teens when she married, was born in Stamfordham, Northumberland about 1795. The Holy Cross parish church where they were married dates back to the 13th Century and is still in use (pictured, right).

The life of Nicholas and Jane has been drawn by several researchers from just a few existing documents - the census records from 1841 and later, the unique Corder manuscripts of Sunderland, together with Pallot’s Marriage Index, baptismal records from the church they attended in Sunderland, and their children’s marriage certificates. In 2009, Nicholas’s gravestone was discovered together with significant information on how he spent his last years in the United States.

It is certain the newly married couple did not stay long in Ryton, Durham. Their large family began just over a year later with the birth of their son, John (he would not live to see adulthood), but they had already moved to Sunderland. The next three children would all be daughters, but then there was a string of six more sons. According to research by Vivian Byers Hardy in 2005, the Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland where the first four children were christened lists Nicholas’s occupation in each case as “mariner.” It therefore seems likely he would have been in the merchant service, possibly on coastal vessels. With his 12 children coming so rapidly and regularly, it seems less likely that he would have been away for long stretches or serving in the Royal Navy. In any event, the family moved home several times in these early years, starting at Long Bank (possibly the same address as High Street), then the “East End” of Sunderland and then Stafford Street in 1819.

By 1822, the family had moved north to the town of Jarrow, where it appears Nicholas and four of his sons worked in the coal mines for several years. A remarkable document has been found which gives a glimpse into this family’s working conditions in the early 1840s, and it mentions Nicholas in passing, though not by name. It was uncovered by Margaret Otterson Seabourne in 2005, and is an extract from the Royal Commission into the Employment of Children in Mines. In it, 12-year-old John Otterson, Nicholas’s seventh child, describes his life as a child miner in that terrible period, and includes a reference to his father. The extract is reproduced on the page for John Otterson and Isabella Kane  and makes sober reading.

Nicholas and Jane’s last child, Jacob, died at the age of 3 of a bowel inflammation, and by this time it seems Nicholas and his wife had returned to Sunderland, and Nicholas was working as a miner at Monkwearmouth Colliery. On his infant’s death certificate he describes himself as a mariner, but other evidence suggests he was still in the mines.

Emigration to America

After Jane, his wife of 45 years, died at Monkwearmouth Colliery in 1857 of chronic asthma, Nicholas suddenly disappears from the historical record in England. He would have been about 74 and all his children had grown up, but Nicholas is nowhere on the English census taken four years later in 1861, or on that of 1871, and there is no death registration for him in England.

The first hint of an explanation came in 2006 when all the English and US census data was finally available online and searchable in various ways. An old retired Englishman in his late 80s named Nicholas Otterson suddenly appears on the 1870 federal census of the United States. He is living in Winneconne, which was little more than a few farms along the Wolf River, in Winnebago County, Wisconsin.

The census shows that this Nicholas is living in the home of an English-born farmer, George Blake. Both George and his wife, Elizabeth, are in their mid-fifties and the home is valued at $7,000 - not a small sum in those days. The personal estate is worth another $1,159, making George Blake one of the most prosperous farmers in the village. Nicholas is the only other person living in the home. The presence of this name, while unusual, could have been mere coincidence, if it wasn’t for the crucial clues in the US census of 1860.

Ten years earlier, a careless census taker has written what looks like Nicholas Allison and his birth place as Denmark. But there is no doubt this person is the old mariner and miner from County Durham in England. George Blake’s wife, Elizabeth, turns out to be none other than Elizabeth Otterson, Nicholas’s own daughter. The evidence is provided by the two other people living in the home - Thomas Parker, age 17, and Jane, age 12. Thomas Parker was already known from previous research to be the name of the man that Elizabeth Otterson married in England in 1837.

There was only one explanation. After his wife’s death, Nicholas decided to go and live with his daughter and two grandchildren in America. She and husband Thomas Parker and four-year old son Thomas had sailed to America in the 1840s. But her husband subsequently died and Elizabeth remarried, to George Blake. Certainly it’s possible that George Blake was an old family friend or acquaintance. George himself had emigrated to the US much earlier. He appears on the 1850 US census as a young, single man working as a farmer, but there is also a George Blake nine years earlier on the census of Hetton-le-Hole in County Durham, England, who is a coal miner. The village is only 12 miles from  Jarrow, and this coal miner could be the same man who left for America and ended his life as a comfortable farmer.

The more detailed story of Elizabeth Otterson and husbands Thomas Parker and George Blake is told here, along with more details of their posterity. 

As for Nicholas, his grave was located early in 2009 with the help of researcher Mary Otterson, of Wisconsin (interestingly, not a part of the English Ottersons at all, but a descendant of the Scottish Outtersons, a completely different family). He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in the little village of Poygan, Wisconsin, just a couple of miles west of Winneconne where he spent his last 20 years. According to the gravestone, Nicholas died on 27 September 1879, age 99. His age is probably overstated by a couple of years, judging by what other records of his life are available. In March of 2009, flowers were laid on Nicholas’s grave by his third great grandson, Michael Otterson - probably for the first time in well over a century.
Children of
Nicholas Otterson and Jane Middlemas

John Otterson - Born 1813 Sunderland, Durham
Edward Otterson - Born 1815 Sunderland, Durham
Elizabeth Otterson - Born 1817 Sunderland, Durham
Jane Otterson - Born 1819 Sunderland, Durham
Joannah Otterson - Born 1822 Sunderland, Durham
Nicholas Otterson - Born 1825 Jarrow, Durham
John Otterson - Born 1828 Jarrow, Durham
Joseph Otterson - Born 1831 Jarrow, Durham
William Otterson - Born 1831 Jarrow, Durham,
James Otterson - Born 1834 Jarrow, Durham
Jacob Otterson - Born 1836 Jarrow, Durhamotterson_elizabeth_and_thomas_parker_1816.htmlotterson__nicholas_and_hannah_1825.htmlotterson__john_and_isabella_1828.htmlshapeimage_6_link_0shapeimage_6_link_1shapeimage_6_link_2




Above and above left: Holy Cross Parish Church  at Ryton where Nicholas Otterson and Jane Middlemas were married in 1812. The church is still in active use.



S T A T E  O F 


Green Bay



Above right: Physical map of the State of Wisconsin, showing location of the small villages of Winneconne, Poygan and Omro in relation to Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

Right: Wisconsin as it was about 1850 when George Blake was farming there. Winneconne is too small to be shown, but is marked by the red dot to the southwest of Green Bay.


Lake Michigan

Lake Winnebago

Lake Superior

Parents of
Nicholas Otterson
Father: Unknown 
Mother: Unknown
Jane Middlemas
Father: Unknown
Mother: Unknown
Nicholas Otterson: 
Born 1783 Sunderland, Durham, England
Jane Middlemas: 
Born 1795 Stamfordham, Northumberland, England

The Otterson Families of Northeast England and related lines                                  To share information or comment on this site, contact the webmaster: Michael Otterson



  1. Bullet Return toThe People” name index

  2. Bullet Elizabeth’s brother, Joseph, in Kentucky and Oklahoma

  3. Bullet300 years of Otterson descent: how the Otterson name came down to us since 1728.

Index and Links to Otterson families on this site

For reasons of privacy, only deceased persons are featured on this site in any detail.

Thomas Otterson and Ann Spraggon - 1720s - 1780s
Nicholas Otterson and Jane Middlemas - 1783-1870
Elizabeth Otterson and Thomas Parker - 1817-1855
Elizabeth Otterson and George Blake - 1855-1898
Nicholas Otterson and Hannah Calvert - 1826-1880
John Otterson and Isabella Kane - 1828-1904
John Otterson and Jane Storey - 1845-1919
Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy - 1881-1970
James Otterson and Jessie Abernethy - 1884-1960
Mary Otterson and William Smith - 1907-
Thomas Otterson and Cecilia Allen - 1909-1995
Robert Otterson and Doris Dix - 1911-1977
Doris Otterson - 1913-1999
William Otterson and Doris Hill - 1916-1993

For details of the family tree of Nicholas Otterson and Jane Middlemas, click on the WorldConnect icon below. This will open a window for these individuals in the Otterson-Berry family tree at, a free site.