Kaiser Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Kaiser Surname Meaning

The Kaiser surname derived from the old High German keiser, meaning “emperor,” which itself came from the Latin imperial title Caesar. The medieval surname was probably occupational, either for a servant in the Emperor’s household or for an actor who played the part of an Emperor. It could also have been a nickname for a person with an imperious manner! Indeed der Kaiser has been the nickname of Franz Beckenbauer, the great player, coach and manager of the German football team.

The Kaiser spelling is most common in south Germany and also appears in Austria and Switzerland. Kayser crops up in Luxemburg primarily. De Keyser is the Flemish version, mostly found in Belgium; while Keizer is the Dutch spelling today. The main American spellings have been Kaiser, Kiser, Keyser, and Kayser.

Kaiser Surname Resources on The Internet

Kaiser, Kiser and Keyser Surname Ancestry

  • from Holland, Southern Germany and from Jewish emigrants
  • to America and Canada

Kaisers number some 85,000 in Germany today, with a further 15,000 in Austria and Switzerland. There are 6,000 de Keysers in Belgium and another 6,000 Keizers in Holland.

England. Neither Kaiser nor its variant names have been at all common in England (although one Keyser did emigrate from Bedfordshire to America in the 17th century).

A Belgian from Ghent, Polydore de Keyser, made his mark on Victorian London. He had arrived in London in the 1840’s and soon founded the Royal Hotel that was to become famous. He ran it until 1887. At that time he was knighted and elected Lord Mayor of London, the first Catholic to hold that honor since the Reformation. A Kaiser, Jenny Kaiser, was a well-known Yiddish actress in London in the early 1900’s.

America.  The Keyser and Kiser names appeared first in America, followed by Kaiser.

Keysers. George Keyser who came to Lynn, Massachusetts in 1638 was in fact from England. He and his son John were tanners. Later the name became Kezar and a branch moved north to New Hampshire. However, the main Keyser arrivals in America were of Dutch or German extraction.

Dirck Keyser, from a Dutch Mennonite family in Amsterdam, came to Germantown in Pennsylvania in 1688 at the invitation of William Penn.  “No. 6205 on Main Street was built by Dirck Keyser in 1738. There is a tradition that this was the first two-story house erected in Germantown. ‘DK 1738’ was cut in the stones on the front of the house alongside one of the windows.”  

His descendants remained in Germantown for many generations. One branch settled in Baltimore where William Keyser was an executive with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in the 19th century. Peter Keyser was director of the Philadelphia Eye and Ear Infirmary in the 1870’s. Charles Keyser’s 1888 book The Keyser Family recounted the history.

Charles Keyser arrived in Philadelphia from Wurttemberg in Germany in 1749. He came as a soldier to fight for the British in the French and Indian wars. Later he made his home at the mouth of the Hawkshull river in Shenandoah county, Virginia. He died there in 1774.  

“In 1876 his grave was opened by Charles Keyser, one of his grandsons, and other Keyser relatives. The skull, teeth and hair were found to be in a wonderful state of preservation after having been buried 102 years.”  

Meanwhile Johannes Keyser from Bavaria had made his way to the Schoharie valley in upstate New York around the year 1710. These Keysers were among the early settlers of what became a German community there. Indeed, Maria Keyser married its first German minister, the Rev. Peter Sommer, who arrived there in 1743. On the male side there were three generations of Barent Keysers. Abraham Keyser was the sheriff of Schoharie county from 1815 to 1819.

Another Keyser line seems to have begun with Joseph Keyser, a farmer at Alexandria in New Hampshire in the early 1800’s. His descendant Frank Ray Keyser Sr. moved from New Hampshire to Vermont in the 1920’s and became its Supreme Court Justice. F. Ray Keyser Jr. was Governor of Vermont in 1961 and Ray Sr. had the unique experience of administering the oath of office to his son. Ray Sr. held cases until he was 90 and lived to be 102.

Kisers. Many of the Kiser families in America trace their ancestry back to Michael and Mary Kiser from Germany who were married in Bucks county, Pennsylvania in the 1750’s. Thirty years later they moved to the Shenandoah valley in Virginia. Many of their descendants remained in Rockingham county, Virginia. Valentine Kiser migrated to Tennessee and his descendants were to be found in Missouri and Arkansas. The number of these Kisers today are thought to be in excess of 25,000.

Kaisers. Kaisers did not really start to appear in America until the 1840’s. They came from Germany and Switzerland mainly and usually headed for the Midwest. Among their number were:

  • Herman and Elizabeth Kaiser from Hanover in Germany, arriving in the late 1840’s, who made their home in Clayton county, Iowa.
  • Gerhard and Anna Kaiser who left the home near Koln in Germany in 1851 for Ohio before finally settling in Washington county, Wisconsin.
  • Eckhardt Kaiser from Hesse in Germany who came to Walton, Cass county, Indiana in 1854 and started the Kaiser farm there. His great grandson Russell Kaiser was the town treasurer from 1920 to 1927.
  • Andreas Kaiser from the Rhine Palatine in Germany who came with his family around 1856. They made their home in Marathon county, Wisconsin. He died there in 1897 at the ripe age of 82.
  • and Lucien Kaiser who arrived with his parents from Switzerland in 1869 to farm in northern Michigan.

Franz Kaiser from Hesse in Germany arrived in 1872 and made his home in upstate New York. He was a shoemaker. His son Henry J. Kaiser, born ten years later, headed to the West Coast in 1906 where he started a construction company. His business began to boom in the 1930’s when his firm was one of the prime contractors for the giant dams that were being built there. However, he is best remembered as the shipbuilder of World War Two where his shipyard in Richmond, California turned out Liberty ships in record time.

Jewish Kaisers.  Kaiser in America can be Jewish.

An early example was Alois Kaiser from Hungary who came to Baltimore in 1866 where he was appointed the cantor at the Oheb Shalom congregation. Leon Kaiser, born in Brooklyn in 1884, was a highly esteemed New York educator after whom Kaiser Park in Brooklyn was named.

And Herman Kaiser fled from the Nazis in Germany in 1935 and made his home in Oklahoma. His son George Kaiser grew rich from oil and banking and is one of the world’s biggest philanthropists today.

Canada. The Kaiser name in Nova Scotia dates from the 1750’s when Johann George Kaiser came to Lunenburg with his family from Hesse in Germany as one of its early settlers. Kaiser, sometimes Keizer and sometimes other spellings, has remained part of the town since that time. A descendant Sherry-Anne Comeau has compiled a book of the family history.

Kaiser Surname Miscellany

Kaiser, Kiser, Keyser, and Kayser in America.  The principal American spellings have been Kaiser, Kiser, Keyser, and Kayser.  The household numbers today are approximately:

  • Kaiser – 15,000, with a high concentration in Midwest states such as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
  • Kiser – 9,000, with the largest numbers today in North Carolina.
  • Keyser – 4,000, with the largest numbers today in Pennsylvania. (these were among the earliest arrivals, including some from Holland and England).
  • and Kayser – around 2,000, the smallest contingent with the highest numbers in Ohio and Iowa.

Dirck Keyser, Early Settler in Germantown, Pennsy;lvania.  The following words were attributed to Dirck Keyser, an early settler in the Germantown community in Pennsylvania.

“I have lived a life of great change.  Our Dutch family of Keyser, descended from our Bavarian line, was first represented in Amsterdam by my grandfather, Gerrit Keyser.   I was destined to lead our family to the new country where I became the founder of the Keyser family in America.

My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Mennonite minister.  I too am a Menist or Mennonite.

Yes, I knew William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania.  Penn visited Germany and Holland to invite all to join him in his new settlement in America and to enjoy free religious thought. My sons Dirck and Pieter Dirck and my daughter Johanna joined me and other Amsterdam Mennonites in our 1688 emigration to Germantown, Pennsylvania.

In Holland I was a manufacturer and dealer in silks and had enjoyed being a man of some prominence.  Our strong work ethic contributed to making our new hometown become a prosperous center of trade, a most unusual distinction for a rural town near Philadelphia.”

Dirck Keyser was born in Holland in 1635 and died in Germantown in 1714.  During his time in Germantown he was said to have always worn a silk coat, something which his neighbors initially found as too showy.

The Keysers in the Schoharie Valley.  In the 1750’s two German families – the Keysers and the Schaeffers – made a new settlement at Keyser Kill, now called Breakabeen, where the Breakabeen stream fed into the Schoharie river.  Barent Keyser built a small grist mill there around 1765.

Barent’s family being large, he “worked out” by the month among the farmers of the valley.  He thereby managed to put away a few dollars each month with which in time he was able to be the owner of the farm.

While his labor began on the farm, he said that the woods around him abounded with deer.  During one winter, when the snow was very deep, a neighbor killed over seventy deer with his ax.  Bears were also numerous and plagued the farmers by killing their hogs and sheep.

Lucien Kaiser in Northern Michigan.  Lucien, born in Switzerland in 1852, had come with his parents Frederick and Martha Kaiser when they had emigrated in America in 1869 They were among the first settlers of the Elk Rapids township in Antrim county when it was still virgin country.

Their first task was to build a log cabin and clear the land, making some money from the sale of the timber.  Lucien would frequently walk to Elk Rapids for supplies which he would carry on his back, often bearing a load of as much as 150 pounds.

Lucien later secured his own tract of land in Milton township and began clearing the land.  His first major purchase was a yoke of oxen, for which he paid two hundred dollars.  His homestead comprised 192 acres.  He grew crops and raised cattle there.   He had married in 1873 and his son George continued to farm on the land after Lucien’s death.

Henry J. Kaiser’s Upbringing.  Following their marriage in 1872, Franz and Mary Kaiser settled in Sprout Brook, New York where Frank as he became opened a cobbler’s workshop.  After three daughters were born, Mary gave birth to a son in 1882 who was given a Protestant baptism two years later with the name of Heinrich Kaiser.

There are no indications from any element of Henry Kaiser’s subsequent career that his German origins were at all important to him.  How early his family’s assimilation was completed is underscored by the quick change of his first name, from Heinrich to Henry.  Although it can no longer be dated precisely, it must have occurred well before World War One.

In 1943 Kaiser’s oldest sister recalled that in her childhood she never ate a meal without saying a prayer, and as the first-born she often had to lead the benediction.  It was initially in German, but soon in English.  Though his father was Catholic, Henry Kaiser was raised in his mother’s Protestant faith and attended services at the local Methodist church.

Kaiser Names

  • Henry Kaiser was an industrialist known as the father of modern American shipbuilding. He established the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California which built the Liberty ships during World War Two.   
  • George Kaiser, the son of a Jewish businessman who fled the Nazis, developed his oil and banking business in Oklahoma. He became one of the richest men in America and is the third most generous in terms of philanthropy.

Kaiser Numbers Today

  • 30,000 in America (most numerous in Ohio)
  • 3,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Kaiser and Like Surnames 

The first wave of German immigration into America came in the early 1700’s from the Rhine Palatine and Switzerland.  They were fleeing religious persecution at home.  Most ended up in Pennsylvania, bringing their Mennonite church with them.  Some went to the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York.  Their Germanic names often changed under English rule to English-style names.  Thus Fischer became Fisher, Schneider Snyder, Hubner Hoover and so forth.

The reasons for immigration were different in the 19th century – in search of a better life, sometimes to avoid the draft.  They came from all German states and went not just to Pennsylvania but all over as the middle and west of the country was opening up.  And they brought German skills with them, notably beer-making.

Here are some of the notable German surnames in America that you can check out.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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