Keller Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Keller Surname Meaning

Keller is a German surname, found primarily in Switzerland and southern Germany, meaning “cellar” or “basement.” It is an occupational name for the steward who oversaw the stores and accounts in a large household.

Keller Surname Resources on The Internet

Keller Surname Ancestry

  • from Switzerland, Southern Germany and from Ireland (Cork)
  • to America and Canada

The Keller name seems to have originated in Switzerland. The story goes that many Swiss came down from the mountains at the time of the Black Death in the 14th century and made their home in the Rhineland part of Bavaria, with the Kellers bringing their name with them.  Baron Burkhart Keller was a legendary figure who lived at Castle Hohenbaden near Baden Baden in Germany sometime in the 15th century.

Today the Keller name numbers some 40,000 in Switzerland and is mainly found in the western part of the country. There are a further 70,000 in Germany, again in the west in Baden Wurttemburg and Rheinland Pfalz.

Ireland. Keller may also be an Irish name, derived from the Gaelic O’Ceileachair sept found in Cork and Kerry. The anglicized version was more commonly Kelleher, but Cornelius Keller, a Cork city alderman in the 1850’s, was said to have come from a junior branch of this family.

Matthew Keller left Cork for Texas and the American West in the 1830’s; while George Keller departed Cork for New York and Hartford, Connecticut in 1852. Meanwhile some of the descendants of Robert Killough who had left Ulster for Pennsylvania in the 1730’s adopted the Keller spelling after they had moved to Maine later in the 1700’s.

America. The Keller arrivals in America may be described as having come in two waves.

The first, the result of either escaping religious persecution or the military draft, came in the 18th century and they headed for Pennsylvania. The second, coming in the 19th century, was more for economic opportunity and they spread across the country.

18th Century Arrivals.  Kellers came from small towns and villages in the Rhine Palatine region such as Lettweiler, Weierbach, Zweibrucken and Kippenheim, and also from Switzerland. These Kellers have been the subject of a number of books.

The earliest was probably the History of the Keller Family written by the Rev. Eli Keller in 1905. Joseph Keller was the forebear of this family. He arrived from the Rhine Palatine in 1737 and made his home in Plainfield township in Northampton county, then on the western frontier. In 1757 this Keller family was raided by Indians, with the loss of their eldest child and the abduction of other members of the family.

More recent books have been The Genealogy of the Keller Family by Linda Schillinger in 2006 and The Keller Family by Darel Keller in 2008. The former book traced the family of Swiss-born Martin Keller who settled in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania in the 1730’s; the latter that of Anthony Keller from Lettweiler in the Rhine Palatine who arrived in 1740 and settled first in Pennsylvania and later in North Carolina.

Conrad Keller came to Lancaster county from Switzerland in 1735. His line led to David Keller who migrated south to Alabama in the 1820’s. David’s son Arthur built the family homestead Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama after the Civil War. It was there in 1880 that the famous Helen Keller, now honored across the land, was born.

Other early arrivals were:

  • Jacob Keller from the Basel canton in Switzerland who came in the late 1720’s and also settled in Lancaster county. He was a member of the German Baptist church and died there in 1794 at the good age of 88.
  • and Heinrich Keller from Weierbach in Baden who came in 1738 and made his home in Bedminster township, Bucks county. He helped found Kellers’ Church there in 1746. All three of his sons fought in the Revolutionary War.

Kellers also came to the Shenandoah valley in Virginia:

  • George Keller moved to the German settlement there from Lancaster county in 1750. His original homestead stood until 1864 when it was burnt down during the Civil War. The house that still stands was built by George’s son Henry in the early 1800’s and there is also there today a Keller mill and a Keller store. Kellers have remained in the area.
  • while Abraham Keller was first recorded in Shenandoah county in 1758. He was a carpenter and builder by trade. His son Isaac was killed chasing Indians in 1786. His other three sons migrated to Kentucky and Indiana.

Jean Pierre Keller was among a group of Alsatian colonists from France who arrived in Louisiana in 1759. He drowned in the Mississippi river, apparently on his way to New Orleans, in 1789. However, his family continued and has remained an influential family in Louisiana to this day. Charles and Rosa Keller founded the Keller Family Foundation in New Orleans in 1949.  

19th Century Arrivals.  The following is a sampling of the Kellers who arrived in the 19th century:

  • John Keller came to Ohio from Germany in the 1840’s. His son John Henry headed west and bought a large cattle ranch on the outskirts of Concord, California in 1871. The Kellers became civic leaders in the Concord community.
  • Frank Keller arrived in Naperville, Illinois from Bavaria around the year 1850. The Kellers have been farming there or in neighboring Oswego since that time.
  • while William Keller came to Indianapolis from Darmstadt in the 1880’s. He found work there with the Indianapolis Brewing Company

Keller could also be Jewish in America. Jacob Keller was a rabbi from Hanover who came to Lexington, Missouri in 1826. William and Johanna Keller were Jews from Hungary who reached Eau Claire in Wisconsin in 1883.

Canada. A large Keller contingent came over to Canada from upstate New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

Frederick Keller, an Empire Loyalist, had served with the King’s Rangers during the war and moved with his family to Fredericksburg township in Lennox Addington county, Ontario. He was married four times and was the father of 24 children, all but one of them born in Canada. Frederick was the descendant of Kellers from the Rhine Palatine who had come to a camp along the Hudson river around the year 1700.

Another Keller family had departed the Rhine Palatine in 1810 for a German settlement in the Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire, and then, approximately a hundred years later, to another German community in Saskatchewan. It was curious that their home-town in Germany was called Rastatt, their home in Ukraine Rastadt, and their home in Saskatchewan Rastadt.

Conrad Keller was Swiss and came to Saskatchewan In 1912, married and made his home in Rockglen. John Keller, Jewish from Poland, was also in Saskatchewan by 1912.

Keller Surname Miscellany

Baron Burkhart Keller’s Vision.  According to the legend Baron Burkhart Keller was a knight who lived in the Castle Hohenbaden near the Baden Baden spa town in Rhineland Germany.  His fiancée Clara von Tiefenau lived in the nearby town of Kupperheim and Keller would often wander through the woods to her, either early in the morning or late at night.

It happened one night that as he passed through the woods that he saw a lovely lady sitting beneath the trees, with her face only covered by the thinnest of veils.  He was spellbound by her beauty. At length he stretched out his hand as if to touch her and she vanished from his view like the dew from a flower.

When Keller returned to the castle he described his vision to an old park warden.  This warden explained that the place where he had seen his vision had once been an old heathen temple. Nymphs and other bewitching apparitions might often be seen there.  No sane person should ever venture there, particularly love-sick people like our young knight.

Yet Keller could not forget.   He returned to dig up the land and found an altar which had been dedicated to the Nymph of the Forest and, further down, an exquisitely chiseled statue in marble.

He returned the next day to see the statue and, to his surprise, he again beheld the lovely lady he had seen in moonlight. This time she greeted him kindly and with sweet smiles.  As she listened to his burning words of love and devotion she clasped him to her arms.

Alas, that was to be his end.  His horse returned to the castle without his rider and the next morning his dead body was found at the foot of the altar.  The marble statue was gone.

Keller’s brother destroyed the altar and built a cross, the Kellerkreuz, in its place.  Kellerkreuz now stands in KellerBild commemorating the legend.  It is a popular destination for hikers.

The Indian Attack in Plainfield, Pennsylvania.  It was a late summer day in 1757 in Plainfield township, Pennsylvania and the Kellers were out in the fields when the Indians swooped.  They captured the mother and two of her sons, Joseph and John Jacob.  The Indians hurried their captives along the Blue Mountains and made their camp in what is now Cherry valley.  To her horror the mother saw and recognized the scalp of her oldest son Christian as it was being dried by the fire.

The captives were forced to journey three hundred miles to Montreal in Canada where the mother was sold to some French officers.   She was there for three long years.  But after the French defeat against the British in 1760, all the prisoners held by the French in Montreal were released and Mrs. Keller, to the great joy of her husband, made it home.

Father Keller wrote in the family Bible:

“Meine Frau is zuruckgekommen 1760 den 20 October, aber von meinen Kinder habe ich noch nichts gehort.” (My wife came back October 20, 1760, but of my children I have as yet heard).

The family mourned the loss of their sons.  As the months and years passed their hopes grew fainter and fainter of ever seeing Joseph and John Jacob who had been carried off with their mother.

However, about five years after the mother’s return a young man with all the appearance of an Indian, came to the Keller home.  It proved to be Joseph. He had been enticed to stay with the Indians under the promise of receiving a gun to hunt. His eight years among the Indians gave him great skill as a hunter and marksman.  But John Jacob, the other boy captured by the Indians, never returned from captivity. He had been just three at the time of the raid.

Kellers in the Revolutionary War.  During the Revolutionary War Colonel John Keller, the son of immigrant Heinrich Keller, was one of the most prominent men of his nationality in Bucks county, Pennsylvania.  He was a member of colonial assembly in 1776 and in the same year a delegate to the first Constitutional Convention.

At the organization of the Bucks county militia that year, he was commissioned as the lieutenant-colonel of the Third Battalion and in 1780 was assigned the command of the Second Battalion.  His Battalion was in active service during the greater part of the war.

His brothers Henry and Christopher were also in the service.   Henry was a captain under Colonel Keller in the Battle of Long Island; while Christopher was an ensign there in the Fourth Battalion.

Frederick Keller’s Recorded Losses.  At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Frederick Keller sought compensation from the British Government for the losses that he had incurred in having to leave America for Canada.  He appeared before a British field office, probably in 1785, and made the following declaration under oath:

“Amount of losses of Frederick Keller of Major Rogers’ Rangers. One horse and one cow.  One sheep.  Flax (?) of half bushel sowing.  One acre planting of Indian corn.  Five bushels of potatoes planted.  One firestick.  Five tongs and shovels.

The contents of this being formerly given at two different times in 1783 and 1784 and the copy thereof being accidentally lost, I cannot get down the price of the several articles herein.”

George Keller – from Cork City to Hartford, Connecticut.  During the 1840’s, famine ravaged Ireland and Thomas Keller and his wife decided, as did many others at the time, to depart for a new life in America.  They left for New York in 1850.  However, they could not afford passages for all of their children and they asked that two of their sons, George and John, remain behind in Cork with relatives until they could accumulate the necessary funds.

Two years later George and John did join their family in New York.  And George made good in the new country.  After a brief stint as an engineer at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, he accepted the invitation of a Hartford entrepreneur, J.G. Batterson, to join his architectural firm as a designer.  Hartford would be his home for the rest of his life.

His crowning achievement as an architect was the design of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch monument in honor of the soldiers and sailors from the city who had fought and died in the Civil War. This monument was completed in the 1880’s.

In what was possibly a lingering effect of the horrific scenes of death witnessed as a boy during the famine in Ireland, Keller’s wife once noted that he possessed a great horror of cemeteries.  This aversion led Keller to conclude that in death, he would like his remains to reside outside of a traditional burial plot.

Recognized as his favorite of the many public structures that he had designed, the arch was chosen as the depository for Keller’s earthly remains.  Keller died in 1935.  Behind an unassuming iron door in the east tower were interned the ashes of both Keller and his wife.

Helen Keller in Her Formative Years.  Helen Adams was born in West Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880. She had Swiss ancestry. In fact one of Helen’s Swiss ancestors had been the first teacher for the deaf in Zurich.

She was born with the ability to see and hear.  But at 19 months old she contracted an illness, possibly scarlet fever, which left her both deaf and blind.  At that time she was able to communicate somewhat by signs with the daughter of the family cook. By the age of seven Keller had more than 60 home signs to communicate with her family.

Her mother then invited Anne Sullivan from the Perkins School of the Blind, herself visually impaired, to come to their home to be Helen’s instructor.  It was the beginning of a 49-year-long relationship during which Sullivan evolved into Keller’s governor and eventually her companion.

Anne Sullivan began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present.  Keller was frustrated at first because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it.

Her big breakthrough came when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water.”  She then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.

Determined to communicate with others as conventionally as possible, Keller learned to speak.  She later spent much of her life giving speeches and lectures. She had learnt to “hear” people’s speech by reading their lips with her hands, her sense of touch had become extremely subtle. She became proficient at using braille and reading sign language with her hands as well.

Her progress was such that she was able to attend Ratcliffe College in 1900 as a student.  By this time she had gained influential admirers such as the writer Mark Twain and the Standard Oil magnate H.H. Rogers.  She went on to become a world-famous speaker and writer.

Today Helen’s birthplace in West Tuscumbia is a museum and sponsors an annual “Helen Keller Day” on June 27, her birthday.

Keller Names

  • Louis Keller was a 19th century American social arbiter of high society and the first publisher of the Social Register
  • Helen Keller from Alabama, despite being deaf and blind, overcame her afflictions to blossom as a writer, political activist and lecturer. 
  • George Keller was the Chairman of Socal who oversaw its merger with Gulf Oil to form Chevron in 1984. His son Bill Keller has been the Executive Editor of the New York Times.

Keller Numbers Today

  • 38,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 8,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Keller 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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