Schaefer Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Schaefer Surname Meaning

Schaefer is an alternative spelling and cognate for the German word schäfer and surname Schäfer, generally taken to mean “shepherd.” Another suggested origin for the surname has been the German word scheaffaere or shaffer, meaning a manager or a steward of a household. However, this is a less likely explanation.

In the 19th century some Jewish people adopted a version of the Schaefer name, possibly as a reference to their God (as in “the Lord is my shepherd”) or as an allusion to King David who was a shepherd in his boyhood.

Schaefer and many variant spellings spread across America – such as Schafer, Shafer, Schaeffer, Schaffer, Shaffer, Sheffer, and Sheaffer.

Schaefer Surname Resources on The Internet

Schaefer and Schaeffer Surname Ancestry

  • from Southern Germany
  • to America and Australia

Early recordings of the surname in Germany were:

  • Dietriech Schäfer in Bavaria in 1327
  • Lewelin Schäfer at Lahr in Baden-Wurttemberg in 1356
  • and Cuntzel Schefer at Worms in Rheinland-Pfalz in 1384.

Schäfer with the umlaut numbers some 220,000 in Germany today and is the eleventh most common surname. The surname is prevalent throughout the country, especially in the south in states such as Hesse, Saarland, Rheinland-Pfalz, and Baden Württemberg. The Scheffer spelling has persisted in the Lower Rhine.

America. The first Schaefers in America were probably Maria Elisabeth Schäffer and her family from the Rhineland Palatinate who were recorded in Schoharie county in upstate New York in 1710. Shaffer and Shafer have been later family names there.

The Schaefer name did come to America with one and two “f’s” – Schaefer and Schaeffer – and the one and two “f” names divide roughly 50/50 of the 90,000 or so of that name today.

Schaeffer.  The main early Schaeffer presence was in Pennsylvania. The spelling often became Shaefer and Shaffer after a generation or two.

Among the Schaeffer arrivals from Germany were:

  • Alexander Schaeffer from Baden who came to Philadelphia in 1738 and settled at Heidelberg township in what was then Lancaster county. This township would later become known after him as Schaefferstown.  
  • Anthony Schaeffer from Heidelberg who came to another Heidelberg township, this time in Northampton county, where he married Maria Reeg sometime in the 1760’s.  
  • Jacob Schaeffer who arrived from Hesse, aged 19, on the Patience in 1748 with a guardian (his parents having both died). He first made his home in Berks county, before moving to Virginia. The family name there became Shaffer and Sheffer. Their history was recounted in Russell Smith’s 1944 book The Sheffer Family of Shenandoah County.  
  • while Frederick David Schaeffer from Hesse, who also lost his parents young, came to Philadelphia in 1776 and was later ordained in the Lutheran church. Three of his sons were also Lutheran clergymen; as was his grandson Charles William Schaeffer.

Many moved onward from Pennsylvania:

  • Dr, Jacob Shaffer, born in 1794, practiced medicine in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1820’s when that city was just a hamlet. He later moved to the town of Reynoldsburg nearby and gained a reputation for his treatments during the cholera epidemic of 1832.  
  • John Schaeffer, an early settler in Ohio, moved further westward in 1818 to Cass county, Illinois where he settled. His grandson Charles was the superintendent of schools there.  
  • and Michael Shaffer, born in 1814, also lived in Ohio for a while and then purchased land to farm in Iowa in 1854. He settled in Cedar, Iowa.

Nicholas Schaeffer had been born in Germany and immigrated to Philadelphia with his mother and brothers in 1832. Shortly after arriving in America, their horse was stolen and the family crossed the Allegheny mountains on foot. Nicholas settled for a few years in Cincinnati before he came to St. Louis to found his lubricants company in 1839. Despite simple beginnings, Schaeffer’s business quickly grew, making him St. Louis’s first millionaire.

Jacob Schaeffer, born in Pennsylvania, headed west to California at the time of the Gold Rush. He then entered the jewelry business in Bloomfield, Iowa. Somewhere during this journey his name changed to Sheaffer. In 1912 his son Walter founded the W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company, the maker of the first commercially successful lever-filling fountain pen.  

Schaefer. The Schaefer spelling was found among Pennsylvania arrivals, but also cropped up elsewhere. Schaefer sometimes shortened to Schafer and Shafer.

Maximilian Schaefer came to New York from Hesse in 1839 and three years later started up with his brother Frederick the F&M Schaefer Brewery Company. This became by the early 1900’s the largest brewery in America.

Carl Schafer and his brother Paul from Baden came to Perry county in southern Indiana in 1852; while Jacob Schafer from the Rhineland-Palatinate arrived with his family in Lake county in northern Indiana in the mid/late 1850’s. Jacob Shafer meanwhile had been an early settler in Tippecanoe county in the central part of the state, coming there from Ohio in the 1830’s. He was a gunsmith by trade. His son Jacob, after some wandering, farmed near Topeka in Kansas.

One early family in Rockingham county, Virginia started out as Shaffer, but were Shaver when Nicholas Shaver married Magdalene Grosvenor in 1763, and then Shafer when Jacob Shafer moved to California in 1849 and to Idaho territory where he was a delegate to the US Congress in 1870.

Another Shaefer to Shaver transition occurred with William and Caterina Shaefer who came to Sussex county, New Jersey in 1765. Their four sons adopted the Shaver spelling.

Australia.  Philip Schaffer from Hesse who had served in the British army was recruited to come to Australia in 1790 as an early small-scale farmer in the bush. However, he was not a success and, after selling away his land, ended up in an asylum.

Carl Schaefer had come to Victoria from Bavaria in 1857 and settled in Echuca where he and his wife Anna raised eight children. The youngest of these, Harry, was a self-taught musician who learnt dance tunes in Victoria and in the Forbes district of NSW where he later lived. His transcription of these tunes is possibly the only example of an Australian bush dance musician keeping a written record of his own repertoire.

Schaefer Surname Miscellany

Schaefer and Variant Spellings in America Today

Numbers (000’s) Penn NY Ohio Illinois Other Total
With one “f”
Schaefer   21
Schafer   13
Shafer   12
SubTotal    2    3    3    3   35   46
With two “f’s”
Schaeffer    7
Schaffer   10
Shaffer   24
Sheffer    2
Sheaffer    2
SubTotal    8    2    4    1   30   45
Total   10    5    7    4   65   91

Schaeffers in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania.  Alexander Schaeffer, the son of Hans and Maria Schaeffer, immigrated to Philadelphia from Baden with his wife Anna on the Robert & Alice in 1738. They made their home in Lancaster county.

By the time of his death in 1786 he had laid out the town in Lancaster county he named Heidelberg (but was called Schaefferstown after his death), built the King George Hotel (the present-day Franklin House), and created the first gravitational water conveyance system by underground pipes in any of the British colonies.  The Alexander Schaeffer house and farm, designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011, is still standing there.

His son Henry was a Justice of the Peace at Schaefferstown for many years. He also operated a distillery and manufactured flooring and roof tiles.  At the time of the Revolutionary War he organized a company of militia.

Minor Shaffer in Washington State.  His father Joseph Shaffer had been born in Ohio in 1827 and was a pioneer to California in the 1850’s, settling in Washington state before moving back eastward in the 1870’s to Indiana where his wife’s family had been early settlers and then onto Iowa where he died.

Minor himself had come to Washington state with his parents when he was a child and received his education in the district schools of Walla Walla county.  Later the family moved to Colfax where he finished his schooling.  After that he worked on his mother’s farm in Indiana and then returned west in 1888 to Lincoln county in Washington.

He took a squatter’s right there to the place that he later owned.  He immediately set to work to build a home and improve the estate and with his brother Emmett bought land until they had a large holding.  They owned a great many head of cattle and were well-to-do stockmen.

“Mr. Shaffer, like many other prominent people in Lincoln county, started in life with no means and gained his possessions by reason of his sagacity and thrift.”

F & M Schaefer Brewing Company.  Maximilian Schaefer had emigrated to New York in 1839 carrying with him the recipe for lager, a popular brew in Germany that was then unknown in America.   He joined his brother Frederick in the employ of a local brewer in Manhattan.  In 1842 the Schaefer brothers bought out the owner, establishing F & M Schaefer Brewing.

Lager proved popular and the Schaefer company became one of the country’s largest beer producers. Maximilian remained active in the company until failing health caused him to retire in the late 1890’s.  The brewery relocated to Brooklyn in 1915.

Maximilian was succeeded by his son Rudolph who ran the company from 1912 to 1927 and by his son Rudolph who was at the helm from 1927 to 1969.  He published a history of the Schaefer company () and once said:

”When I was a youngster, grandfather said to me one day: ‘Rudy, you can have the best grain and the finest hops and the best yeast. But if you want to make real good beer you’ve got to have people who know their business and who want to make the best beer in the world.’ ”

By the early 1900’s its customer base in the northeast United States had made Schaefer the most popular beer in the country, a position it maintained until ceding it to Budweiser in the 1970’s.

Schafers from Germany to Lake County, Indiana.  Jacob Schafer and his wife Anna departed their home at Alflen in the Rhineland-Palatinate in 1855 bound for America.  They sailed down the Rhine to the North Sea, thence to London where he set out for the New World in a sailing vessel which was seven weeks before reaching the port of New York.

Storms and heavy seas beset the ship and the passengers were compelled to cook their own meals and to endure many other hardships before the blessed land finally came into sight.  Many times it seemed as if the craft would go to the bottom.

From New York City the family went to Springfield Hollow in New York, and remained there a year and a half and then made the stormy and perilous voyage by the Great Lakes to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This German family had landed in the new world with only two dollars in cash.  A friend had afforded them free transportation to the village of Springfield Hollow.

From this state of poverty of material resources, when they were in a strange country and unable to speak the English tongue and were handicapped in countless ways, their honest industry and persevering labors effected, in the end, a substantial and honorable place in the world’s activity.

Jacob got work in the erection of the custom house at Milwaukee at a dollar and twelve cents a day and was thus employed for three years. He then moved to Dodge county, Wisconsin, near Beaver Dam, and purchased forty acres of land and engaged in farming and stock-raising.  He soon sold this and went to Chicago where he was in the lumber yards for a year.

He then arrived with his family in the West Creek township of Lake county, Indiana.  Here he purchased one hundred acres of land, going into debt by nine hundred dollars for it.  By industry and good management he paid off the entire indebtedness and resided on this good home until his death.

Philip Schaffer, A Failed Early Farmer in Australia.  Philip Schaffer, born in Hesse, had served as a soldier under British command in North America after the Revolutionary War.  In 1789, at the request of the British Governor of Australia, the Government recruited nine farmers and others to be superintendents of convicts. One of these was Schaffer, then a widower with a daughter Elizabeth aged ten.  He was described as “being accustomed to farming.”

Schaffer and four other superintendents reached Sydney in June 1790. Schaffer could not speak English well and, instead of remaining a superintendent, was established in March 1791 as a farmer on 140 acres at Parramatta which he named the Vineyard.  He was provided with a hut, tools, seed grain and two sows, and two acres were cleared for him. Then, a year later, he was one of the first three men who had come free to New South Wales to be granted land by the Government.

However, his later achievements did not match his early promise. He was a failure as a small-scale farmer.  A contemporary of his wrote that “old age, poverty and intemperance” caused Schaffer to sell his land piecemeal.  He died about 1828 in the Benevolent Asylum where his widow was also an inmate.

Schaefer Names

  • Georg Anton Schaffer was a German physician from Bavaria who attempted to conquer Hawaii for Russia in 1815, but failed. 
  • Walter Scheaffer developed in America the first commercially successful lever-filling fountain pen in 1912. 
  • William Donald Schaefer was the Governor of Maryland from 1987 to 1995. 
  • Peter Shaffer, Jewish, is an acclaimed British playwright whose works have included Equus and Amadeus.  He died in 2016.

Schaefer Numbers Today

  • 1,000 in the UK (most numerous in London)
  • 91,000 in America (most numerous in Pennsylvania)
  • 8,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Schaefer 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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