Select Schaefer Surname Genealogy

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.

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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.

.  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.

.  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.

.  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.
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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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Georg Anton Schäffer was a German physician from Bavaria who attempted to conquer Hawaii for Russia in 1815, but failed.
Walter Sheaffer 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

Select Schaefers 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)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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