Origin of the Zehler Name

Peter and Anna Maria Zehler

Peter and Anna Maria Zehler

Evolution of the Zehler name:

The earliest attested form of the Zehler name is found in the records of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Lockweiler, Saarland, Germany, and takes the spelling Zöller, a sample of which is shown to the right.  Note the "s" on the end, which is added in the early records.  The name is undoubtedly derived from the German word Zoll meaning tariff or toll and carries the meaning "Toll Taker".  This likely refers to ancestors who collected a toll or tariff for use of a road or for crossing from one local territory to another in feudal times.

The early records of the churches at Lockweiler and Mettnich use the Zöller spelling quite consistently up to about 1750.  There is one peculiar spelling, however, found in the baptism record of Nicolaus Zellner at Mettnich.  The record shows that Nikolaus is clearly a member of the Zöller family in spite of the unusual spelling. 

Then, by the time Nikolaus' children were baptized starting in 1768, their surname was rendered Zöhler.  Since Zöller and Zöhler both have the same pronunciation they are considered interchangeable.  A final variation on this theme is the spelling Zoehler, where the "ö" has been replaced by "oe".  In German these are alternate ways to express the same sound.

The Zehler name took a new turn with the arrival of the French civil administration following the French Revolution.  A major innovation was introduction of Civil Records; births, marraiges and deaths were recorded by civil authorities.  These records contain the usual spelling of the name as Zoehler, but also show a new variation, Zehler.  Apparently the "oeh" used in German and the "eh" used in French represent the same or very similar sound.  Use of the Zehler spelling continued after the Saar became part of Prussia.  Note also that the script used with this spelling is French and not German.

Finally, after the family came to America, their name was rendered in various spellings, usually reflecting the writer's guess based on the sound of the name.  The first recorded use of the name occurs in the baptism record of Franciscus [Frank], son of Petrus Zoeler in 1856.  Over the next decade or so, various spellings were used in the church register and the federal census.  However, by 1870, these records consistently use Zehler; as the standard spelling.  This my reflect the "French" spelling shown above.  However, it is also clear that family members knew how to spell their own name.  This is well illustrated by the will of Peter Zehler, written in 1886.  The will begins "I Peter Zoehler", and is signed, in German script, "Peter Zöhler".  Characteristically, the Petition for Peter's estate uses the new spelling, Zehler, throughout.

Other Changes:

Two isolated changes have occurred in the spelling of the Zehler name since the family came to America.  The first came in the descendants of Frederick Zehler; his descendants bare the name Zahler.  After the death of Frederick, his widow, Alice, moved from Michigan back to Western New York.  Family members relate that Alice became paranoid about her Zehler in-laws, fearing that they would try to take away her son Floyd.  Thinking it would help protect him, she changed his name to Zahler.  This small branch of the family has retained that name ever since.

The other usual name change occurred with Jacob Zehler, one of the Zehler twins.  Jacob reached adulthood in the mid 1870's, a time of poor economic conditions in the U.S.  So, according to descendants, he decided to change his name to Sailer, hoping that an English sounding name would make it easier to get a job.  He ended up as a saloon owner in Buffalo, New York.

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