Zentmeyer Surname

Like many German names, the name Zentmeyer originated as a job description, much like 'Bauer,' (farmer) 'Fischer,' (fisherman) 'Müller,' (miller of grain) or 'Zimmermann,' (carpenter; literally, 'room-man'). In the book Etymologies Familiennamenbuch, or Book of Surname Origins and Meanings, the earliest instance of the surname in the written record was one Chunrat (Conrad) Zehentmaier in the year 1339, in Wolfersdorf, Bavaria.  This volume defines this surname as "The estate manager who collects the land rent for the landlord." Over time, these job descriptions became simply names, as they are today.

In German, 'Zehnte' meant one-tenth, and a 'Meyer' was a farm administrator. The tenant farmers paid as land rent one tenth of their output, originally paid in grain, chickens, sheep, or cheese to the land owner, be it the Church or other authority. Later, the rent evolved from farm produce to money. In Upper Bavaria and Austria this person was called the Zehntmeyer or Zehentmeyer, later shortened to Zentmeyer, who lived rent-free in exchange for his services. Upper Bavaria, or Oberbayern, is actually southern Bavaria, where the land is higher in elevation than in northern Bavaria, and in Austria, 'meyer' was spelled 'mayer' or 'mayr,' but still pronounced 'meyer.'  It would be an understatement to say that the Zentmeyer was not the most popular person in town.

It is difficult for us to grasp the variations in surname spellings over time, because for most of us, our last names have remained unchanged from our grandparents' time. But the fact is, before the nineteenth century, very few common people could read or write. Surname spelling was a function of how the clergyman or census taker heard the name and chose to spell it for the record. A person was commonly identified by multiple name spellings over their lifetime. This was true both in the United States and in Europe.  This Surname Map lists most of the the Zentmeyer variations used in Germany and Austria today.

We have used 'Zentme˙er' for the title of this website, because that was the way our emigrant ancestor, Bernhard Zentme˙er, consistantly spelled his name when called upon to inscribe it. To be sure, there were wide variations in the way the name was recorded here in the United States (We have seen over thirty spellings!) but according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the dominant surviving spellings are 'Santmyer' with 461 persons listed; 'Zentmeyer' with 143; 'Zentmyer' with 135, and 'StMyers' with 135. 

This is probably as good a place as any to address German naming conventions. Historically, a German name had three parts: a Saint's name, a Common name, and a Surname. Each family had a favorite Saint, and this Saint's name would be given to every male child in the family, and was usually bestowed upon succeeding generations as well. Johann Bernhard Zentmeyer's family used 'Johann' (the apostle St. John) as a Saint's name for at least four generations. This same practice was used for female offspring, except that a female Saint's name was chosen. Thus Maria Salome (Roth) Zentmeyer had four Roth sisters who shared the 'Maria' Saints name (St. Mary, the mother of Jesus). This naming practice continued among first generation immigrants in America, but ceased over time.

The middle name was the Common name, the name a person was known by among friends and in the community. Thus Johann Bernhard Zentmeyer went by 'Bernhard.' As one might imagine, this has led to much confusion among people unfamiliar with this convention. The Surname or last name speaks for itself and involves the least amount of confusion, except with regard to spelling variations.