I have taken a brief pause to search out the history of the da Silva surname: where did it come from and what does it mean? It has been an interesting search in which I have learned a lot. I do get a sense that finding the true answer to these questions is difficult if not impossible. It is obscured by the lack of conclusive historical documents on the subject.
The meaning is clear. According to this newsgroup posting the name was derived from the Latin word “hisses” which means forest. It is possible that people took the name da Silva because they lived or worked in or near a forest. It is unclear if the meaning is related to the origin however. It is interesting to note that Wikipedia claims that Silva is the most common surname in Portugal and Brazil.
Another newgroup posting explains the Silva name has a noble context. Responding to a question where the surname originated the posting states, “What GENEALOGISTS generally say are things as the following (addapted [sic] from ‘Armorial Lusitano’)
<<Dom Guterre Alderete was the ‘senhor’ (lord? squire?) of ‘torre de Silva’ (Silva tower), in Alderete village, near Valenca (Valenc,a [sic]) town, Minho province, north of Portugal. He was son of Dom Pelaio Guterres and gr-son of Dom Guterre Pais. He was in the conquest of Coimbra by king Ferdinand I from Castilla (1017-1065), who later was also king of Lion. His son was Dom Paio Guterres DA SILVA, married twice and all his sons used the DA SILVA name.>>”
Searching for information on Dom Guterre Alderete was interesting. With the help of website translators I was able to learn quite a bit. For example, I searched for Alderete on Google Maps and found the map posted to the left of this text. It is centered on Alderete, a city in northern border or Portugal. This coincides with the newsgroup posting (citing Amorial Lusitano) stating that Minho province – where the Silva tower and Alderete are located – is in Northern Portugal. I noticed that there is a city in Portugal named Silva on the map that is about two inches to the south west of Alderete. Did the city get the name from the family, or did the family get the name from the tower which got the name from something else (like the forest)?
This is why I am not sure that Dom Guterre Alderete is the father of the surname. It could be possible that people (common people that is) had the surname da Silva before it was made noble. It is hard to see if this is true, because the historical documents usually chronicle the lives of the famous. The common folk are ever present but unobservable. It is possible that my family are descendants from this noble line. It is also possible that that we are not. The research that I have done to this point has neither confirmed nor negated any links. I, however, looked more into Silva tower and the more noble history (since it was easier to find). I found a blog posting that had pictures of the tower. I would like to recommend a few sites (which need translation if you don’t read portuguese). They are: O MORGADO E A CASA DA SILVA, and Câmara Municipal de Valença.
There are other explanations concerning the origin of the name. One that is found in newsgroups and websites such as this one, is that the da Silva surname is Sephardic. This group of Jews found on the Iberian Peninsula had this name. The author of the website explains: “Because Jewish Sephardic names are often so ancient, discovering the origins and meanings of these names can be of interest. I have elected to skip Jewish names that were simply adopted from existing spanish names (Rodriguez, Henriquez, etc.) because I cannot provide a meaning to them of Jewish interest other than that they were adopted from Spanish names – usually their Catholic godfather when forcibly converted. Many of these families reverted to Judaism when able to do so.” Perhaps this is reading too much into the website, but because da Silva is found in the list the author thinks it is Jewish in origin and not an adopted name.
I will be devoting some more time in the future to continue this research into the origin of the da Silva family name.