Who was the first Cape Verdean to become a naturalized American citizen?

On October 4, 1824, José da Silva was sworn in as a citizen of the U.S.A. before the Nantucket Court of Common Pleas. He had been born on the island of Brava in 1794. According to court documents, he was recognized as “an Alien, being a free white person and citizen of the Kingdom of Portugal, but now a resident of Nantucket.” Using an Americanization of his name, he swore that, “I, Joseph Sylva, do solemnly swear that it is bona-fide my intention to become a citizen of the United States.” He signed his oath with a mark rather than a signature.

Over the years, José da Silva’s name evolved from Joseph Sylva to Joseph Sylvia. His court classification as a free person was undoubtedly factual, but in 1824 his classification as white was necessary to the naturalization process, whether or not he was of partially African descent.

In 1822 José da Silva had married Nantucket widow Mary Lyon and become stepfather to her daughter Rebecca. José and Mary had three children together, their family appearing in the 1830 federal census for Nantucket. They also appear in the Eliza Starbuck Barney Genealogical Record, where there are minor discrepancies in the year of José da Silva’s birth and the year of his marriage to Mary Lyon. Mary died in 1847. Their daughter Delphina (born in 1826) remained on Nantucket, married, had four children, and lived until 1907.

There were other men living on Nantucket in the 1820s who also went by the name of Joseph Sylvia. One Joseph Sylvia inscribed on a whale’s tooth the following:

This is a tooth of the last whale
Killed by Joseph P. Sylvia
In the Ship Rambler
In the year 1821
Captain Benjamin Worth, Master

The tooth is in the scrimshaw collection of the Nantucket Historical Association.

To learn more about Cape Verdeans and others who have contributed to Nantucket’s economy and culture, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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