Sylvia Stark

Born into slavery, as a child she taught herself to read; travelled from Missouri with her parents, was a pioneer on Salt Spring Island, became a legend, living to the age of 106.

Sylvia Stark
Image courtesy of: Myrtle Holloman, Salt Spring Island, B.C. & Peggy Cartwright.

Sylvia Estes was born in Clay County, Missouri to parents who were slaves. Her parents and their family were the property of a German baker named Charles Leopold who was not a stereotypical slaveholder as he held the abolitionist movement in high regard. His wife, however, was not as kind and treated the Estes badly. Sylvia grew up living with fear; she rarely left the property as she had been told stories of many men who kidnapped Black children to sell in the South. Sylvia was bullied frequently by Mrs. Leopold and was forced to look after the master's children when she herself was ill. However, Sylvia’s parents raised her with love and she even learned to read even though it was illegal, through helping the Leopold children with their studies.

In 1849, Howard Estes and his master's sons were sent to California with a herd of cattle. Howard's master (Tom Estes) had promised to give Howard his freedom for $1000 and agreed to let him work in California to earn the money. However, when Howard sent the $1000 to buy his freedom, Tom Estes went back on his promise. Howard sent another $1000 and after a court battle, Tom Estes was forced to send Howard his “free papers” but he kept most of the second $1000. By the time Howard returned to Missouri in 1851, daughter Agnes had died of scarlet fever and Sylvia had barely survived. Howard Estes was able to buy his family's freedom, paying $1000 each for his wife and son and $900 for daughter, Sylvia.

However, Missouri was not a safe place for free blacks, Howard and his family neaded to California via the Oregon Trail. Sylvia, the eldest, was then 12 years old. At age 16, while living in Placerville, California she met and married Louis Stark, a dairy farmer who raised cattle not far from the Estes farm. Stark, the son of a slaveholder, had escaped and using skills learned on his father's plantation, had also worked his way to California.

The Estes and Starks joined the Black emigration to Vancouver Island in 1858. Howard Estes and his wife, Hannah, settled and remained on a farm in Saanich. After settling briefly in Saanich, the Starks moved to Salt Spring Island in 1860, shortly after a Government pre-emption plan opened land to homesteaders.

Sylvia Stark was in every way a true pioneer, living in an area that was then a wilderness, isolated from other settlers. Her first home was an unfinished log cabin that she made a home; she and Louis established an orchard and cleared the land for field crops; but Louis wanted to raise cattle and he later moved to Nanaimo; Sylvia joined him for a time but she missed her island.

On February 16, 1868 Sylvia and her 5 children at the time, were baptized at the Ebenezer Church in Nanaimo.  The baptism records show the following names, birth dates and location of birth. Emma Arabella, 1856-February-17, California; Willis Otis, 1859-January-09, California; John Edmund, 1861-September-09, Salt Spring Island; Abraham, 1863-February-16, Salt Spring Island; Anne Serena, 1866-February-13, Salt Spring Island.

Records also show that Sylvia and Louis had 2 more daughters, Maria Alba born circa 1870; records show that at the age of 27 she married Joseph Benjamin Wallace on 1897-May-20; and daughter Louise, born circa 1879, at the age of 22 married Ernest May on 1901-September 17.

Emma went on to earn her teaching certificate and became the 1st Black teacher on Vancouver Island teaching in the Nanaimo-Cedar area.

Sylvia became a living legend as she lived to be 106 years of age; many people would often gather to hear her tell stories of her childhood and her journey across the United States to Salt Spring Island.

Sylvia is buried beside her father in the Pioneer Cemetery, Ganges, Salt Spring Island. Her mother Hannah Estes is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery, off Quadra Street in Victoria.

Epilogue: Just as her mother had taught herself to read, Marie Stark, at the age of 92, taught herself to type and wrote  "The History of the Stark Family". It was published as a 10 part series in the Gulf Islands Driftwood. Part 1 was published on Wednesday, November 7, 1979. The last instalment was published on Wednesday, February 6, 1980. The manuscript was later donated to the Provincial Archives by her granddaughter, Myrtle Holloman.

Cartwright, Peggy. Black Pioneers in Gold Rush Days. Victoria, Manning Press Limited, 1993.
Gould, Jan. Women of British Columbia. Saanichton, Hancock House. 1975.

Quick Facts

Born into slavery, as a child she taught herself to read ; travelled from Missouri with her parents, was a pioneer on Salt Spring Island, became a legend, living to the age of 106
Birth: 1840-January-16, Clay County, Missouri, USA
Death: 1945, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
Spouse: Louis Stark
Parents: Howard and Hannah Estes
Siblings: Agnes and Jackson
Children: seven - Emma, Willis, John, Abraham, Hannah, Marie, Louise