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 of his persuasion 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.

Realizing that Missouri was not a safe place for free blacks, Howard took his family to California in a covered wagon. 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 worked his way to California.

The Starks and Estes families 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 scheme 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 was expected to help to make comfortable, while Louis established an orchard and cleared the land for field crops. First Nations people were mostly curious about them, but Sylvia also experienced some frightening encounters that fortunately did not result in harm. Sylvia especially missed the comfort of the church that had meant so much in her life.

Sylvia and Louis had seven children; Emma (also called Emily) in 1857, and Willis in 1858, accompanied their parents to Salt Spring Island. The others: John Edmund (date unknown), Abraham Lincoln Stark in 1863, Hannah Serena in 1866, Marie Albertina in 1868, and Louise in 1879 were born on Salt Spring Island.   Emma went on to earn her teaching certificate and became the 1st female Black teacher on Vancouver Island teaching in the Nanaimo-Cedar area.

In time Sylvia became a living legend as she lived to be 106 years of age! In her later years, many people would often gather to hear her tell stories of the days of slavery.

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 a multi-part series that was published in the Gulf Islands Driftwood in November and January in 1979; and has been 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: 1839, 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