27 Sep Settler Sylvia Starks
Sylvia Stark was born enslaved, in Clay County, Missouri, USA in 1839, the daughter of Howard and Hannah Estes. Her father was owned by a different person than the rest of the family, so he lived apart. Sylvia lived with her mom, sisters and brothers. Sylvia’s earliest memories were of working in the kitchen with her mother. With a long apron tied around her neck, Sylvia would stand on a chair to dry the endless dishes from the big house. She also tended the children of the man who enslaved her, using this time to her advantage. Sylvia secretly taught herself to read and write by listening and watching the children do their lessons. It was illegal for blacks to read and write.
Howard Estes wanted his family to live under one roof, in freedom. He succeeded by earning the money to buy freedom for himself and his family, but not before Sylvia’s sister Agnes had died of scarlet fever. They first settled in Missouri, leaving for California in 1851 to escape the “Klu Klux” and the threat of being beaten and sold back into slavery. When Sylvia was 12, after 6 months traveling by wagon, the family settled in a mining community near Sacramento. They earned money by taking in laundry and raising vegetables and dairy cows.
Sylvia met Louis Stark there. They married and had two children, Emma and Willis. In 1858, however, California passed legislation that forced them to register, obtain a licence to work, wear a badge to show that they were Negro. The Stark family once more looked for a safe place to live.
With the discovery of gold on the lower Fraser River and the resulting creation of the British colony of British Columbia in 1858, settlers were welcome. By August 1860, Sylvia and the children joined Louis on Saltspring Island, one of the temperate and fertile Gulf Islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island. Cowichan Indians had long paid it seasonal visits. American, English, German and Polynesian settlers also arrived. The farms were far apart as a married man could claim 200 acres (married women could not own land in Britain or its colonies until decades later). Racial discrimination had little place on Saltspring Island in the 1860s because isolation made most people dependent on each other.
The Stark’s 200 acre wilderness grew into a farm and farmhouse which Sylvia helped build and run. Another son, John and a daughter, Marie, were born. Sylvia joined the Methodist Church. After the hired man on their farm and the Methodist preacher, both black, were murdered, the Starks decided to move to a farm closer to Ganges, the largest town on the island.
In 1875, Sylvia’s son Willis took over the Saltspring Island farm. Sylvia, age 36, and Louis moved to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. After the death of Louis in 1895, possibly murdered at the hands of white men who wanted to develop a coal mine on the property, Sylvia, at age 56, returned to Saltspring Island to live with her son Willis. Emma became a schoolteacher and taught on Vancouver Island. John went north as a mineralogist and prospector. Marie collected her mother’s memories.
Resources for this story
Between 1763 and 1865, it is estimated that about 30,000 blacks came to Canada to seek refuge from slavery and racial discrimination. About 800 of them, like Sylvia Stark and her family, came to Vancouver Island.
For more information on the black pioneers of British Columbia: Crawford Killian, Go Do Some Great Thing, 1980 (Douglas & McIntyre,Vancouver)
For an overall history of blacks in Canada and perspectives on black nation-builders: Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze, Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience, 1996 (Umbrella Press, Toronto)
For an overview of the history of black women in Canada : Adrienne Shad, “300 Years of Black Women in Canadian History: circa 1700-1980”, Tiger Lily, Vol. 1, Issue 2. This can be hard to find, but it is included in this resource kit:
For a hands-on resource set for students: Black Women in Canada – Past and Present, available from Green Dragon Press, 135 George Street South, #902, Toronto, ON M5A 4E8, phone: (416)251-6366 fax (416)251-6365
For profiles of black women on Canada: Rella Braithwaite and Tessa Benn-Treland, Some Black Women, 1993 (Sister Vision, Toronto)
This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.
Pictured from left to right, the Sims women: Lynn, Bonnie, Naidine and Judy. This picture was taken at the annual Stark Family Reunion in August of 2008.
Pictured here are the direct descendants of Louis Stark, a Nanaimo legend, whose agricultural and mining skills are well known throughout British Columbia. Louis’ wife, Sylvia is a Saltspring Island pioneer who planted and cultivated some of the area’s best apple trees. Those trees remain today at the Homestead on Starks Road. Much has been published about the 1858 Stark Settlers. (See Canadian Archives,)
Two great granddaughters still live on Saltspring Island. Nadine Sims is the family spokesperson, a privilege that is handed down to each generation.