Sylvia Estes Stark
Sylvia Stark
Sylvia Estes Stark
Detail of A-01726

Sylvia Stark's birth name was Sylvia Estes. She was born a black slave in 1839 in Clay County, Missouri, and was the youngest of three children. Her mother Hannah worked for a German baker, and her father, Howard Estes, worked for a Scotsman named Tom Estes. As slaves, the family took their last name from their owner. This practice continued until 1865 when the thirteenth amendment to the United States constitution abolished slavery.

"Sylvia's first recollections of her childhood days were associated with work. Sylvia remembered that her mother used to tie her big apron around her neck and stand her on a chair to dry dishes for the white folks." She rarely took part in play with other children and most of her time was spent learning how to sew and knit.

BC Archives, MS-0091, Wallace, Marie Albertina (Stark), 1867-1966

Although at that time it was illegal to teach slaves, Sylvia taught herself how to read by learning the alphabet from the children she took care of and listening to their school lessons.

In 1849, the California gold rush was on and live stock was in great demand. Tom Estes, Howard's owner, was sending cattle to California. Tom made a contract with Howard, agreeing to sell Howard his freedom papers for one thousand dollars. Howard went to California with Tom's two sons as herders. This allowed him the opportunity of making the money in California.

Nancy and Charles Alexander
Black Pioneers of British Columbia
Nancy and Charles Alexander
Source from A-01068

Howard worked in the gold mines, made the money and sent it to Tom Estes. Howard's master, however, went back on his word and kept the money. Tom Estes refused to give Howard his freedom papers.

Unwilling to accept this, Howard sent money directly to Charles Leopold (Hannah's master). Tom Estes was furious, and claimed that the money was also his. Tom sued Charles, and Tom was awarded $800.00. Tom was then forced to give Howard his freedom papers.

During Howard's absence (in California), Agnes (Sylvia's sister) died while she was still working for the Leopold family. Howard returned to Missouri a free man. He paid $1000.00 each for his wife Hannah, and his son Jackson.Howard paid $900.00 to free Sylvia.

Howard and Hannah bought 40 acres of land in Missouri, and started garden farming.

"This was all well, but their new-found freedom was disturbed by night riders called the Klu-Kluks. They were going about beating and kidnapping "colored" people, terrorizing them."

BC Archives, MS-0091, Wallace, Marie Albertina (Stark), 1867-1966

These threats of danger prompted Sylvia and her family to leave Missouri and head for California. The family left Missouri on April 1, 1851 and arrived in California in September of 1851.

California was supposedly a free state; however, in the 1850s, the California legislature passed laws that said blacks could not give evidence in court against whites. The Estes family experienced injustice in the American slave states and then legalized injustice in the "free" state of California.

As a result, the Estes family did not want to spend any more time in the United States.

Sir James Douglas
Sir James Douglas
Detail of A-01229
"In 1858, the leader of the African American community received a letter from Governor James Douglas of Vancouver Island. Governor Douglas's letter encouraged them to immigrate to Vancouver Island."


"Governor Douglas was alarmed by the influx of Americans and thought that because of American slavery, African Americans could be counted on to resist an American takeover."

BC Archives, MS-0091, Wallace, Marie Albertina (Stark), 1867-1966

Many African Americans settled in Victoria or in other locations such as Saltspring Island.

In 1855, Sylvia married a dairy farmer named Louis Stark. By 1860, both the Estes and the Stark family decided to move to the British Northwest (Canada). By this time Sylvia had given birth to two children, and a third was on the way.

Saltspring Island
Saltspring Island
Detail of C-03840

Sylvia's parents bought a farm in Saanich on Vancouver Island while Sylvia and her husband decided to settle on nearby Saltspring Island.

In 1875, Sylvia and most of the family moved to an area near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island where she practised midwifery. Sylvia however, was unhappy on Vancouver Island, and missed her friends and neighbours on Saltspring Island.

At the age of forty-six, Sylvia left her husband and returned to the farm on Saltspring, which she ran with her son Willis until she died at the age of 106.

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