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Sylvia Estes Stark: Freedom in the Wilderness

Escape from slavery, a trek across the continent, meeting historic figures, and a murder mystery: the incredible story of Sylvia Stark's journey to BC.

The story of Sylvia Estes Stark’s journey to British Columbia begins with an escape from slavery, adventure travel, and a wilderness homestead. It ends with a murder mystery. Along the way, Sylvia and members of her family met the likes of the notorious Jesse James and the charismatic Mormon leader Brigham Young.

Sylvia Estes was born a slave in 1839. In Clay County, Missouri, children born of female slaves automatically inherited the status, thus so did Sylvia, her older sister, Agnes, and brother, Jackson. Charles Leopold, a German baker, owned their mother Hannah. Charles was sympathetic to the abolitionist movement and, at one point, drew dangerous attention from other slave owners when he intervened to stop a race riot at an anti-slavery meeting. He intended to free his slaves some day, but at the time, he still needed them to run the bakery.

Mrs. Leopold controlled the household, and she constantly harangued her house slaves. Hannah did the cooking, baking, and cleaning, and remained calm under fire. Sylvia learned to “think with a mind of a slave” as a young child one Christmas morning. The children of the household and the slaves were allowed to play together just before entering the room with the Christmas tree and presents. The children challenged each other to be the first to enter, and Sylvia took the first step. A doll bought by Charles Leopold was waiting to be claimed by her, but Mrs. Leopold jerked the girl painfully back, shouting “N****r!” and told her to let the White children be first.

Sylvia recalled working hard from a very young age, standing up on a chair, an apron tied around her neck, drying load after load of dishes for the “white folk.” Later, she helped take care of the younger Leopold children, and by listening to their lessons, surreptitiously learned how to read; at that time it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write.

A rancher named Tom Estes in Ray County, Missouri, owned Sylvia’s father, Howard Estes. Typical of the times, Howard took on his master’s surname. He considered himself fortunate to be able to visit his wife and family on the weekends.

A capable ranch hand, Howard took advantage of an opportunity during the gold rush of 1849 when Tom Estes planned to send his two sons to California with a herd of cattle to sell. One of the boys had recently lost three stray cattle, and, knowing how keenly had Tom Estes felt their disappearance, Howard offered to help. He would ensure there would be no losses. Howard also planted a seed, suggesting they stay and work in the goldfields for a time to make extra money. Tom agreed he could stay, for there was no fear that Howard would not return; he was a pious and dedicated family man and would never abandon his wife and children. Tom told him he could keep some of the money he earned, and also promised Howard the he could buy his freedom papers for $1,000. This was what Howard had been thinking all along.

Howard Estes brought his way out of slavery in Missouri and settled in Victoria. Courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives

When Howard had saved the amount needed to purchase his freedom, he sent it home with the Estes boys. Tom readily accepted the money, but he reneged on his promise to free Howard. Charles Leopold intervened on Howard and Hannah’s behalf. Howard sent $1,000 to Charles to buy Hannah’s freedom, but when Tom heard about the money, he sued Charles, claiming the money was from his slave, and therefore it was his, Tom’s, money. Tom was awarded $800 but was also forced to give Howard his freedom paper. When he received it, Howard kept the document on him wherever he went, carefully folded and tucked away in a small leather pouch he made for that purpose.

Howard continued to work in the California goldmines to earn the money for the freedom of his family from Leopold. The two years he was away was an anxious time for the family. During this absence, Agnes died of scarlet fever. Whenever she was particularly distressed, Hannah would retreat to the shed for fervent prayer. When Howard finally returned to Missouri, he had saved a fortune—enough to pay $1,000 each for the freedom of Hannah and Jackson, and $900 for Sylvia.

The family bought a farm in Missouri, and for the first time they lived and worked together, and for themselves. Although they were free, they were still harassed. It was not safe for the young teens to be off the property, for fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves to Southerners. When strangers surrounded their house under the cover of darkness one evening, threatening violence, they knew they would never be safe in that slave state. They had to leave their home.

Charles Leopold offered the family a job. He was going to California to sell a herd of cattle and hired Howard and Jackson (and others) as wranglers, and he hired Hannah as the cook for the group. He gave Howard an old covered wagon. It had to be repaired, but Howard and Hannah outfitted it as a home on wheels. Sylvia recalled the Leopold wagon train setting off on April 1, 1851, and the family happily making April Fool’s jokes about their new cross-country adventure.

One of their early stops was at Humboldt Creek. Once an Indigenous campsite, it was now settled by White people. There, they met two White women, sisters who recounted how, as children, they had witnessed their family being killed by Indigenous Peoples and then had been kidnapped by them. Eventually they were rescued, and were now both married. Their story frightened Sylvia and Hannah, and made them apprehensive about the rest of their journey.

With no immediate incidents, however, Sylvia relaxed and enjoyed the new sights and passing surroundings. She was amused by the antics of the prairie dogs, chattering and chasing one another. She picked at the profusion of wildflowers. They watched buffalo herds scattering at the sight of the approaching wagon train. The dried buffalo patties she gathered for fuel made their pancakes and bacon taste smoky. After some time, yearning for fresh meat and hoping to kill a calf, the group noticed that the buffalos herded their young within a circle, the bulls protecting them while the calves fed. One of the cowboys finally snuck close enough for a lucky shot—and started a stampede. The group had to wait for the dust to settle before they could go back for the dead calf to skin and butcher it before hauling it to camp. They dined on steaks that night.

Danger came in many forms. Swarms of locusts darkened the sky, and mosquitoes covered every surface. Water was not easy to find; there were times when they had no choice but to drink from pools with submerged animal carcasses. Coyotes were a threat during the day to the sheep the travellers brought with them. Sylvia remembered with horror the sight of pregnant ewes, too exhausted to run, being attacked and devoured by the coyotes. At night, the coyotes prowled and howled around the circled wagons.

The women’s fears about Indigenous Peoples were warranted when a group attacked the wagon train, and Jackson narrowly escaped being killed by a flying arrow during watch one night. Although nothing else happened, the company pulled up stakes and fled before dawn. On another occasion, just as they were setting up camp on some good grazing ground, a raiding party charged them on horseback, trying to start a cattle stampede.

They were vastly outnumbered, and in an effort to protect his family, Howard suggested they offer gifts to the chief. They were surprised the chief spoke English, and he accepted their flour, provisions, and three horses. The group, not trusting their gifts would stop further raids overnight, packed up camp.

By autumn, the wagon train reached Salt Lake City, where the locals welcomed it warmly. Brigham Young, the Mormon leader, visited them and invited them to stay through the winter at a place called Mountain Meadows, some 480 kilometres southwest of the city. Howard, who had passed by the area on his previous cattle drive and had heard unsavoury rumours about the place, was not comfortable about staying, and decided to leave with his family. Charles was reluctant to lose his help, so he agreed to continue on through the mountain passes before the rainy season started. After a week to graze their cattle and re-provision, they set off again.

Six months minus three days from the time they left Missouri, the wagon train arrived in California. The Estes family took its leave to settle in the small town of Placerville, north of Sacramento. They found an abandoned miner’s cabin, and Hannah worked hard to make it a home. Sylvia remembered clearly the look of complete peace and happiness on her mother’s face, knowing they were living in a free state and working for themselves. Howard and Jackson searched through other empty cabins for additional utensils and household items abandoned by the miners, including a Dutch oven—perfect for baking bread. Their first meal in their new home was cooked in a single pot in the fireplace and was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Howard was hired to work in the goldmines, while Sylvia and Jackson panned for gold. The youngsters found enough to make about a dollar a day, and were proud to contribute to the family savings; store-bought items were expensive. Hannah took in washing and Sylvia helped. She remembered how hard her mother worked and recalled having to pass a warm iron to massage her mother’s sore shoulders and back as Hannah ironed. Howard planted a market garden to supplement their food.

Sylvia looked back on this time as the happiest of her life. She and Jackson explored the surrounding areas whenever they had free time. They visited with the local Indigenous Peoples, who were friendly, and learned of their habits, such as how they would herd grasshoppers onto the hot embers to roast and eat with relish.

At some point, Howard went into partnership with Louis Stark. They farmed, raised cattle and horses, and even panned for gold together.

Louis was the son of a slave woman and her owner in Louisville, Kentucky, born in 1816. Despite being neglected as a child, he grew up to be a strong young man. The slave master ran a nursery and taught Louis how to graft fruit trees. From another master, he learned to barber and worked up and down the Mississippi River. It was during this time that he shaved the outlaw Jesse James. Somehow, Louis got to California. It was unknown if he had been freed, but he posed as a Spaniard to pass.

In 1874, Emily (Emma) Arabella Stark Clarke was the first Black female school teacher on Vancouver Island. Courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives.

Sylvia was about sixteen years old when she and Louis were married. He was almost thirty years her senior. The first of their seven children, son Willis Otis and daughter Emily (Emma) Arabella, were born in California. Emily became the first teacher at the new one-room North Cedar School in 1874, and as a plaque notes on her former home at 331 Wesley Street, Nanaimo, she was the first Black teacher on Vancouver Island. She married James Clarke in 1878.

While the families had made comfortable homes in Placerville, discriminatory state and federal laws, and increasing political agitation were making it dangerous for them to stay in California. A significant portion of the Black community chose to relocate to the British Colony of Vancouver Island.

The Estes and Stark families also decided to join the migration north at this time. Howard sold their farm and accompanied the women and children and their household goods to San Francisco, where they boarded the Brother Jonathan, a steamship that brought them to Steilacoom, Washington. Here, they waited for the arrival of Louis Stark and Jackson Estes who, along with fifty of their sturdiest cattle (some of which were lost in bad weather), had joined other emigrants trekking north along the old Oregon Trail. Then they all boarded another ship, which brought them to Victoria, on Vancouver Island, in 1859.

The first thing Louis Stark did when he landed was to initiate the process for his family to become British citizens. The Starks did not have enough money to buy land in Victoria, so they decided to pre-empt land on Salt Spring Island. Louis chose a site on the northwest side of the island, 200 acres of land on Broadwell Mountain, which is now part of the Mouat estate.

Before they could move there, the men had to clear land and build a cabin. Meanwhile, the Starks lived with Howard, Hannah, and Jackson on the farm they purchased in South Saanich, now part of Michell’s Farm. Hannah died in Victoria in 1868 and is buried at the Pioneer Graveyard next to Christchurch Cathedral on Quadra Street. Jackson farmed for a while and later opened a brewery in Victoria. Howard helped on the Salt Spring Island farm for a time but came back to live in Saanich. After Hannah died, he moved to Salt Spring Island and died there in 1892. The farm was sold in 1867 to Thomas Michell.

Louis, Sylvia, Emma, and Willis sailed to Salt Spring Island on a sunny day in 1860, bringing with them all their worldly goods, including fifteen milking cows. The cows were the first to be introduced to the island, but seemed to know this was to be their new home. Once lowered off the ship with stout ropes into the water, they swam ashore and found the trail that led them to the homestead. Two canoes, paddled by local porters, an Indigenous man and his wife, took the passengers to shore. Mr. Macauley, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s land agent, was on hand to welcome them. Once the family had safely landed, Louis went to the settlement to arrange for help to unload their belongings.

All went smoothly until a brigade of canoes loaded down with pelts manned by northern Indigenous Peoples, or Haida (enemies to the local Indigenous Peoples), saw the newcomers and their boatload of goods and came to check them out. They threatened Macauley with a knife, until they learned that he could speak their language. Sylvia, pregnant with her third child, clutched her children close and thought she was going to die. However, the Haida were anxious to get to Victoria to sell their pelts. When they learned that Macauley was going visit people on the other side of the island, they offered to take him there.

Macauley later reported that on the way, hundreds of local Indigenous Peoples, who had been alerted by the female porter, chased the Haida canoes, intent on killing their enemies. “We will not kill the white man,” they said to the Haidas, “but we will kill you.” After Macauley was dropped off on shore, the Indigenous Peoples confronted each other in the bay. The locals made good on their promise.

Sylvia and the family had landed in the wilderness. There were only six other Black families on the island when they first arrived, although this number had almost tripled in a year. As a married man, Louis could pre-empt 200 acres of land, so neighbours were far apart. Sylvia, barely out of her teens, yet the mother of two toddlers and pregnant with a third, was isolated and felt lonely. For the first time in her life she was separated from her parents and her brother. Her family had been churchgoers, and now she understood what it meant to trust in God. Louis was not a religious man and did not like to see his wife praying. She was reminded of seeing her mother in the shed back in Missouri, finding solace in solitary prayer. Fearless, Sylvia would go out into the woods to pray. “Now I can see the hand of God guiding me through all my troubles, guiding me to a higher life.”

The family’s home was surrounded by a forest with heavy underbrush, which would have to be cut back and tamed before they could plant a single seed. But the land was fertile, and when Reverend Ebenezer Robson visited the family in 1861, he noted:

They with their children 3 in number are living on their own farm. It is good land & they only pay $1 per acre for it. Mr. Stark has about 30 head of cattle. He sowed one quart of wheat near his house last winter and reaped 180 qts. in the summer . . . His turnips of which he has a large quantity are beautiful and large . . . His wife who was converted about 2 months ago filled my sacks with . . . 4 lbs. fine fresh butter, 2 qt. bottles new milk. Mr. Stark gave me some of his large turnips.

Roaming the woods were bears, wolves, cougars, and other predators that threatened the family and attacked their livestock. Willis became adept with the rifle and was so famous for hunting cougars on Salt Spring Island that he was eventually featured on postcards. There were human perils as well. While most of the Indigenous Peoples on the island were friendly, Sylvia recounted three incidents in which hostile Indigenous Peoples tried to kill Louis or the family in their own home. When two other Black men, William Robinson, a neighbour who taught Sunday school, and Giles Curtis, a friend of Howard Estes who had joined Howard on the island to help with continuing farm improvements, were murdered and their homes robbed, it was time to pull up stakes once more. This happened around 1867 or 1868. The suspects in both incidents were Indigenous, but the individuals were never brought to justice.

Louis decided to move his pre-emption to land in what is now the Fruitvale area of Salt Spring Island. This was his written request to the land agent, Mr. Trutch:

Salt Spring Island November 3 1869

Mr. land agent dear Sir I Beg leave to inform you that I have ben oblige to move my famerly from my claim as the indiens is daingers I cannot get any man to live on the place Since cirtice was killd for this caus I have commencts improving a peace of land on the n.e. Side of gaingers harber and Joind on the South east end of david overtons claim thir is forty or fifty acurs of this land near to other Settlers which I would be veary thankfull if you will record this to me and take one hundred acures from my old claim and record to me one hundred ondly untill I can get a man on it.

Louis Stark

The Starks farmed for fifteen years on Salt Spring Island. During this time, four more children were born. John Edmond (1860–1930), Abraham Lincoln (1863–1908*), Hannah Serena (1866*–1888), and Marie Albertina (1867*–1966). John ventured north, as far as Alice Arm, as a mining engineer and prospector. Abraham was listed in the 1901 census as of “unsound mind” and died of tuberculosis. None of the male children ever married. Hannah married Vincent Jenoni, an Italian watchmaker in 1886. Marie married Joseph B. Wallace in 1897, and wrote down her mother’s reminiscences when she herself was elderly.

Sylvia Estes Stark, whose father bought her freedom from slavery, was a courageous Black pioneer int eh wilderness of Salt Spring Island. Courtesy of Salt Spring Island Archives.

In 1875, the family moved to Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, while Willis maintained the Salt Spring Island farm, after briefly living on his own in town. Louis bought a farm in the Cranberry District to raise beef cattle, and a sign by the railroad tracks on the former property still bears the name of Stark’s Crossing. The Stark’s last child, Louisa (Louise) was born here. She married Ernest May Wiley in 1901. They lived in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Sylvia left Louis in 1885 and returned to live on the Salt Spring Island homestead with Willis, leaving Louisa to live with her father. Sylvia died on the island in 1944, at the age of 105, outliving her son by a year. Louisa inherited everything from her father when he died. As stipulated in Louis’ will, Sylvia would only receive “1 dollar in lieu of dower because she has some years since without cause left my bed and board. Consequently she is not entitled to my property.”

The Final Chapter

Louis’ close neighbour and friend in Nanaimo was a butcher. Each week, the butcher slaughtered a lamb for Louis, while keeping a quarter for himself. They were known to spend time together. One day, the butcher reported to the police in Nanaimo that he had found Louis’ hat and cane on the road to the house of a person who was hostile to Louis, and Louis’ body at the bottom of a cliff nearby.

When questioned, the butcher related that the two of them had spent the day hunting with no luck and had gone their separate ways home, planning to meet the next day for another outing. When Louis did not show up and could not be found at home, the butcher went to search for Louis, with the tragic result. Mysteriously, the Chinese helper at Louis’ farm had disappeared, never to be seen again.

John Edmond had been prospecting up north and had written his father the dates he would be in Nanaimo, but arrived too late for their happy reunion. He stayed in Nanaimo to take care of the farm and to try to bring justice to bear on his father’s untimely death. The butcher was sympathetic and became close to John, sharing stories about his relationship with Louis. The authorities seemed to drag their heels on solving the case, even after John wrote a number of letters asking for help. They finally sent a police detective, but he seemed so uninterested that John hired a private detective.

John learned that the farm was situated on a rich deposit of coal, in which the local mining company was interested. The butcher had once confided that “the owner of the mine then in operation had given him $50,000 for some technical advantage he had shown him about the new mine.” Two men who separately offered to provide information about the death were both murdered before they could speak to John. Evidence came to light to clear the suspect hinted at by the butcher. It was found that bribes had been made to the authorities.

Willis joined John and the detective. They now suspected the butcher. One day the butcher visited John, holding an axe and acting strangely; later, when he shot at John, the brothers knew he was guilty. John wanted the butcher to be tried and convicted of murdering his father, rather than for the attempted murder of himself.

The following evidence was brought to court at the butcher’s trial: an autopsy found that the last meal Louis had eaten before he died was breakfast, and his remains were more than three days old. His boots did not show that he had trekked through the bush. The fall had resulted in a broken arm, but after rigor mortis had set in. There was evidence of a single blow on the head, but not as a result of a fall down a 300-metre cliff. A witness testified that he had been hunting at the location and did not see the butcher on the day the defendant claimed he found the body. The butcher was found not guilty.

Too late, John found one last piece of evidence, which he believed would have turned the decision in his father’s favour. Hidden under some bushes on the property were some soiled clothes Louis had bundled together to take to the laundry. It was inconceivable that Louis would have just tossed them away so carelessly.

Later, the local community, and even members of the butcher’s family, believed that the mining company had paid the butcher $50,000 to kill Louis Stark. The butcher had gotten away with murder.

The Children of Sylvia and Louis Stark

Name Date of Birth Married # of Children Date of Death
Emily Arabella (Emma) Feb. 17, 1857 James Clarke (1878) None July 31, 1890
Willis Otis Dec 13, 1858 N/A N/A Dec. 15, 1943
John Edmond Nov. 26, 1860 N/A N/A Sept. 28, 1930
Abraham Lincoln Feb. 19, 1863 N/A N/A June 26, 1908
Hannah (Anne) Serena Feb. 18, 1866 Vincent Jenoni (1886) N/A 1888
Marie Albertina Aug. 15, 1867 Joseph B. Wallace (1897) 6 June 19, 1966
Louisa (Louise) June 29, 1878 Ernest May Wiley (1901) UNKNOWN 1971

Reprinted with permission from City in Colour by May Q. Wong, 2018 TouchWood Editions. Copyright © 2018 by May Q. Wong.