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Howard Estes was a slave until he was 40. His owner, Tom Estes, sent him to California with a herd of cattle, with the promise that after the cattle were sold Howard could stay and work in the mines until he had a thousand dollars. He was to send the money to Tom Estes in Missouri, receiving in return his "Freedom Papers." He sent the money, but Tom Estes kept it as his because Howard was his slave. Such stories were not uncommon.
Howard Estes, a genuine "Forty-niner", (a term used in California for miners searching for gold in 1849) finally earned enough money working during the California gold rush to buy freedom for himself, his wife Hannah, and children Sylvia and Jackson. Realizing that Missouri was no place for Free Blacks, he 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 was the son of a slaveholder and one of his slaves. He had escaped and, using skills he had acquired while on his father's plantation, he worked his way to California. He and Sylvia had two children, Emily and Willis, when they joined the Black emigration to Vancouver Island in 1858.
After settling in Saanich, the Starks went to Salt Spring Island, which had just been opened to homesteaders in about 1860. Howard Estes and wife Hannah remained on the farm in Saanich.
Slyvia Stark was in every way a true pioneer, living in what was then a beautiful wilderness, isolated at first from other settlers, without the sustaining comfort of the church that had meant so much in her life. She had three sons and four daughters. In time she became almost a living legend. She lived to be 106 years.
In 1875, Louis took land in Cranberry District near Nanaimo, where he raised cattle for the market, and where one may still see a sign "Stark's Crossing" beside the train tracks. The family lived there for several years in a house Louis built. There he and Sylvia parted, and she returned to Salt Spring Island where son Willis had stayed to take care of their property. There she lived for the rest of her life.
After the Starks moved to the Cranberry District, Emily attended Normal School in Nanaimo. She became a school teacher, and on August 1, 1874 a notice appeared in the Nanaimo Free Press: "Cranberry-Cedar School, situated near the Nanaimo River bridge will be opened next Monday with Miss Stark as teacher".
Willis Stark, the eldest son, had remained on Salt Spring Island looking after the Stark's prop- erty. His skill with a rifle enabled him to rid the island of panthers and he was issued a year-round hunting license.
In those later years people gathered round to hear Sylvia tell stories of the days of slavery in Missouri, stories that her daughter Marie finally wrote down and which her granddaughter, Myrtle preserved and gave to the Provincial Archives. Myrtle Holloman, as of October 1995, is the only living grandchild of Sylvia Stark. She has a house on Salt Spring Island, where Sylvia spent her final years, and where she is buried beside her father in the Pioneer Cemetery. Her mother Hannah Estes, is buried in the Victoria Pioneer Cemetery off Quadra Street.
The B.C. Black History Awareness Society has kindly made
available one of the many biographies they have researched
and compiled on Black pioneers to British Columbia.
February is Black History Month
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