Recollections of Sylvia Stark, Part 3

Notes made by Marie Albertina Stark (afterwards Mrs. Wallace) from the recollections of her mother, Sylvia Stark, who was born a slave in Clay County, Missouri, and settled on Salt Spring Island with her husband, Louis Stark, and family in the year 1860, as homesteaders.


As Mrs. Stark remembered, there were six colored families on Saltspring Island in 1869 when the Starks came. She said there were two old colored people known as Grandpa Jackson and Grandma Jackson. Grandma Jackson was 112 years of age and Grandpa Jackson was 114 years of age. They did not stay long on Saltspring.

Sylvia Stark's first sight of her new home on the Island was an unfinished log cabin surrounded by trees and thick underbrush. It was anything but encouraging. It called for work, in which she would have to take part. But one happy thought in this wilderness. It was their own and it stood for freedom. And that all absorbing thought was all the stimulus needed for the colored settlers in those days.

They hung a quilt up for a door and the neighbors came and helped Mr. Stark to put a roof on the house to keep out the rain. Sylvia had not recovered quite from the shock of their first landing. She found it hard to get use to their wild surroundings. It was so lonely being located on an isolated place quite a distance from the Settlement.

There was no doctor available then. She was yet in her teens and felt the need of a woman's advice and companionship. The first time she was left alone with her two small children she wept despondently. Her little son Willis tried to comfort her. Stroking her head soothingly he said, "Don't cry, Ma. Let's go home." The only home he knew was in California.

But a change was coming to Sylvia. She would know the peace of a comforting Saviour. She would know why her mother used to hide away in the old shed to pray. She was often left alone with her children. There seemed to be no other way. Their neighbors were in the same predicament, to some extent, when their men went to town for provisions.

Looking back over those dark days, Sylvia often made the remark, "Now I can see the hand of God guiding me through all of my troubles, guiding me to a higher life." Her husband was not sympathetic, so she would steal out into the woods to pray, although wild animals roamed through the bush. Black bear, cougars, even wolves, were on the Island those days, but she was serving Daniel's God. The bush had no terrors when the urge came to pray.

Then one day as she lay on a couch tired and self abandoned, these words came to her, "Fear not for I am with thee."

this passage may be found in

Isaiah; 41, -10v

It gave her joy. It was the answer to her prayer. On this wild unconquered island she had found new life. She could not read the Bible and understand it without the help of those faithful missionaries of the Wesleyan Methodist Church who visited the settlers and read the Bible to them, giving much needed help those days.

Four months after their arrival to Saltspring, a second son was added to the Stark family. They named him John Edmond. He loved adventure. He took up the trail where his parents left off and pressed further northward as a prospector and mineralogist.

It was between 1867 and 1868 when Mr. Estes came to Saltspring Island to take care of the Stark farm on the mountain. It was necessary, not only to live on a pre-emption, but a certain amount of work must be done on the place to make it secure. He brought a friend with him named Jiles [Giles] Curtis. Mrs. Estes stayed in Saanich on account of failing health. They went around together, and worked that way for safety. But the shadow of the Indian seemed destined to cross the threshold of that mountain home with tragedy.

It was one Sunday. Mr. Curtis felt indisposed and did not accompany Mr. Estes when he went to church. Very reluctantly Mr. Estes left him alone and went to church. He never missed a meeting unless it couldn't be avoided. While sitting in church a feeling of uneasiness disturbed him so he left before the service was over.

When he came to the fence surrounding the house he saw the bars were down. He knew he hadn't left them down. Further on a pillow had been dropped as though someone had made a hasty retreat. He needed no further proof. Hastening to the cabin he found Curtis still sitting in a chair with his back to the door. When he called there was no answer. Curtis was dead. The chair he was sitting in belonged to the Starks. I can remember seeing the mark of the bullet in the back of the chair as it took Curtis' life. The house had been robbed of everything worthwhile.

If Mr. Estes had stayed with Curtis he too might have been killed, for the Indians went about in bands.

A native named Willie was apprehended, the man who had pointed the gun at Stark. His wife said she would tell all she knew about the case if the law would protect her. She was left to mind the canoes and could only tell of seeing the stolen goods brought back. She knew their intent, though not a witness to the slaying.

Willie had often been on trial for his life but he seemed to lead a charmed life. He never came to the Gallows. After the trial his wife suddenly disappeared.

In the early nineties, I saw Willie paddling his own canoe selling fish. I was told by an old timer that he was the man who had made his boast of having killed thirty people

After the death of Curtis, H. Estes went back to his home in Saanich. [1868]

Dad and the boys worked hard with axe, saw and auger, working the hard way, but they soon cleared the logs from around the house. They felled trees, bored holes on both sides of the tree, kindled a fire in the holes. The holes measured rail length. When they burned through they were split in rail lengths for fencing. They cut and dried the wild meadow grass for the cattle in wintertime, but they soon raised a big field of tame grass around the house. Beef cattle were fed on turnips and bran. We never heard of mangles those days. Then before our meadow around the lake was cleared it seemed to be a breeding place for cougars. One evening when the farm was still in the rough, we were sitting outside where it was cool. An eerie sound came up from the meadow in the distance. It was the cry of young cougars. They sounded like the weird cry we sometimes hear of wild animals on the [illegible], a sound you would not easily forget.

One Sunday when patches of land had been cleared, and smouldering logs and burning brush scented the air, my sister Serene and I strolled out to a moss-covered hill overlooking the meadow. We lounged at ease in the warm sunshine when we heard what we thought was our cat crying and we answered. It cried again twice and we answered it both times. Then a long silence.

Suddenly from the bush just across the road came a loud and frightful [growl?]. We didn't answer that one. (To use our Bro John's expression) we got up and flew. We had been calling a panther. We never stopped until we got home.

A colored man from South Carolina named Overton, who came west seeking to better his condition, landed on Saltspring Island with only 79 cents in his pocket. We helped up on his feet by [illegible] Stark; he also took a claim on [illegible] where he could work with Stark. He felt that he was indebted to Stark for helping him in a time of need. He also had a claim with a lake and meadow like Stark and Richardsons, but Overton's meadow where he raised his vegetables was rather far from his house.

Sometimes he was late getting home. Often people who came to see him and finding he was not in would sit on his doorstep and wait for him.

One evening he was late coming home. The moon shone dimly. As he was mounting the stile fence surrounding his cabin, he saw what appeared to be a large dog coming towards him. Thinking that someone was waiting for him on the doorstep, he called loudly. Please call your dog off. He got no answer. Then he was scared, but before he could think the animal leaped on the stile beside him and down on the other side and was gone.

Then he knew how close he had been to a panther. Cougars were called panthers in those days. He passed a restless night. He lay awake early in the morning waiting to hear his rooster crow. Becoming alarmed he went to his chicken house. [20?] chickens missing, including the rooster.

With the aid of Stark's dogs they found the chickens buried in the woods on his [farm?], their throats cut and drained of their blood.

On more than one occasion Sylvia was forced to be her own nurse and doctor too. Sometimes her husband gave much needed assistance. Then a friend whom she had known in California, came to her assistance and Sylvia in return went to the assistance of her friend.

They were the only nurses available at that time. There were no stores on the Island. The settlers made use of the empty flour bags. They came in very handy in making various articles of clothing. When short of patches Sylvia would patch her husbands overalls with flour sacking. When that wore through, she would put another patch on top of that until, in her own words, the pants would fairly stand alone.

They worked very hard those days enduring great hardship as the price of freedom, but it was with a joy of performance and pride of achievement.

There were no tractors. Stark made a homemade tractor. Finding a V shaped body of a tree, he put a coulter in the end and spikes along the sides. They called it a drag. Hitched to a pair of oxen it proved effective in tearing out roots and cultivating the ground.

Stark was reared on a fruit farm in Kentucky. He grafted and planted fruit trees among the stumps. His plan was to have the fruit trees coming on while the stumps decayed. In time they would be easy to dig out.

They soon had enough cleared land to raise grain for their own use. They kept chickens, turkeys and pigs. The bears caught some of their pigs, the young ones, and the turkeys ran wild. When they wanted turkey, they had to shoot them from the trees. There were wild geese and cranes on the mountains. They built their nests there, but as more settlers came in, these wild birds left for wilder regions. There was no regular boat running to the Island. The settlers navigated in Indian canoes or flat bottom boats when they needed provisions. On one occasion Mr. and Mrs. Stark, with a family of three children, were returning from Victoria in an open boat. A storm came up and nearly capsized the boat. It kept Stark busy with all of (the) strength and skill he possessed to hold the boat abreast of the waves while Mrs. Stark bailed frantically to keep the boat from being swamped at each swell.

They were all soaked to the skin when they finally landed, glad to be alive. Mrs. Stark collapsed and Stark had to take the children home and bring a chair to carry her home. That was in 1863.

The first boat running to the Island was the S.S. Douglas. It came once a month. Not many months after that perilous trip, the youngest son of the family was born. By that time a retired English doctor was on the Island. He said this boy would always be weakly. Only a Mother knows how it feels to bear such a burden. It called for Abundant Faith.

[illegible] smallpox

in B.C. spread to the Islands. The Indians became a [prey?] to the disease. When one native in the camp got sick, the rest fled the camp as they had no way of combatting the disease. That served to spread the epidemic.

Mr. Stark had himself and all of the family vaccinated. About that time the cattle came home from the woods. As it was his custom, he went out to feed them to encourage them to come home of their own accord. While he was out it began to rain. He was nursing a sore vaccination and felt damp and chilly. He came to a nice warm fire his wife had made. While sitting by the fire he became delirious. His wife put him to bed and gave him hot drinks and for several weeks he was so delirious she could not leave him alone with the children to go for the doctor.

There were 14 cows to milk, pigs and chickens to feed, aside from her other duties and tending to the children. One wonders how she managed to carry on. Her husband's arm was swollen out of all proportion. She tried every remedy she knew of to no avail, trying to reduce the swelling. When he regained consciousness, he thought the swollen arm was a log lying beside him. He told Sylvia to go for the doctor.

She told [Erie?] who was six years old to mind the baby and not let her brother Willis leave the house for fear of panthers. Then she took the trail down to the settlement.

A colored man named Bruckner [Buckner?] was living where the golf course now stands. He took the doctor and Mrs. Stark in his cart up the hill to the Stark home. Dr. Hog said Mr. Stark had Variloid. He ordered cold clay from the bottom of the spring wrapped around the arm. It brought quick relief as the swelling disappeared. Thereafter the arm was smaller than the other. However, Stark became strong again.

Dr. Hog was a retired English doctor. As far back as Sylvia Stark could remember he was the first doctor on Saltspring. Doubtless he practised because of the peoples great need, but he proved to be a first class doctor, though handicapped by having only one arm.

He lived alone in a small house overlooking the meadow adjoining the property where the Harbour House now stands. He had planted turnips down the [illegible] across the road. One day, looking from his high elevation down into his garden, he saw a native pulling up his turnips. When he objected, the man charged him and would have killed him, but the doctor ran into his house and locked the door. He saw the native shake his fist at him through the window. Some days later they found the doctor's lifeless body outside of his cabin. He might have saved his life if he had only left the cabin for safety. A man by the name of Willie was responsible for that crime. A native of whom [they?] said he led a charmed life. It seems strange that they never captured him.

Mrs. Stark seemed to be tireless in her efforts to make their home life enjoyable. She made hominy from the wheat and corn of their own raising. Sometimes boiled wheat had to be a substitute for bread. When the missionaries came they ate boiled wheat too, but hominy was a rare dish [illegible] venison to those ministers. When she tried grinding the wheat in a coffee mill it made good whole wheat bread.

The work of those early ministers like that of the settlers was fraught with hardships and danger. Long voyages across the water in stormy weather frequently in Indian canoes taking what accommodation their poor parishioners were able to give, gladly and thankfully, adapting themselves, hardships with their [parishioners?].

Here are the names of some of the first Wesleyan ministers to Saltspring.

Mr. Thomas Crosby, for many years missionary to the Indians at Fort Simpson, BC

Rev. Sexsmith

Rev. White

Mr. Cornelius Bryant

Mr. Ebenezer Robson, who came to the Island in 1861, was another outstanding minister of the gospel. When he came to the Stark home he refused to take the best bed they offered to him. He said it was wrong to rob Peter to pay Paul. He preferred to sleep on a straw mattress on the floor. He made himself generally useful, chopping wood, bringing water from the spring, even churning the milk when Mrs. Stark was busy with the cooking. He loved fried clams. He would sit on the beach waiting for the tide to go out so he could dig clams.

Mr. Cornelius Bryant was the first man to join the pioneer Methodist Church in Nanaimo. He brought his [credentials?] with him from England. He also organized a band of young people as helpers to the church. They were named the Band of Hope. Sometimes he brought his wife to visit the Stark family. He took great interest in the young people. He taught [Erie?], the oldest of the Stark family, to play on the organ.

Not the least of all of those early ministers was Mr. [Roper?] He was not an [ordained?] minister, but he kindly took the pulpit in the absence of the minister. When Stark offered to black his boots for him before he went to Church, he took if as a great joke when he discovered that his boots were blacked with panther grease. An [illegible] log cabin school house at the [illegible] at central Saltspring Island served as a church for the Methodist [Ministers?]. A colored man [illegible] the Sunday School and another colored man, John Jones, taught school during the week.

The three oldest Stark children had their first schooling in that log cabin school. They had to walk in a trail through dense woods up to their mountain home. Once the two oldest children were coming home from school when they heard an angry growl from the bush on the roadside. It might have been a panther. They couldn't see it nor did they have any inclination to look. They ran all of the way home. But when their father took his gun and went in search of the animal, it was nowhere to be found. During the thirteen or fourteen years the Starks lived on Saltspring Island, the slaying of the settlers by Indians continued. Several colored people lost their lives that way.

Two colored men, Mr. Robinson and Giles Curtis, were both slain about 1867 or 1868. There is a tomb stone in the pioneer grave yard, marking the grave of Giles Curtis in 1868.

Mr. Robinson, a very devoted Sunday School teacher, often sang this old sweet song to his pupils -- Children of the heavenly King, as we journey let us sing -- sung in the old tune with all of the quavers of a spiritual. I have often heard my mother sing it just as they sang it in the old log cabin school house where she first learned it and kept it in mind down through the years. One Sunday he sang it to those brave children of the brave pioneers for the last time. He told Sylvia Stark next Sunday would be his farewell meeting. He had written to his wife asking her to come west but she refused to come to wild country where the Indians were hostile. So now he was going back to her. When next Sunday came he failed to arrive. They waited with growing uneasiness. Then a party went to his house at Vesuvius Bay. They found him slain in his cabin where he had lived alone.

One evening five Indians came to the Stark cabin on the mountain side. It happened to be on a Sunday when Mr. Stark was at home. The three children were asleep, the youngest a baby in the cradle. They walked right into the house and began to examine everything in the house. They even counted the blankets on the bed and talked among themselves. Then one of the men took a gun from over the mantle where Stark kept several guns ready loaded and began to examine it. Stark shouted to him to be careful as the gun was loaded and grabbed the muzzle turning it away. "I know it's loaded," the Indian said and tried to wrest it from Stark's grasp. Sylvia was praying silently as she felt that the Indians had come to kill them. She knew that they were too many in number for her husband to have a chance. In the scuffle Stark held on to the gun turning the muzzle upward. Suddenly there was a terrific blast, the bullet going through the roof. Immediately to the surprise of the Starks, the Indians left quickly. It is quite evident they were afraid of Stark who was known to be a good marksman. And he was not afraid of them.

An Indian going by the name of Willie had made an attempt on Stark's life. But the latter had seen the gun sight glistening in the sun. The gun was pointing towards him in the man's hands. Instantly Stark shouted to him, calling him by name. The man was afraid when he saw that he was detected. He knew if he missed Stark, Stark wouldn't miss him. He was trembling when Stark came up to him. After that Stark was very careful. He always took his dog with him when he went into the woods.

After the appearance of those five Indians at their home, the Starks felt that it was quite unsafe to live in that place, so they took a claim on the other side of the Island.

[They?] moved to a claim by the seashore. At their new home they could get plenty of sea food. Herring and smelt came up on the sand during the shoaling season. The farmers raked them up with garden rakes. The mussels were very large then. They hung in thick clusters on the rocks. Very often the farmers lived on clams and potatoes when other necessities were scarce. However, living so close to the sea had its disadvantages. It was not immune from prowlers. One day a native stole into the house silently in his moccasin feet. They always came in without knocking. He asked in chinook, "Ka mika man (where is your man)?" Sylvia answered in chinook, "Wake syah (not far away)."

The dog watch was lying asleep on the floor but when the man spoke the dog jumped up and would have caught the man by the throat when Sylvia prevented him, though with some difficulty. That stopped the prowling. But as a rule the Indians were quite friendly. They sold their commodities, salmon and all kinds of seafood, and berries in their season. They needed the chickemen (money in chinook).

There was one man whose name was Verygood, Captain Verygood, so named. He gained the respect of all who knew him. W.O. Stark learned from him something about the customs of the early natives. He said there were hiyou snows (big snows) on the Island in the early days. The Indians wore nothing on their feet [other?] than moccasins. They went through those heavy winters without catching cold and they lived to see many moons. Now, after their contact with civilization, they caught cold the same as the white man.

My recollections of those early days on Saltspring Island are like a dream gone dim with age. I first saw the light on a farm near the seashore. The place finally took on the name Fruitville. When Captain Scott bought it he enlarged it and made it a fruit farm. Louis Stark was the first man to the claim. He moved his family there to be safe from Indian trouble. I remember that a little white pig used to come into the house and they would feed him there, also the noisy whales that came into our small bay.

A small unbarked log cabin stood inside the yard. It was a temporary shelter while the big cabin was being built. It was then occupied by a pioneer family from the Hawaiian Islands. They were colored Hawaiians, perhaps the first of their country people to come to the Island. They occupied the cabin until they located a place of their own. They were the first family to take the claim now known as the Mansel Farm.

Whenever I went to their cabin, Mrs. Frederson would always give me a cookie and one to her grandchild, Rena. That was why I enjoyed going to see Rena. Then our Dad, Louis Stark, took a claim on Vancouver Island in Cranberry District, so called at that time. I was too young to remember my age but I remember well the day we left Saltspring. I carried the memory of that scenic path leading uphill through blue grass to a fence with bars to pull down and pass through. It was of no importance, just a memory.

Since then I have seen many hills leading up from the beach on Saltspring where the sea has made its bed. And there is a petrified log on the beach at Fruitville, black and hard as though in transformation from wood to coal. It has been chopped and left as though the attempt had been made by a dull axe, perhaps a stone axe.

It was sometime in the early seventies, when we embarked on the SS Maud, a mere tug boat but strong and seaworthy carrying many a head of live stock as well as passengers. The steward on the boat was a colored man. Scott was his name. We have his photograph yet, none the worse for age.

The Emma was the name of another boat running this route. Her cook was a colored man. they were good cooks.

There was no snow when we left the Island. When we came to Nanaimo a thin layer of snow had fallen. Our first snows usually came in November. Two boys in knee breeches stood on the wharf watching the boat drift in. Later we learned they were the children of our neighbors who would live in Cranberry district. Their father, Mr. John Richardson, came out with his wife, two sons and a daughter, with a large band of immigrants from England in 1854. They were six months coming across the perilous ocean from England to Nanaimo on a sailing vessel, the Princess Royal. Only the strong survived. The centennial of that event was celebrated in Nanaimo in 1954 when the pioneer torch was handed to younger generations.

Some of the sounds heard by the Starks in their isolated home on the mountain side was the roar of cannon over the North end of Saltspring.

They learned that it was the rounding up of native suspects in the slaying of two Germans at Plumpers Pass (now, Active Pass). Mr. and Mrs. Marks, with their son and daughter, were endeavoring to locate a place for a homestead near the pass.

As they were leaving, the mother and son left first in their boat expecting the father and daughter to follow in their boat. They had gone quite some distance before they realized that the father and daughter were not following. Fearful that something had happened to them they hastened back to the landing, all they could see was their boat burning on the beach. They dared not tarry for further search, but hastened and gave the alarm. A search was made for the father and daughter, but the Indians living at the pass seemed to know nothing about the matter. After a lengthy search, they found the victims sunken in the waters of the pass.

But no trace was found of the guilty parties. Finally a native gave the officers a clue. He told them to go to the Indian village Penellekut on Cooper Island. It seems that he could no longer hide the truth. They commanded the Indians to give up the guilty parties or they would be liable. This they failed to do.

Then came the gun boats shelling the village. Still there was no response. Then very cautiously they entered the village, only to find it deserted. All had fled but one, an aged blind woman. They gave her some tea and crackers which she ate with relish. She was hungry evidently.

It was a long time before they traced the guilty party to their hiding place where they were captured.


The foregoing story was written by Mrs. Marie A. Stark Wallace, daughter of Mrs. Sylvia Stark. Mrs. Wallace died June 19, 1966 at age 98.

Source: Salt Spring Island Archives, Add. Mss. 91, Marie Albertina (Stark) Wallace, Recollections of Sylvia Stark, Part 3, n.d.. Notes: RESTRICTION: Copying permitted. However, permission to publish must be obtained from Mrs. Myrtle Holloman, 960 Walkers Hook Rd, Ganges, B.C., V0S 1E0

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