Recollections of Sylvia Stark, Part 1

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.


I heard the tread of pioneers
Of cities yet to be
The first low wash of waves
That soon shall roll a human sea.

There was nothing unusual in taking a trip to Saltspring Island. I had passed through the pretty Islands that dot the Gulf of Georgia many times, and mused under the spell of their enchantment.

But strange to say the peaceful hills and dreamy coves had never appealed to me as they did now. I was on a visit to my aged mother and brother of the Stark family. Perhaps it was the beauty and Grandeur of scenery that awakened me to the realization of the value of things.

How true is the scripture, there is no speech or language where the voice of nature is not heard. (Psalm 19, 3rd verse).

Over the shimmering waters I viewed as through the mist of years, the pantomime of yesteryears; I saw again the race of the big canims, (Indian canoes), heard the dip, dip of their ghostly paddles, and the wild chant of the happy potlatch song as the natives raced to their yearly potlatch feast. And I thought of our pioneer fathers who crossed these troubled waters many years ago, seeking a home in the land of the free; troubled waters for the natives of this country as well as those brave pioneers. For the dark clouds of conquest hung heavily over the land, and the triumph of the conquerors was deeply resented by the natives; they retaliated by slaying the settlers. So the pioneers lived in constant fear of their lives.

That was a time when men were willing to go into the wilderness with axe and gun only, at their own risk. They are the forgotten men whose courage and constancy blazed the trail and laid the foundation of our western civilization, they are the uncrowned kings of pioneer days.

The shadows were growing long on the grass when brother Willis and I in his one horse wagon, came to the home he shared with our mother. Sylvia Stark and her son, Willis, were the last of those colored pioneers who came to Saltspring with their families in the early 60's.

Willis was about 4 years old when he landed with his parents and a sister, on Saltspring in 1860, and he was the last of the Stark family to stand by his mother through some of the most trying days of her life.

His home was the fourth ranch in B. C. on which mother and son had worked and cleared the land. Much of the clearing had grown all over again, as each season's new growth mingled with age and decay, and marked the changes of time on the old place. But the rock heaps and boulders were still standing where he had put them nearly fifty years ago; they stood as monuments of the courage and strength of Willis Stark when he was young.

And in his prime now, he was old and crippled from hard work and the rough road he had pioneered; he had to engage the help of a neighbor, John Whims, to do his plowing. He could still bring in wood. He would sit up late when the winters were cold, to keep the house warm for his aged mother.

The first cabin Willis had built was torn down to make room for a new house. The two oldest boys had planned it that way between them. Willis would stay with their mother and John would parcel support or cash when necessary.

So the two brothers with the help of a carpenter and a neighbor, built a new house for their mother, and she was very proud of her new house.

But the first cabin Willis had built, and which had been torn down to make room for the new house, held many pleasant memories for me. It had been a home not only for our mother, but our grandfather, and invalid brother and myself. Now the toilsome years were telling on the health of Sylvia and her son, Willis. The old spinning wheel stood idly by gathering dust, but she was always busy with her knitting.

As I watched those toilworn hands, I saw a lifetime of service in every line and wrinkle. Near seventy years had passed since she had faced the uncultivated soil of B. C., yet her memory was still good. She loved to talk about the fine gardens she made after they had cleared the land. She had vegetables to give away. Willis raised his own grain for his chickens and did his thrashing with an old-fashioned flail. He did all of his mowing by hand; sometimes he cradled his grain by moonlight as when he cradled for other people he was pressed for time.

Their chickens ran wild over the farm, but Sylvia took delight in hunting the hens' nests even to belling a hen with a dinner bell. She found the nests alright.

She filled two crates a week with eggs. It more than paid for their groceries. They traded with the Brodwell store, at central Saltspring. Those days farming was profitable for beginners even in the primitive way. The claims were paying for the toil of clearing them. But with the World War 1, followed by the grading system and the high cost of farm necessities, it was very difficult for the small farmer. Fruit was left on the ground to spoil. The cost of boxes prohibited profit. Howbeit, those hardy farmers survived.

Through many spans of lean benighted years,
Through generations born to doubts and fears,
We've trodden the wilds of life's abandoned ways,
But low today we stand amidst the throng,
Possessing more than just a native song,
Dark pilgrims up from Antebellum days.

Ode to Booker T. Washington, by L. Lynch.

It is said that Memory is the heritage of old age.

It was to Sylvia Stark a diary richly filled with the strange and unusual happenings of her past life. It was on those occasions when she seemed to be living in the past, she would tell some of her early experiences, and I kept silent for fear of breaking the spell. Although at that time, I had no thought of preserving those memories, I was simply interested in listening to her tales.

Some of those tales were very sad relating to the condition of the slaves. The blood of those poor tortured souls cry to God from the ground, but the Great Creator has a time set for judgement of the oppressor and a new life for the oppressed.

Sylvia Stark's maiden name was Sylvia Estes. She was born in Clay county, Missouri in (1839); was the youngest of three children, who with their mother, Hannah Estes, worked for a German baker, named Charles Leopold.

Their father, Howard Estes, worked for a Scotsman named Tom Estes. The slaves bore the name of their masters. Sylvia's father considered himself lucky to be privileged to visit his family over the week-ends.

The abolitionist movement sponsored by William Lloyd Garrison had been in operation since 1831; it was a menace to the slave owners. They tried to suppress it, to no avail. Mr. Leopold was very much impressed with the movement. He said he was against slavery, and would quit the traffic eventually, but he could not return to Germany. He said all Germans going to the U. S. were under oath; if they ever held slaves, the penalty would be death. He said, "If I went back now, they would cut off my head."

Mrs. Leopold was not in accord with her husband; she thought they should conform to the southern rules for handling slaves. It was one Xmas morning when little Sylvia had her first awakening. The children were very agreeable; they were allowed to play together at this special season. While waiting for their tree to be arranged in another room, they challenged who would be the first to see the tree. "I will", cried little Sylvia, and being small she crept in close to the door. When the door was opened she was the first one in. Suddenly she felt herself jerked roughly back and Mrs. Leopold scolding loudly cried, "Ni----, let the white children come first." "Never do that again," said Mr. Leopold. He had put a nice doll on the tree for Sylvia, but the joy of Christmas was lost to Sylvia. That incident had served its purpose and never had to be repeated again. From that time on, Sylvia was thinking with the mind of a slave. When her mother became ill she was anxious and wondered what will happen to me if Ma dies, where will I go.

Sylvia's first recollection of her childhood days were associated with work. She said she must have been very small. She remembered that her mother used to tie her big apron around her neck and stand her up on a chair to dry dishes for the white folks, and there were so many dishes to wipe.

She seldom took part in play with other children outside. Sometimes she would fight if other children were abusive but most of her time was spent learning to sew or knit. Her first knitting was done on broom straws. "When you learn to knit" her mother said, "I will get you some knitting needles.

She practically taught herself to read. The little Leopold child she used to nurse taught her the alphabet and when the white children did their home work, she would listen. When they went out to play and left their books, she would look at them and rehearse them to herself. Mrs. Leopold would have been very angry if she had known this was going on as it was against the law to teach a slave. With these small beginnings Sylvia learned to read.

Howard Estes and his wife were of the same mind in raising their children. Though at a great disadvantage themselves, not being able to read, they taught their children to pray and observe the Sabbath. Sylvia never forgot the lesson her father taught her. One Sunday morning, their mother was working at the big house, and their father tended to the children. Sylvia had her new clothes on and could hardly wait for her father to finish combing her hair. She was so happy she skipped through the door. Quickly her father called her back, saying, "This is Sunday, now walk out with more modesty, not like a horse bolting through a barn door." Sylvia never forgot the lesson, even after she and her son had grown old. When their hay was out in the field on Sunday and the clouds threatened rain, she would wait until the morrow.

The Estes family went to church; of course the colored people were seated back by the door but they were allowed to partake of the sacrament after the white folks had theirs. And the sermon especially for the slaves was, "servants obey your masters." Every slave knew that part of the bible by heart.

Although Mrs. Estes could not read, she was not deceived. She said no one could convince her that God was the author of slavery. Sylvia remembered on one occasion the taking of the sacrament became positively loathsome, changing her whole concept of the performance. The minister used the low language of a boss to his slaves, ending with "God knows you are a hard nation."

Life for the Leopold slaves would have been comparatively easy, but for the nagging disposition of Mrs. Leopold. Perhaps she thought if her husband would not rule their slaves according to custom in a slave state, she would.

Mrs. Estes usually went through these eruptions calmly, although they made her angry. It came to a climax when her mistress called her to make a fire in the kiln when her hands were in the dough. So she explained to her mistress that she could not make it at that moment as she was making bread and did not want to spoil her bread. Apparently Mrs. Leopold was out purposely to start a row. She said, "How dare you disobey my orders." Hannah Estes was not afraid of the big German woman. Hot words past between them. A quarrel was precipitated that nearly proved disastrous. When Charles Leopold came in he heard his wife's story which was very much distorted. He was very angry. He said he would be ruined if this went around, that he allowed his slaves to talk back. He held a menacing whip in his had, but Hannah would have fought his with all the strength she possessed if he had attempted to flog her. Her wild Madagascar blood was aroused. It was settled at last with a sound lecture to both women, Mrs. Leopold sobbing the while because her scheme to have Hannah flogged had failed.

At a considerable risk to himself, Mr. Leopold had on one occasion quelled a race riot at an anti-slavery meeting. It made him very unpopular with the slave-holders. These eruptions worried Sylvia, too. What troubled her mother, troubled her ever since that Xmas morning.

Life for Sylvia was surrounded with terrorism. It was not safe for colored children to play outside of their own homes. They kidnapped colored children and sold them down south to the cotton fields from whence they never returned. Sometimes a stranger would offer candy to Sylvia. She always refused it and ran home.

Look beyond, there's light for thee
Streaming o'er a turbulent sea
Soft it smiles though distant far
The beautiful polar star

Sylvia remembered Harriet Tubman as one of the Leopold slaves. She appeared to be young, only a teenage girl, but she was stocky and strong, and a good worker. But she found it hard to work under Mrs. Leopold. She was finally sold to a slave breaker. His business was making the slaves be submissive to their masters. Often they were treated to a daily flogging. But when he tried to flog Harriet Tubman, to his surprise she flogged him, scratched his face, tore his clothing and pounded him so severely, he abandoned the cowhide and threatened to shoot her. She bared her bosom without flinching, saying "Shoot and be d-----, I would rather die than live such a life." He shot low to cripple her.

Mrs. Estes visited her when she was laid up sick. To her she told her pitiful story. It was a long time before she could walk on that foot but her spirit remained unbroken, as her life showed for many years after that.

That was not the only wound she received while trying to rescue her race. She was knocked unconscious while trying to protect a slave. She was called the "Moses" of her race. $40,000 was offered for her capture.

Harriet Tubman saved her parents and hundreds of slaves through the underground railway, assisted by both white and colored people, who took part in the underground work. The underground railway was a network of secret routes operated by land and water. She being a woman of great strength and endurance, finally escaped through this system. Many times her life was in danger, but she always followed the north star while fleeing north at night with a band of refugees.

She lived through the Civil War and served as a scout in the northern army, and built a home for the aged in New York. The last they heard of Harriet Tubman was from a colored woman who nursed her in a home for the aged in Syracuse, New York.

The dawn of freedom came to the Estes family in 1849. The gold rush was on and live stock was in great demand. Tom Estes, Howard's boss, was sending cattle to California. Tom's two sons, and Howard Estes went as herders. The boss made a contract with Howard, agreeing to give Howard his freedom papers on receipt of one thousand dollars, allowing him the privilege of making the money in California.

Howard worked in the gold mines, made the money and sent it to Tom in care of his sons according to contract. Tom received the money, but refused to give Howard his free papers. Unwilling to be thwarted he made another $1,000, sending it directly to Charles Leopold. It was carried safely in the pocket of a German friend and delivered to Charles Leopold. When Tom Estes heard about it, he claimed that money too, on the grounds that Howard was his slave. Leopold contended that Howard was in a free state, and therefore a free man. Then Tom sued Leopold and was awarded $800.00, but was forced to relinquish Howard's free papers.

The time seemed long while waiting their father's return. Sylvia saw the anxious strain of that long wait in her mother's face and how she frequently went away alone to the seclusion of an old shed. Sylvia was anxious about her mother, so one day she stole out to the shed and peeped through the crack. She saw her mother on her knees praying for the safe return of Howard, and that her children would be blessed and free.

It made a deep impression upon Sylvia, something she would remember when she, too, became a mother.

Ms. Estes cooked for the Leopold family assisted by her oldest daughter, Agnes. Sylvia nursed the big baby girl of the family. Sylvia was small and she felt the weight of that big baby. There was no carriage, at that time, for the Leopolds. When she had chills and fever and crept into a warm corner of the fence to get warm in the sun, her mistress let her have a rest.

Then her sister, Agnes, had a peculiar dream. She saw her father coming home. He was dressed in a new grey suit, wearing a white panama hat. He was wearing a new tie of many colors. He was carrying a carpet bag, and had a soldier's overcoat over one arm. Perhaps she, too, was thinking about their father and praying for his safe return. Then something strange happened. A little bird flew into the kitchen where Mrs. Estes and Agnes were working. It fluttered over Mrs. Estes shoulder, then flew out through the open window, only to return and repeat the performance and disappear. Naturally, Mrs. Estes thought it was an ill omen, not hearing from Howard for so long.

One evening Agnes complained of feeling ill when she had to hunt the baby chicks in the rain and developed chills and fever. The white children had recently recovered from scarlet fever, but no precaution had been taken to keep the germ from spreading. Sylvia was taking care of the baby as usual when her sister died.

She heard her mother in a grief stricken voice upbraiding the doctor because he had said colored children couldn't stand illness like the white children. She countered, "You didn't say that colored children had to work in bad weather when they were sick, and they don't get the care that white children get." She saw the angry gleam in the doctor's eyes as Mr. Leopold tried to soften the matter. Slaves were not supposed to talk to whites like that.

Then Sylvia took the fever and her life was in danger. She was thirsty but could have only a little water at a time. Then they changed doctors. The new doctor, a German, called for a glass of fresh cold water. He put some powder in it and said it would cure her, but she would feel the effect of the powder as long as she lived. She would go to sleep and when she awoke she would be [illegible] very sick, but that would be a good sign. She took the cold drink and went to sleep and awakened very ill, but she was soon on her feet again. She was very hungry and they gave her what she longed for, a savory dish made of big grey squirrel.

It was a year after Agnes died when Sylvia saw her father coming through the pasture, wearing a new grey suit, a new white panama hat and tie of many colors. He carried a carpet bag and had a soldier's coat thrown over his arm identical with what her sister saw in her dream.

He was thin and pale. He had returned through the Panama route, caught malarial fever, after missing a boat named Grace Darling, plying between San Francisco and the port of Colombo. Luckily for him as that boat was rammed amidship and all on board were lost with the exception of the cook.

And this was the cook's story. It was a foggy night, the boat was heavily loaded with passengers and baggage. Many were returning from the gold mines of California. Some carried their gold with them. They were drinking, dancing and singing, when the vessel was struck; a warning cry was given but no one heeded in their drunken hilarity. The singing and dancing continued. Another cry followed quickly, "We will all soon be in h--l." Water was seeping into the cabin as the people made a mad rush for the deck. The boat that rammed it had pulled out and disappeared, and it was sinking fast. One man stood on the deck in a frenzied second, offering his bag of gold to whoever would save his life, but no one wanted his gold. He jumped into the water holding on to his nuggets.

Two rafts were floating. Two men saw the cook on a larger raft, so they pushed him off and took it for themselves. The cook swam to the small raft and was saved. What became of the men on the big raft no one knew. The cowardly act of the boat that did the ramming aroused suspicion. There was rivalry between two companies owning boats, but Howard Estes never heard how the investigation turned out.

He returned to Missouri a free man, happy that he had been spared to return home, though he felt very sad for the loss of their daughter, Agnes. He paid $1,000 each for his wife and son, Jackson, and $900.00 for Sylvia.

Leopold had an offer of $1,500 for Sylvia, as a nursemaid, but he had promised to keep the family together until Howard Estes returned with the money to buy their freedom. For the first time, the Estes family was free to live their own lives together.

They bought 40 acres of land in Missouri and tried garden farming. Money was scarce. When Sylvia's brother, Jackson, came home from the market, he told their mother that eggs had raised to 10 cents a dozen.

They, however, made good by selling vegetables, pigs and chickens. But their new-found freedom was rudely disturbed. The night riders called Ku-Kluks, were going about beating and kidnapping colored people, terrorising them. An industrious colored man who made his living selling pigs, awoke one morning to find a notice on his gatepost, "Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you here." The man, knowing he must leave before dark, asked Howard Estes if he wanted the pigs, but Sylvia's father wanted to sell himself and leave at the first opportunity.

Part 2

Source: Salt Spring Island Archives, Add. Mss. 91, Marie Albertina (Stark) Wallace, Recollections of Sylvia Stark, Part 1, 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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