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BC's Black Pioneer Women

Even the best educated woman in gold rush days faced racist harassment.

By Crawford Kilian 6 Feb 2009 |

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian is author of Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia, published in September by Commodore Books.

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Emma Stark became a school teacher.
  • Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia, 2nd Ed.
  • Crawford Kilian
  • Commodore Books (2008)

[Editor's note: This is the second of three excerpts from the second edition of Crawford Kilian's Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia, published in September by Commodore Books. Yesterday's told the story of the liberation of Charles Mitchell. The last excerpt runs Monday.]

Thirty years ago, when I first researched the black pioneers of British Columbia, I admired the men but worshiped the women.

Revisiting the pioneers for the second edition of Go Do Some Great Thing, I fell in love with the women all over again.

The black men of the 1850s and 1860s had grown up in a world that despised and brutalized them, but they had carried on and built lives for themselves and their families. The women of those families sometimes had to battle their own men, as well as the contempt of white society.

Many of the women had been slaves in the United States, freed thanks to their husbands' and fathers' hard work. Sylvia Estes' father paid the equivalent of about $40,000 in today's dollars to buy his own freedom. He paid another $75,000 for his wife, son, and Sylvia. He then took his family to California, where Sylvia met and married Lewis Stark.

The Estes and Stark families migrated north to British Columbia, where Sylvia and Lewis built a farm on Saltspring Island. It was a brutally hard life. Lewis fell desperately ill in the smallpox pandemic of the 1860s, and three other black settlers were murdered. Yet Sylvia would live to the great age of 104.

The best-educated woman in BC

The leader of B.C.'s black pioneers was Mifflin Gibbs, an ambitious, self-educated entrepreneur. After making a fortune as the Hudson's Bay Company's first competitor in gold-rush Victoria, he returned to the U.S. to court and marry a brilliant young woman, Maria Alexander, in Oberlin, Ohio.

Given her years at Oberlin College, Maria Gibbs was doubtless the best-educated woman in gold-rush British Columbia. But she had no one to share her ideas and experience with. Black and white women met in a couple of integrated churches, but never socialized.

Heavily pregnant with her first child, Maria was doused with flour when she and her husband took their seats in the dress circle of a Victoria theatre. Furious, Mifflin Gibbs got into a fistfight with the assailants.

Living well was better revenge: He went on to become a Victoria city councillor, a property developer, and even the manager of a coal mine in the Queen Charlottes.

Meanwhile, Maria bore him five children, four of whom lived to adulthood. But after a decade in Victoria, she left Gibbs and took the children back to Oberlin. We don't know why they separated, but his restless love of adventure must have made him hard to live with.

Black women worked in Barkerville, the biggest town in the Cariboo gold rush of the 1860s. Rebecca Gibbs, possibly Mifflin's sister-in-law, was a laundress who also published verse; she lost her home in the 1868 Barkerville fire.

Matriarchs of Saanich and Saltspring

Most of the black pioneer women settled in Victoria, on Saltspring Island, and later in Vancouver. Wellington Moses' wife was considered the best housekeeper in Victoria, and provided accommodation for Lady Franklin, the widow of the lost Arctic explorer.

Nancy Alexander of Saanich was the matriarch of a large and prosperous family; her descendants still live in B.C. Clarissa Richard, wife of Victoria shipwright Fortune Richard, was politically active into her old age, when she signed a petition in 1885 demanding the vote for women.

Annie Robinson arrived in B.C. as a baby in 1858. On Saltspring, she grew up, survived an alleged sexual assault as a child, and married a Portuguese known as John Norton. She would bear him 12 children before dying in 1903 at age 46. The Nortons helped found a Saltspring tradition of interracial marriages.

At Moody's Mill in what is now North Vancouver, Josephine Sullivan lived with her husband Arthur, a steward at the mill. Their son Arthur, baptized in New Westminster in 1861, grew up to be a respected merchant in early Vancouver.

All these women lived in a world that defined everyone, and demonized most, in terms of race and gender. They had to work, to bear children, to support their overworked and insecure menfolk, and to put up with, at best, the patronizing condescension of their white neighbours. Their marriages did not always survive, yet they kept going.

The Starks, like the Gibbses, broke up. Lewis decided to move the family to a new home near Nanaimo. Sylvia and the children followed him, but before long she returned to their Saltspring property and stayed there. Lewis died mysteriously in a fall from a cliff after refusing a coal-mining company's offer to buy his land.

A teenage schoolteacher

Their daughter Emma Arabella is the pioneer woman I mourn the most. She had been born in the U.S., and was a toddler when the family arrived on Saltspring. She survived all the hardships of bitter winters, smallpox, native wars, and the breakup of her family.

Emma gained an education, much of it in the log-cabin classroom of John Craven Jones, another black Oberlin graduate. She herself became a Vancouver Island schoolteacher as a teenager in the 1870s, and in 1878 she married a man named James Clark. In 1890, at the age of just 33, she died. We don't know why.

The one photograph we have of Emma Stark shows us a beautiful young woman with very sad eyes. Growing up in 19th-century British Columbia, she had reason to be sad.

But she had also grown up in a family that would somehow find a way out -- if not for the parents, then for the children or grandchildren. Her father had physically battled his land to wrest a living from it. Sylvia must have been enormously proud of her daughter's decision to become a teacher.

So Emma had taught the children of rough, half-educated settlers, to pass forward the favour that her parents and John Craven Jones had given her. May today's teachers hope to match her achievement.

On Monday, Wellington Moses and the case of the gold-nugget stickpin.