An intermission

A stormy dusk from the window of Derrick’s hut.

Dear LOSC readers,

You may have noticed that Life on Spring Creek has been a little on the quiet-side of late. This is because I am working on a State government funded project, which has taken time to get up-and-running, and which will continue for the next 12 months. The bad news is, there will be no blogging during in this time. The good news is that the report resulting from this project will be made publicly available when finished.

The other piece of good news is that some of the research topics on this blog concerning First Nations peoples will be completely re-examined from scratch, buffed-up with additional research, subjected to fresh interpretive models (as I am working with a colleague who is a linguistic anthropologist), and be subjected to rigorous peer-review both during the research process and after the project has concluded. The aim is to produce robust, informative new research that anyone can read if they are interested.

To all my readers, thank you for your wonderful support so far. Look after yourselves and each other, and stay golden.

First Nations ‘Kings’ of Benalla


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It’s time we make a start in getting to know some important figures in the First Nations history of Benalla.


Lake Benalla. (Image by Mattinbgn, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Warning: this post discusses issues which may cause feelings of pain and sorrow to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including the naming, discussion about, and an image of ancestors now deceased, and funeral rites. This post also includes the usage of culturally offensive labels for Aboriginal people which are directly quoted in historical context but do not reflect the language or opinion of the author.

Note: It is necessary to preface this discussion by recognising that the historical practice of conferring the status of ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ by Europeans upon senior Aboriginal men and women deserves to be interrogated as a complex act of colonial power on the part of the European invaders. Although use of these terms was generally designed to benefit Europeans rather than First Nations people, the historian cannot presume to know what these titles meant within First Nations communities, either in positive or negative senses. While this post is written in the knowledge of the complex cultural implications which attend the usage of terms ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ in relation to First Nations people it is concerned principally with the autobiographical details of First Nations individuals, rather than the modes of colonial European oppression.

In March 1860, an Aboriginal ‘King’ — King Branky — was buried by a waterhole in Benalla. Each Summer, the river at Benalla would stop flowing along its length, breaking into a chain of waterholes. At first, this caused Europeans to label it the ‘Winding Swamp,’ before they finally settled on the name ‘Broken River’. The largest of these waterholes at Benalla, at which point there was a crossing place, was known to Aboriginal people as ‘Mer-ry-an-gan-der’ [1] or by its shorter form, ‘Marangan.’ [2] For this reason, the Aboriginal people associated with the locality were often referred to by local Europeans as the ‘Maragan tribe’. [3] King Branky, a ‘Maragan tribe’ man, a ‘Broken River tribe’ man, was buried somewhere next to Marangan, or waterhole nearby. [4] More than three decades later, it was recalled by a local that:

The funeral obsequies consisted in his remains being wrapped (after having been doubled together like a pocket rule) in an opossum rug and put into an ale cask and buried on the bank of the Broken river, near the “dead-man’s hole.” The mourners were few indeed, consisting of blacks and their lubras.’ [5]

Little wonder that the number of mourners for King Branky would have been small: since the permanent arrival of Europeans in the district, the local Aboriginal community had been decimated, not least by the massacres and other violent reprisals undertaken by pastoralists and their convict servants in response to the Faithfull Massacre of April 1838; but also through European diseases, malnutrition, and a combination of alcoholism and interpersonal violence associated with a deeply traumatised community, dispossessed of their homelands. 

However, despite the level of social disruption experienced by the Aboriginal people of Benalla, King Branky was still buried in a manner that was, at the very least, culturally recognisable to local Aboriginal peoples: He was buried with his possum skin cloak, and was bound with his knees drawn up to his chest. The fact that he was buried in a cask may have been a concession to Europeans who wished to see him buried in something approaching a coffin, but I think it more likely an adaptation of traditional burial practices, which tended to ensure that the deceased was protected from direct contact with the earth, buried in a kind of chamber.

An eye-witness report by a European observer of a Aboriginal burial which took place at Scrubby Creek, near the Mitta Mitta River in 1858, provides a little more insight into local Indigenous funeral practice:  

…the wildness of the scenery was peculiarly in unison with the strange proceedings of these savages, in making their arrangements in silence for the burial, according to the custom of their nation. The lubra of the dead man sat near the corpse as motionless as a statue, her face covered by her hands, and seemingly unconscious of what was passing around her, while another female, apparently a relative of the deceased, gave loud vent to her lamentations. The body was now approached by the men who proceeded to bond the legs of the corpse on his breast, and then to wrap the body in a blanket, which they strongly stitched together. This being done, the corpse would not be recognised as that of a man, being only the length of the trunk, and from being doubled up in the manner described, had only the appearance of a clumsily made up bundle. The grave was then dug. It was about five feet deep, and with a tunnel or drive extending three feet inward from the bottom. A bed of leaves was then placed, on which to deposit the body. The body was conveyed to the grave on the shoulders of one man, the widow, leading the way, carrying a lighted torch of gum leaves, her face being daubed over with clay. The features of two others of the party were similarly begrimed. The corpse having been carefully deposited in the grave, the opossum rug of the deceased, his clothes, belt, &c., were placed on it. A framework of saplings was then formed over all, and on this several sheets of bark were laid, to keep the earth entirely from coming in contact with the dead body. After the pit had been filled up, two poles were stuck upright over it, and on these were placed the billy and quart-pot of the deceased. Not a word had been spoken during the course of the proceedings I have described, the whole party being apparently under the influence of that feeling of awe which the presence of death creates in more enlightened beings than these poor children of the bush. They afterwards moved off to their camp in single file, carrying with them the fire they had brought to the grave.’ [6]


King Branky was the son of ‘King Michie,’ and much like the latter day recollections of King Branky (which we will come to), recollections of King Michie recorded close to the turn of the century revelled in a common though tawdry literary trope of the era, which portrayed Aboriginal kings as sad figures who though having once been leaders of their people and chief among the ‘original proprietors of the soil,’ [7] had been subsequently reduced to the status of ‘king in name only,’ eking out their existence as if by the grace of Europeans.

Of King Michie is was recalled, his kingly duties had dwindled to a span—the once powerful Broken river tribe had been considerably diminished in numbers through migration, principally caused by the occupation of the country by the settlers; and no doubt numbers died from unnatural causes… Hence the king’s chief occupation was to display a brass plate, suspended from his neck, announcing that he was king of the Broken river tribe. He would hang about the Black Swan hotel, and if grog was not to be procured through his kingly position he would get it by cutting wood for the cook; and frequently he would draw the queen’s dowry in advance (with her consent), she having become an expert charwoman and laundress, for which occupation, she was always paid the same as if the work were done by white people.’ [8]

However, this description of King Michie belied a fact of which local Aboriginal people who had survived the European invasion of 1838 surely must have been aware — that King Michie had been a formidable leader in the local resistance to European invasion. In 1841, Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District, George Augustus Robinson, had been told by his most reliable Aboriginal informant in the region, Pallangan-middang man, Mul.lo.nin.ner (a.k.a. ‘Joe’), that ‘Wool-gid-yer-dow-well alias Big Micky killed Faithfull’s men.’ [9]

(Please note that since this blog was first written, linguist and Gunditjmara man Corey Theatre has assisted the Waywurru Women’s Collective in regularising the spelling of King Michie’s indigenous name to ‘Wul-kidja-duwil.’ This should help with the correct pronunciation. Thank you Corey!)

This was no small statement. The ‘Faithfull Massacre’,  in which an advance party of men and stock belonging to squatters George and William Faithfull had been attacked on the banks of Marangan on 11 April 1838, resulting in the death of eight of Faithfull’s servants, [10] had sent such shockwaves of terror through European pastoralists, their stockmen, hut-keepers and shepherds, that the pastoralists had petitioned Governor Gipps to, in Gipp’s words, either have his government undertake ‘Punitive war against the Blacks, or sanction the enrolment of a Militia for that purpose and allow them to be supplied with Arms and Munitions of War from Her Majesty’s stores.’ [11] Gipps had refused their call, instead setting up a ‘Border Police’ to police the road to Port Phillip — an act which did little to assuage the sheer terror instilled in the pastoralists by this single guerrilla attack.

And if we can safely acquaint the identity of ‘Big Micky’ with ‘Old Man Micky,’ it can be seen that only a few years later, Michie was one of several men (also including Pallangan-middang warrior Merriman), whom in mid-1842 was deemed responsible for the murder of a station hand (an ‘American black’) employed at Gray’s ‘Pelican Lagoons’ just south of Wangaratta; and that this attack at Grey’s station was only the latest in a string of attacks that had occurred throughout the Ovens and Broken River Valleys in the years since the Faithfull Massacre on stations belonging to unfriendly pastoralists. ‘Old man Micky,’ concluded the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser, ‘has been the ringleader in all the depredations committed on the whites in that quarter for several years back.’ [12]

‘Nothing is known of how King Mickey attained his imperial position whether by right of birth or of conquest,’ wrote the author of ‘Recollections of Benalla’ in 1893. [13] However, the author might have more credibly written that no European wanted to know the gruesome details of how or why King Michie had attained, or perhaps retained from an earlier time, his position as a leader among Benalla’s remaining Aboriginal people.  

Despite acts of Aboriginal resistance, Europeans won the bloody but officially unacknowledged frontier war in the north east region of what would become Victoria. They had settled a town around Marangan, which by late 1852 was overrun with gold rush traffic en route to the Ovens diggings. However, despite these incursions into his country, King Michie had continued to live next to Marangan, in what could be considered, in retrospect, to be one of the greatest acts of civil defiance of European rule imaginable. 

King Michie’s dogged refusal to leave his country makes the senseless manner of his death at the hands of an ignorant (if not wilfully ignorant), European doctor all the more poignant: 

In the early part of 1853 the first medical gentleman took up his residence in Benalla… This medico was appointed Government doctor to the police of the gold escort and those stationed here. The king was taken suddenly ill, internally, and the queen left her residence under the old bridge, and waited on the doctor. After describing the king’s complaint a bottle of lotion was given her to take to his majesty, with the instructions that it was to be used externally. But in the absence of an interpreter, and lack of knowledge of English prescriptions, she administered the lotion in the same manner as their own crogick or doctor gave them wattle gum dissolved in water. The dose had the effect of terminating the earthly career of this potentate, in the short space of three hours…’ [14]

King Michie was also buried in the traditional manner, ‘wrapped in his opposum-skin rug and put into a hole in the then burying ground, at the corner of Barrack and Mair streets’ — the location of Benalla’s first burial ground, at the end of what is now Church Street (formerly Barrack Street), where it meets Marangan (Lake Benalla). ‘There was no demonstration of joy or regret; no condolences forwarded onto the Queen [Polly [15], or congratulations to the little princess; no tribal mournings or gathering of the clans, His death was a peaceful one, and his funeral unostentatious. Branky was appointed in his stead.’ [16]

benalla_old_cemetery_monumentPlaque marking the site of the former Benalla Cemetery, on the right bank of Lake Benalla. (Image by Mattinbgn, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)


Of King Michie’s wife Queen Polly, we can only find traces:

From a record of her testifying at the death inquest of Joseph Worthington in 1847, whom she had found deceased in the room adjoining hers at the Black Swan Inn in January 1847, we can see that both she and the man she called ‘my coolie Old man Mickey’ actually resided at the Black Swan Inn, at least at that time. [16b]

Polly was also encountered at the Black Swan Inn by Mrs Campbell and her daughter as they made their way to join husband and father, Police Magistrate Archibald Campbell at the Spring Creek diggings (Beechworth) in mid-1853:

Hearing the sitting-room door open I looked up; a black head was popped in and out again. So ugly was the object that I gave an involuntary scream and covered my face, a proceeding which evidently caused amusement, for the owner of the cranium now showed itself, making a low guttural his­sing sound, meant for a laugh. Ashamed of myself, I ven­tured to look up again, and was introduced by my landlady to the queen of a tribe then at Bannalla, said to be handsome. Fancy a black woman, with hair long and stiff, hanging like porcupine’s quills over her shoulders, no forehead, eyes long and half closed, broad nose, mouth from ear to ear, with the contrast of beautifully white and even teeth, and you will have the picture of a handsome Aborigine—quite a belle. She was pleased with [young daughter] G., who, wiser than her mother, saw nothing to be frightened at in her, and made friends accordingly.’ [17]

Unfortunately, we know not how she died, only recollections reveal that it was soon after King Michie: 

Queen Polly, after the death of the king, pursued the even tenor of her ways, by making herself useful at the Black Swan, which place she found a comfortable asylum, and died in 1854. She was quiet, temperate, civil and industrious.’ [18]


Upon the death of King Michie, his son King Branky had taken the mantel. The same Benalla local who had written recollections of King Michie in 1893 speculated rather ungenerously that King Branky was only able to assume this position due to a lack of competition:

But how, or why, I could never understand. It could not have been because he was clever in diplomacy or in controlling or governing subordinates. He was by no means a finely developed man, and was devoid of everything brilliant or even crafty. He could certainly throw the spear with almost unerring accuracy, and give flight to the boomerang in many ways very surprising. He was an expert at swimming and dining, and became a good shot with the old muzzle loading gun. But these accomplishments were by no means in excess of the acquirements of most of the men of the same tribe. He was the hereditary successor but was a very a small contributor to the late monarch’s comforts. Therefore, how Branky became king is still unsolved. The Broken river tribe, having in a great measure dispersed and, attached themselves to other tribes, more distantly situated from the operations of the white people, appeared to lose caste, and dwindled into insignificance. Hence we must presume that Branky constituted himself king and that without opposition. If ever anything were truly nominal, Branky’s kingly position was, as tribal contentions had disappeared, and no warlike invasions were anticipated, nor were there friendly visits by other monarchs to prepare for. There were no internal disputes to decide, or petty chiefs to issue orders to. Thus, within a decade the once powerful Broken river tribe had became almost extinct, and its king, was king of nothing. 

Branky’s occupation principally was that of shooting wild-fowl, fishing and making opossum rugs, all of which were purchasable by anyone for money or tobacco. During the rainy season his chief employment was that of chopping wood for the residents, and spending the income arising therefrom in grog. Throughout the whole of his various undertakings, even to the consumption of grog and tobacco, he was most ably assisted by his lubra — Queen Sally — of whom nothing can be said in praise, more than that she, lived-up to late in the fifties, and never had a family.’ [19]

(A great deal more could be said of the inferences made in these recollections, but this will have to pass for now.)

However, Branky’s presence in Benalla also can be found, in warmer tones, in the retrospective diary of John James Bond, a gold seeker who visited Benalla where his uncle, William Carpenter Bond served as district pound keeper, during the gold-rush of the early 1850s. William Bond had a house in the centre of the fledgling town (at what is now 56 Arundel Street [20]):

The natives (Blacks) are just as we see them represented. A few are now camped a little in front of this house. Benalla. There are always some in the township – women washing and so on. Men shooting ducks, stripping bark and co. for nobblers of spirit. They all are naturally of a cheerful disposition … Branky was our favourite black man[.] He was often in [and] out of the house in very free easy fashion. All of us liked him. A letter told me that he was killed in a quarrel by another black with the Tomahawk. Saw Branky got to the top of a high large tree, climbing by means of small notches which he cut out as he ascended in the smooth bark just large enough for the great toe. This tree stands in front of Uncle’s house. (All the limbs cut off by Branky).’ [22]

Branky’s easy visitations at William Carpenter Bond’s house indicate that like his father, he had maintained a strong attachment to the banks of Marangan, and strongly suggests that Benalla’s ‘black’s camp,’ rather than being on the periphery of town, was located near its early centre — which is where Branky came to blows with his killer.

Benalla map correctedEarly map of Benalla, c.1850s (State Library of Victoria)

The circumstances of King Branky’s death were widely reported at the time, although not necessarily with great accuracy:

On Wednesday last [ie: 7 March 1860] one of the remaining few of the Broken River tribe of blacks received so much injury as to terminate his existence within about forty-eight hours after it was given. According to what I can learn, a blackfellow of the same tribe, called Jemmy, who is a very noisy fellow, and a great drunkard, went to camp, and, King Brankie not liking the noise, told Jemmy to be quiet, and got out of his opossum rug for the purpose of making Jemmy leave the camp, or be quiet; but Jemmy paid no attention to King Brankie, who, upon seeing that his orders were not obeyed, took a waddy for the purpose of trying the effects of physical force. Jemmy, not admiring the attitude of his king, stood upon the defensive with a tomahawk. From yabba yabba it came to blows, and, after various thrusts, cuts, and bad hacks, Jemmy succeeded in slaying his king, by driving his weapon through the skull.’ King Branky had not died immediately after receiving the blow to the head, however, apparently, ‘Dr. Lumsden made an examination of the fractured skull, and gave as his opinion that the death of the king was caused by a blow with a tomahawk, delivered by… Jemmy.’ [23]

The perpetrator, Jemmy, was arrested, taken to Beechworth and remanded in what Beechworth locals jokingly referred to as ‘Mr Castieau’s hotel’ (the Beechworth gaol). [24] His trial was set for the Beechworth Circuit Court of the Supreme Court on 12 April. [25] On the 11th, it was reported that an Aboriginal man and woman had been brought up from Benalla to Beechworth ‘per escort’ to give evidence in the trial. [26]

William Thomas of the Central Board for the Protection of Aborigines came up from Melbourne to assist. Of the trial, he would record in his journal that the male witness ‘would give no information, & appears perfectly sullen as tho’ if he spoke, the Blk in the dock would be hanged, or fearful of the consequence if he gave evidence… he knew nothing and would speak of nothing. In fact the court & Judge felt regularly annoyed.’ A doctor testified that King Branky could not have survived as long as he did after receiving the blow to the head from Jemmy, and the female witness testified to having seen Jemmy land the blow to the opposite side of the head than the fatal wound. Jemmy, who had good legal representation, was acquitted by the jury. [27]

Decades later it was recalled that King Branky had indeed lived much longer after the altercation with Jemmy than what had originally been reported; that Jemmy’s tomahawk blow to Branky had ‘chipped a piece of the skull clean away, leaving the thin “vellum” which covers the brain unaffected, except by exposure to the air. Branky lived some five or six days after, when mortification set in and he died.’ [27] Afterwards, as we have seen, he had been buried in the traditional manner, next to that water hole known as ‘dead man’s hole,’ on the banks of the Broken River.

(Author’s note: There was also a King Brangy who lived predominantly in Oxley, and who was, according to his sister-in-law Mary Jane [Milawa] who testified at his death inquest in 1882, born on the Ovens River and was ‘King of the Ovens Tribe.’ [29] King Brangy is not to be confused with King Branky of Benalla, although the two do appear to have been kin.)


The next Aboriginal man of Benalla who was strongly identified as a leader of his people — not referred to as ‘King’ but who publicly named himself at a parliamentary inquiry into Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve as ‘Tommy Micky, chief of the Broken River tribe,’ [30] was commonly known by the name ‘Tommy Banfield’ (sometimes this surname is written as ‘Bamfield’ and ‘Mansfield,’ while Micky is also spelled ‘Michie’). His Aboriginal name was Bertdrak [31] / Petrark [31a]. Europeans also referred to him by the nickname ‘Punch’. When married at Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve in 1868 to Eliza Werry, Tommy Banfield gave his father’s name as Michie, his mother’s as Lucy Neal, and his birthplace, Benalla. [32] His death certificate of 1893 named his father as ‘Old Michie,’ and indicated that he had been born c.1843. [33]

Tommy BanfieldTommy Banfield/Bamfield, aka Tommy Michie/Micky, Bertdrak, Punch, aged in his early 20s. (Photograph by Fred Kruger, at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, Victoria, c.1865-1866; Museum of Victoria).

As with his forebears, Tommy Banfield’s very early life is unknown, but some misinformation exists. In a letter to the Chief Secretary’s department written by Ann Fraser Bon, former owner of Wappan Station on the Delatite River, and advocate for the Aboriginal people of Coranderrk, Bon said of Banfield: 

‘Punch about whom we have heard so much lately happens to be one of my boys. His mother the Chiefess of the tribe gave him to me many years ago to be my own “Picaninny” — He is a superior black — too much so for his “Protectors” — and when in my employ sometimes earns 12/ a day, with food and lodging.’ [34]

In this letter, Bon was attempting to impress upon authorities that Tommy Banfield was an intelligent and reliable man, whom she had known for a long time. However, in doing so she too much assumed a role of European maternalism: a quick check of some dates reveals that by the time she had arrived in Australia in 1858, Tommy Banfield was already around 15 years old, and especially by the standards of the day, no ‘Picaninny’. 

Tommy Banfield’s association with Wappan needs disentangling, for it creates an impression that Banfield was primarily associated with Taungurung people and country. Anthropologist Diane Barwick, in her well-known essay Mapping the Past — An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904*  suggested that Tommy Banfield’s father was Baalwick, and that it was ‘Baalwick [who was], remembered by [the] Bon family as “chief of Broken river tribe” and “chief of Delatite tribe” [who] took survivors [from Benalla] to … Wappan run c. 1844/7’. (Unfortunately she does not provide the evidence for this assertion). [36] In doing so, Barwick created the notion that Tommy Banfield’s father, Old Michie, and Baalwick, were one and the same person; which in turn, like Bon’s letter, makes it seem likely that Tommy Banfield lived on Wappan run from a young age. However, a newspaper article of 1934 clearly states that ‘on the pre-emptive [right of Wappan station] is the grave of old Baalwick, the chief of the Delatite River tribe.’ [37] This indicates that Baalwick was not King Michie (for the two men are buried in different locations, not to mention having been ‘King’ of different river systems on which each is buried), and that as such, the assertion that it was Tommy Banfield’s father who led Benalla’s surviving Aboriginal people onto Wappan Station in Taungurung country loses credibility (unless solid evidence that suggests otherwise can be found). As we have seen, King Michie remained on country, and died in Benalla in 1853. Neither was he alone.

Certainly, Tommy Banfield was named by the great Kulin leader (in Woi-wurrung language, ngurungaeta) William Barak to be one of his three successors, [38] along with Robert Wandin and Thomas Dunolly. This suggests that he was integrated into and accepted within the Kulin community. However, throughout his life, he maintained deep connections to people who, by any definition, were his kin, who lived in Wangaratta (and later also in Wahgunyah at Lake Moodemere) in non-Kulin-speaking lands. And not only did Banfield maintain contact with them, but he advocated for them to the authorities, as revealed in letters written by Banfield to the Aboriginal Board of Protection. For now, I would like to leave room for my colleague Megan Carter to closely examine the evidence, and explain these kinship connections (which are part of her own), as well as Banfield’s concerted efforts to advocate for those he referred to as ‘my people’ in Wangaratta. [39]


What we can discern from all of these stories is that Benalla did have Aboriginal men who identified as leaders of that community at least up until the death of Tommy Banfield in 1893. Two of these three men, Tommy Banfield and King Michie, are clearly documented as having done their utmost to protect their people under rapidly changing circumstances. We may be missing vital pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle to enable us to more fully know whether the third individual in this picture, King Branky, had acted likewise. These individuals are worthy of greater attention and recognition, especially in the town built around their beloved ‘Marangan’, their great ‘Mer-ry-an-gan-der,’ Lake Benalla, in the town of Benalla. In getting to know these historical figures, there remains much more work to be done.


In critiquing an aspect of Diane Barwick’s essay ‘Mapping the Past’, I do not wish to downplay her substantial achievement. Barwick stated that she wrote ‘Mapping the Past’ as a crib for scholars, in the hope that others would ‘expand and correct my attempt at mapping the past.’ This is the intention of my efforts. She was a giant among scholars.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2020. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!


[1] Ian D Clark (ed), Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Protectorate, Melbourne, 2014, entry for 23 February 1841.

[2] ‘Picturesque Victoria. Around Benalla.’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Thursday 24 July 1884, p.1.

[3] W.L. Murdoch, ‘Particulars concerning the blacks who is portraits appear in last issue,’ Science of man and journal of the Royal Anthropological Society of Australasia, Vol. 3, No. 3, 23 April 1900, p.44.

[4] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA. (by AN OLD RESIDENT.)’ The North Eastern Ensign, Friday 28 July, 1893, p. 3.

[5] ibid.

[6] ‘A Native Burial,’ The Age, Friday, 24 September, 1858, p.6.  (originally reported in the Ovens Constitution.

[7] The example of this extremely commonplace sentiment of the era, viz. that Aboriginal people were the original owners of the land, is quoted from: ’The Aborigines of Port Phillip,’ Southern Australian, Saturday 1 September, 1838, p,1.

[8] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA. (BY AN OLD RESIDENT.)’ The North Eastern Ensign, Friday, 14 July 1893 p.3.

[9] Clark, op. cit., entry for 8 February, 1841.

[10] Judith Bassett, ‘The Faithful Massacre at the Broken River,’ in Journal of Australian Studies, Number 24, May, 1989, p.18.

11] ‘SIR GEORGE GIPPS TO LORD GLENELG.’ (Despatch No. 115, per ship Superb; acknowledged by Lord Glenelg, 21st December, 1838.) reproduced in Australian Aborigines: Copies or extracts of despatches relative to the massacre of various Aborigines in Australia, in the year 1838, and respecting the trial of their murderers; compiled by the Colonial Office, Great Britain, 19 August 1839.

[12] ‘The Blacks,’ Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser, Thursday 29 September 1842, p.2.

[13] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA. (by AN OLD RESIDENT.)’ The North Eastern Ensign, Friday 28 July, 1893, p. 3.

[14] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA. (BY AN OLD RESIDENT.)’ The North Eastern Ensign, Friday, 14 July 1893 p.3. 

[15] ibid.

[16] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA.’ Friday 28 July, 1893, p. 3.

[16b] Joseph WORTHINGTON Death Inquest, Cause of death: Visitation of God; Location of inquest: Broken River; Date of inquest: 19 Jan 1847, Public Records Office of Victoria, VPRS 24/ P0  unit 4,  item 1847/75 Male

[17] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA.’ Friday, 14 July 1893 p.3. 

[18] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA.’ Friday 28 July, 1893, p. 3.

[19] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA.’ Friday 28 July, 1893, p. 3.

[20] Bond’s property is marked on an early ‘Township Map of Benalla, Broken River. No. 59’, c.185-? State Library of Victoria.

[21] This location is most likely land owned by William Carpenter Bond at the time, at 56B Arundel Street, Benalla.

[22] John James Bond, ‘Diary of John James Bond’ [Retrospective ‘diary’, based mainly on a few letters that John Bond wrote to his family, recording his visit to Australia in 1853-1855. (89pp.)], (as filmed by the AJCP) [microform]: [M724], National Library Australia, 1915, pp:88-89.
The pound keeper was William Carpenter Bond, pound keeper from 1848.

[23] ‘MURDER OF AN ABORIGINAL KING.’ Mount Alexander Mail, Friday 23 March 1860, p.3.

[24] ‘ADELAIDE. BY ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH. | Thursday evening.’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Friday 23 March 1860, p.2.

[25] ‘BEECHWORTH CIRCUIT COURT. April 12th, 1860,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday 11 April 1860, p.2.

[26] ‘The Ovens and Murray Advertiser Published every Wednesday and Saturday. WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11th, 1860,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday 11 April 1860, p.2.

[27] Dr Marguerita Stephens (ed) The Journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas 1839-67, Volume 3: 1839-1943, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), Melbourne, p.266, Entry for 12 April 1860.

[28] ‘RECOLLECTIONS OF BENALLA. (by AN OLD RESIDENT.)’ The North Eastern Ensign, Friday 28 July, 1893, p. 3.

[29] Inquest into the death of King Brangui, VPRS 24/P Unit 445, Item 1280, Inquiry 6 November 1882, Public Records Office of Victoria.

[30] ‘THE CORANDERRK INQUIRY.’ The Argus, Wednesday, 19 October, 1881, [Issue No.11,025], p.6.

[31] ‘MR. BERRY AND THE ABORIGINES.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday, 30 March, 1886, p.5.

[31a] John Mathew, MS950, AIATSIS.

[32] Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages, ‘Marriage Solemnized in the District of Bourke, 1868, No in Register 362, 3 April, 1868.

[33] Victorian Births, Deaths and Marriages, Tommy Banfield, Death Certificate, Reg. number 10334/1893.

[34] Letter reproduced in ‘A philanthropist and lobbyist on behalf of Victorian Aborigines,’ in First Ladies: Finding Women in the Public Records Office Victoria, Revised edition originally published 1999© Australian Women’s Archives Project and Public Record Office Victoria, 2005.
The letter itself can be found at VPRS 1226, Unit 4, Item 82/ X 4907, Public Records Office Victoria. I have not cited the original, only the published transcription.

[35] Joan Gillison, ‘Bon, Ann Fraser (1838–1936)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 September 2020.

[36] Diane Barwick, ‘Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904’ Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984, p.128.

[37] ‘A Healesville Benefactress MRS. ANNIE F. BON, AND THE LATE MR. JOHN BON. Compiled from Various Sources by M.H.’ Healesville and Yarra Glen Guardian, Saturday 21 July 1934, p.3.

[38] Diane Barwick, op. cit., p.128.

[39] This is quoted from a letter written by Tommy Banfield, which is located in the Board of Protection for Aborigines Correspondence Files No. B313 Box 3 Item 42 Wangaratta and Wahgunyah, National Archives/Public Records Office Victoria.

Copyright Jacqui Durrant 2020.

Massacre on the Broken River


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In 1930, local historian P. W. Walker wrote an account of a massacre of Aboriginal people at Barjarg (on the Broken River between Benalla and Mansfield), which had reportedly taken place some 90 years earlier. The veracity of his report was hotly challenged in the pages of The Australasian newspaper; however, it now seems that Walker had every reason to listen to the woman who told him the story in the first place: Mrs Catherine Withers.


The Broken River Valley at Barjarg (Jacqui Durrant, June 2020).

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes discussion of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In particular, I acknowledge the Aboriginal ancestors of the region in which I live, whose words may be quoted within this or other posts, with the greatest respect for their legacy.

In 1930, local historian P.W. Walker wrote in The Australasian newspaper of an incident that took place on pastoral run, somewhere in the Mansfield district:

‘The aborigines were numerous, and at times they were troublesome and treacherous. They would steal sheep, spear cattle and horses, and even murder white people. Consequently the men, women, and children who lived in their huts were exposed to great danger, the women and children at times being alone while the men attended, to the stock. Firearms had to be kept in the house and carried by the shepherds and stockmen, and the women went to the creek for water with a gun in one hand and a bucket in the other. In some of the huts holes were made in the walls to put the guns through and fire at the blackfellows. Sometimes the blacks formed themselves into large parties and attacked the dwellings. On one occasion there were seven white people and a black boy at one of the stations. The black boy heard the blacks arranging their plans to attack and murder these white folk, and he warned them. About 400 aborigines approached, but the white people had prepared a repast of damper and beef, which they gave to the blacks. The whites’ cooking did not appear to agree with the blacks. Nearly all of them were suddenly taken ill, and most of them died on the spot. They were buried near where they lay, and some of the mounds can be seen to this day.’[1a]

Reporting a historical massacre of Aboriginal people in a national newspaper was pretty heady stuff in 1930, and the author of said article – ‘An Early History of Mansfield’ — P. W. Walker, was questioned by one reader:

Sir,—Mr. P. W. Walker mentions in his article on the history of Mansfield a threatened attack, made by about 400 natives, on a homestead, and also deals with their subsequent complete destruction caused by a judicious mixture of beef, damper, and some other deleterious matter. Would he kindly tell us which homestead was attacked and where the natives were buried, and by whom?
-Yours. &c.,
Melbourne, November 8.’ [1b]

Walker offered this reply:

‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN. Sir,—In reply to “Another Oldtimer,” it was on the Barjarg station where the threatened attack was made by the blacks and where they were buried. I think it was in the ‘forties. My informant was the late Mrs. Frank Withers, and it was her father who told her.
—Yours. &c.,
Mansfield, Nov. 16. P. W. WALKER.’ [2]

What followed was a round-robin of criticism of Walker’s story, commencing with a further reply from ‘Another Oldtimer’, whose main objection was that those whom Walker had implied were likely responsible for the massacre — the early pastoralists Alex Hunter and James Watson, and their cousin William Francis Hunter Arundel — were ‘not the class’ to commit such an act. Hunter and Watson had formed a pastoral company in 1839 (largely backed by the money of the Scottish landed gentry, including the Marquis of Ailsa) [3], and it was commonly believed that Barjarg Station had been cut from their pastoral holdings; and thus it was supposed that they had to be responsible for any poisoning of Aboriginal people that might have taken place.

At length, ‘Another Oldtimer’ explained, ‘Serious trouble with the natives in the Mansfield district was confined to the early years of the fourth decade of last century, when one of Watson and Hunter’s… shepherds was murdered, and also two shepherds in the employ of the unfortunate and over-sanguine Waugh at Delatite Station. Of course, retribution was meted out, but Messrs. Watson and Hunter, or their cousin, Mr. Hunter Arundel, who occupied Barjarg at that time, were not the class to permit diabolical outrage. So Mr. Walker’s statement, unintentionally doubtless, amounts to a calumny on an honourable and distinguished name.’ [4]

Notably, ‘Another Oldtimer’s’ objection to Walker’s story lay not in the assertion that Hunter, Watson and/or Arundel had killed Aboriginal people — indeed he wrote, not so cryptically, that ‘retribution was meted out’. Instead, his objection lay with the claim that a mass poisoning had taken place: a ‘diabolical’ act, surely with the power to blacken ‘distinguished names.’ [5] (The distinction that ‘Another Oldtimer’ made between ‘retribution meted out’ to individuals, and ‘diabolic acts’ in which Aboriginal people were murdered indiscriminately, was an important distinction to pastoralists of the squatting era, in theory if not in practice.)

Soon, the author of the latest book on the subject of early Victorian squatting, Pastures new: an account of the pastoral occupation of Port Phillip, (1930), A. S. Kenyon, weighed into the debate as a figure of academic authority, writing:

‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN. Sir,—The vague charge against the early pioneers of the Mansfield district of poisoning some 400 aborigines has now been given a somewhat more definite form. The place was Barjarg. Barjarg was part of the Watson and Hunter country taken up in 1839, and was cut out of it towards the end of 1841 by William Francis Hunter Arundell, a relative of the Hunter’s. Arundell was a gentleman of unimpeachable conduct. He transferred to Robert Jamieson, one of early Melbourne’s most reputable citizens, who was partner at first with Sir William Henry Fancourt Mitchell. Mitchell, for 18 months sole owner, transferred to James Moore in August, 1849. The Moores held it until 1863. Now against which of these gentlemen is the charge of murder to be laid? Throughout the whole of the forties Mr. G. A. Robinson, chief protector of the aborigines, and his district protectors (one of whom, Parker, was stationed on the Goulburn) investigated every report or rumour that was heard as to murder or even bad treatment of the blacks. This wholesale poisoning yarn, unwhispered at the time, originated in Van Dieman’s Land and has been revived and repeated in each colony. In every ascertainable case it can be attributed to disgruntled station hands, generally “expired” convicts or ticket-of-leave men. There never was any foundation for such a slander upon our early settlers, whose treatment of the aborigines was as kind and tolerant as the times permitted.—Yours, &c.,
Heildelberg (V.), Nov. 24.’ [6]

Finally, in yet another response to Walker’s story, family member Mr Ivan J. Hunter, wrote to The Australasian. ‘In those years,’ he started, ‘I think, my family were almost the sole occupants of the district  [my italics], which was then known as the Devil’s River country, and one of them certainly did occupy Barjarg. My uncle, Alexander McLean Hunter, was the first of the family to arrive there in 1839, and was followed by my Uncle John and my father, James A. C. Hunter, also their cousins, John (sometimes called “Old John” or “Howqua” to distinguish him from the other John—usually Jack Campbell Hunter and William Arundel.) Barjarg was the name of an estate in Scotland owned by a branch of the family. Now it seems to me that if it is believed that the blacks were really poisoned, some of my ancestors must be guilty of a very serious crime. I am convinced that no old hand, or anyone who followed early history, would believe such a story…’ [7]

Ivan Hunter went on to explain how ‘the natives were always treated well and many constantly employed on the different station properties’ [8] And so it would seem that the assertion of local historian P. W. Walker was now thoroughly squashed under the weight of denials that Hunter, Watson or Arundell would ever have engaged in such a brutal and cruel act of mass murder.

Only now, 180 years later, and with a broader range of primary historical source materials, can we give local historian P. W. Walker a second hearing.

Hunter and Watson's

A Field Sketch of Watson and Hunter’s pastoral empire, drawn up in 1846 by surveyor Robert Russell, at a time when Hunter and Watson’s pastoral company had fallen into insolvency (State Library of Victoria).

To begin with, the confidence held by Walker’s detractors that nothing ‘diabolical’ would ever have happened at any of the stations in the vast pastoral holdings of Hunter and Watson is unrealistic. As historian Judy Macdonald, who has read the papers of the Hunter family, points out, ‘Figures given by Alexander Hunter in September 1841 show that Watson and Hunter employed 100 hands, had about 80 horses, 3000 cattle and 20,000 sheep, constantly changing. They had 12 stations at Devils River, [and were] ‘buying and selling Melbourne properties daily.’ [9] To assume that Hunter and Watson, as principals of these numerous stations, were fully conversant with all that was being done by every number of their one hundred staff (comprising mainly assigned convict servants and ticket-of-leave convicts), is implausible. Furthermore, it may even be argued that Hunter and Watson’s grip on their pastoral empire was tenuous; possibly even chaotic: by 1846 their company was thoroughly insolvent (although the economic depression of 1842 played a role; it also seems the young men of the Hunter clan were more interested in horse racing than running a pastoral empire); and the court cases surrounding the eventual dissolution of the company would drag on into the 1850s. [10]

We can also discount Kenyon’s argument that the poisoning of Aboriginal people in Victoria was merely a ‘yarn’ that originated in Tasmania. Instead, there is evidence to suggest that the poisoning of Aboriginal people did take place on the Ovens and Broken Rivers, and elsewhere. As I have written before, in June 1839, not even a year after the initial settlement of North East Victoria by Europeans, Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Goulburn district, James Dredge, recorded the prevalence of mass poisonings with ‘sweet damper’ (ie: arsenic-laced damper) [11], and Assistant-Protector of Aborigines for the Melbourne area, William Thomas, also recorded in March 1839 that Aboriginal people on the Broken and Ovens Rivers had been ‘put out in this way.’ [12] Kenyon’s assertion that Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson and his district protectors ‘investigated every report or rumour that was heard as to murder or even bad treatment of the blacks’ is pure fantasy: anyone familiar with the journals of Robinson or his Assistant Protectors like Thomas and Dredge, will know that they were profoundly under-resourced, and will see the extent to which their investigations were hampered by the squatters’ ‘code of silence’ and government indifference.


The front gate of present-day Barjarg Station (Jacqui Durrant, June 2020).

Next, we should re-examine whether Hunter and Watson were the only pastoralists who could possibly have been responsible for the poisoning on Barjarg Station. Ivan Hunter was quite correct when he wrote that his family were almost the sole occupants of the district. Certainly, Barjarg was leased under license by Alex Watson’s cousin William Francis Hunter Arundell from 1841-1848. [13] This much was documented by Kenyon in his 1932 book (coauthored with R. V. Billis) The Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip. However, Billis and Kenyon’s book was only a simple ‘record of all [land]holdings under depasturing licenses.’ [14] It relied solely on government records, and as such, effectively missed periods of European occupation in which a pastoralist had failed to take out a formal license to ‘depasture’ stock.

As it turns out, before Barjarg was so named, it did have another early European occupant, whose association with the area would soon be forgotten: Peter Stuckey Junior. We can be certain of this, as on 10 May 1840, Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, was travelling south along the Broken River with Assistant Protector James Dredge, going from station to station; and having visited William McKellar’s station ‘Lima’ on the Broken River just north of present-day Swanpool (Lima Station still exists in the same location today), Robinson recorded that ‘At 15 miles from McKellar’s [we] came to Stucky’s station.’ If one maps the distance, one finds that Robinson had come to the head station of Barjarg (which like Lima Station, still exists in the same location today).

At the time of Robinson’s visit, Stuckey was only 18 years old; the eldest son of established pastoralist Peter Stuckey, who by this time was based at ‘Willie Ploma’ on Wiradjuri lands at Gundagai. Robinson found that Peter Stuckey Junior, along with his servants, had only just partially finished work on a hut which could sleep eight men. The hut had been built specifically because they feared Aboriginal attack. [15]

Robinson gave an account of their situation with regards the local Aboriginal people: ‘Was informed by Mr Stuckey that on about Saturday, 25 April [1840] last a party of blacks visited his station and on the day following made an attack upon it but without doing any injury except spearing in the back of the shoulder a domesticated native in Mr Stuckey’s employ and who belongs to the Murrumbidgee [ie: Wiradjuri] tribe. Mr Stuckey when attacked was living under loose slabs. He afterwards worked day and night to complete a part of his slab hut, which is very substantial with a slab ceiling and loopholes for firing out of. They could stand a seize [ie: siege] in this fortress, it is substantially built. … [Stuckey] is quite a youth. … He had 5 men at the station, four whites and one an assigned servant and a Murrumbidgee black.’

Robinson remained at Stuckey’s station that night, ‘to enquire into the particulars of their outrage [ie: attack]. It [the hut] was about 12 x 8, in which the four white men, the black, Stuckey, Dredge and myself, large [enough] to stow eight persons. Stucky’s people apprehended another attack from the natives and had their firearms prepared for the natives. Whilst they were preparing their fortress they kept a sentinel.’

Let us remind ourselves that the local historian, Walker, could not have read this account of Stuckey’s station in Robinson’s journals, as the journals left Australia with Robinson in 1852 and remained in Britain until well after Walker’s article was written. Robinson’s description of Stuckey’s situation, with his crew of European servants plus one ‘domesticated native,’ whom may have come to be remembered in history as a ‘black boy’ (adult ‘black’ men were once routinely referred to as ‘boy’), does resemble the group described by Walker: ‘there were seven white people and a black boy at one of the stations. The black boy heard the blacks arranging their plans to attack and murder these white folk, and he warned them.’ Indeed Robinson recorded that Stuckey and his men ‘apprehended another attack’ from local Aboriginal people. Clearly, the hut they built — strong enough to withstand a siege — was evidence of this fact.

Robinson left the following day, and unfortunately we can learn no more of Stuckey’s situation from him. Indeed, by April 1841, Stuckey had established himself on a new station at the junction of the Murray and Ovens River [16], and the lease of Barjarg had been taken out by Arundell. This means that Stuckey’s stay on that part of the Broken River lasted a year or less. No wonder his presence on the Broken River was forgotten, and was absent from the archives consulted by Billis and Kenyon.

One might ask how deep the fear of imminent attack ran among Stuckey and his stockmen, and what might have driven them to possibly take the drastic step of poisoning a large number of local Aboriginal people. By the time of Robinson’s visit, Stuckey and his men would have received reports that two days after the attack on their own station, a stockman at Chisholm’s Myrrhee Station in the King Valley had been murdered and ritually mutilated (having had the caul fat from around one kidney cut out) by a group of Aboriginal men, believed to be the same group responsible for the attack on not only their own station, but a number of others. [17]

A letter written to The Port Phillip Gazette on the 8th May, signed by someone calling themselves ‘A Friend to Justice’, condemned Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson’s passive role in the events which were happening during the course of his visit to North East Victoria, writing that ‘Mr. Robinson passed a party of stockmen all armed going in search of the natives; he ought to have put himself or his sub at the head of these men, not only to prevent the wanton effusion of aboriginal blood, but to bring to justice the murderers of Mr. Chisholm’s man.’ [18] Clearly, stockmen in the vicinity of the Ovens and King Rivers were looking for violent retribution, which ‘A Friend to Justice’ knew would be ‘wanton’ — which is to say ‘indiscriminate’.

A little over a week and a half after George Augustus Robinson had visited Stuckey’s station (Barjarg), Aboriginal people also attacked David Lindsay Waugh’s station on the Delatite River. Waugh’s station was considered to be in the immediate neighbourhood of Stuckey’s: two stockmen — John Kyly, immigrant, native of Cork; and convict ‘lifer’ Emanuel Haly — were murdered, and this time, their bodies were never recovered. [19] With good reason, we can speculate that increasingly ‘wanton’ forms of retribution, including poisoning, were pursued by pastoralists and their stockmen.

Hunter & Watson's detail

Detail from Russell’s Sketch Plan of Hunter and Watson’s pastoral holdings, showing its boundary with Arundell’s Barjarg Station, 1846 (State Library of Victoria).

So who was Walker’s informant regarding the massacre at Barjarg — ‘Mrs Frank Withers’? The Withers family were gold-rush-era settlers of the Mansfield district, and ‘Mrs Frank Withers’ was Catherine Withers (born Dublin, 1848, who died at Howe’s Creek, Mansfield in 1922). Her Irish emigrant parents James Doyle and Molly (Mary, nee Murtagh) had settled on the Broken River sometime in the 1850s. In 1928, upon the death of Catherine’s brother Frank, The North East Ensign would remind its readers that Catherine and Frank’s father James Doyle ‘was well known in the early days[,] and for years manager and book-keeper of Barjarg and Warrenbayne stations.’ [20]

According to a Withers family descendant Fon Cathcart, who wrote a history of the Withers family in 1965, Catherine Withers’ mother, Molly Doyle, had an amicable relationship with local Aboriginal people:

‘She had plenty of Irish spirit and, though used to living in a big city, she was quite unafraid of the blacks who roamed around the homestead. She was a bare 5 feet tall, but had a heart as big as a giant, and she opened it right up to these poor dispossessed aborigines, feeding them when they needed it from their own not to plentiful larder, and administering to their children when they were sick. They adored her.

‘Jimmie Doyle ordered them off his property at every opportunity, and gave them the benefit of his large Irish vocabulary of swear words.
“Are you feeding those so-and-so’s?” He would bellow at her.

“Divvil a bit,” she would reply with an innocent look, having just given them the last of her batch of bread!

‘The blacks had a great sense of humour apparently, which is quite interesting to note, for when they saw Jimmie Doyle coming in the distance they would often bundle the tiny Doyle children into their canoe and row up the Broken River, laughing mockingly as he raced to the bank and swore volubly at them. They called her “Missy Doyle” and him “Mr Buggarem”, with a rare insight into the ways of white people!

“Missy” wasn’t afraid of what they would do to her children – as soon as “Mr Buggarem” went off to the sheds they’d row back and deposit their precious burden back in a safe place. One of these precious burdens was Catherine, usually called Kate, who, like her sisters of whom we know of two, was pretty as a picture – she grew up to be the future wife of Frank Withers, eldest son of James and Mary…’ [21]

Given that the Doyles reportedly arrived in the Broken River district in the 1850s [22], they could have heard the story of the massacre at Barjarg no later than fifteen years after its actual occurrence. Jimmie Doyle would have been in the employ of James Moore, who had taken over the lease of Barjarg from Arundel in 1849, and who also later developed Warrenbayne station. [23] So, Catherine Doyle — a.k.a ‘Mrs Frank Withers’ — had spent time with surviving local Aboriginal people on the Broken River as a child, and her father had intimate knowledge of Barjarg Station at a time well within living memory of any  massacre that took place there. It seems that local historian P. W. Walker had every right to put Catherine Withers forward as a credible source of local oral history.


Unfortunately, as it stands, I cannot yet find any other independent account of a mass poisoning at Barjarg station. A letter written in 1926 by Iris E. Howell which chronicles the history of Barjarg — a copy of which is now in possession of the current fourth generation owner of Barjarg Station, Mr Fred Forrest — either directly quotes Walker; or alternatively, both she and Walker have both directly quoted an external unacknowledged source. Mr Forrest says that from what information has been passed down to him, the poisoning did not happen at the current site of Barjarg Station (now substantially descreased in size), but further downstream on the Broken River, at a place which was flooded by the construction of Lake Nillahcootie.

I don’t doubt that the late 1830s and early 1840s was a time of extreme unmitigated violence in North East Victoria, on a colonial frontier awash with convicts and squatters who in every sense were a law unto themselves. Whether we attribute the massacre at Barjarg to squatters William Arundell or Peter Stuckey, or any of their convict or free settler stockmen (with or without their masters’ knowledge), what matters now is the recognition of Catherine Withers as a credible witness to local oral history, and most significantly, that we make an acknowledgement that a highly illegal mass poisoning of Aboriginal people on Barjarg Station more than likely did occur.

In a forthcoming blog post, I will examine the evidence for which Aboriginal group in particular was likely the victim of this horrific event.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!

References to ‘Massacre on the Broken River’

[1a] ‘Early History of Mansfield,’ By P. W. Walker. The Australasian, Saturday, 8 November 1930, p.4.
[1b] ‘DETAILS REQUESTED. TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN,’ The AustralasianSaturday 15 November 1930, p.4.
[2] ‘Details Supplied. To the Editor of the Australasian,’ The Australasian, Saturday, 22 November 1930, p 4.
[3] Judy Macdonald, ‘John ‘Howqua’ Hunter and the China connection,’ Latrobeana, Journal of the C J La Trobe Society, Vol 15, No 3, November 2016, p.24.
[5] ibid.
[6] ‘TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN.’ The Australasian, Saturday 29 November 1930, p.4.
[7] ‘MANSFIELD MEMORIES. TO THE EDITOR OF THE AUSTRALASIAN.’ The Australasian, Saturday 20 December 1930, p.4.
[8] ibid.
[9] Judy Macdonald, ‘James Watson and “Flemington”: a Gentleman’s Estate,’ Latrobeana, Journal of the C J La Trobe Society, Vol. 8, No. 3, November 2009, p.22.
[10] Judy Macdonald, ‘John ‘Howqua’ Hunter and the China connection,’ Latrobeana, Journal of the C J La Trobe Society, Vol 15, No 3, November 2016, p.24.
[11] James Dredge Diary, 1 June 1839, p.52. James Dredge, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16].[12] Dr Marguerita Stephens (ed) The Journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas 1839-67, Volume 1: 1839-1943, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), Melbourne, p.8. Entry for Sunday 24 March 1839.
[13] Billis, R. V. and Kenyon, A. S., Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip, Macmillan & Company Ltd., Melbourne, 1932, p.7.
[14] Billis, R. V. and Kenyon, A. S., ibid., Preface.
[15] Ian Clark (ed.), The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Protectorate, 1839-1852, Melbourne, 2014, this entry dated 10 May, 1840.
[16] ‘Hume River, APRIL 8th, 1841.’ The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, Monday 26 April 1841, Page 2.
[17] ‘THE BLACKS —HUME RIVER, JUNE 2’ The Colonist, 24 June, 1840, p.2.
[18] ‘The Blacks. To the editor of the Port Philip Gazette,’ The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Tuesday 23 June 1840, p.4.
[19] British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Condition of Aborigines, House of Commons Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627, p.116.
[20] ‘OBITUARY. MR. FRANK DOYLE,’ The North East Ensign, 30 November 1928, p.2.
[21] Fon Cathcart, The Salt of the Earth, The Authentic Story of James and Mary Withers — Pioneers of the Mansfield District, Melbourne, 1965, p. 21.
[22] Fon Cathcart, ibid., p.21.
[23] Billis and Kenyon, op. cit. p.99.

Aboriginal place names around Wangaratta and beyond



In the last week or so, there has been widespread community interest in, and concerns over, the inadvertent commemoration of ‘pioneers’ who were responsible for massacres of Aboriginal people (in light of the Black Lives Matter protests). Locally, this is seen in place names, including Faithfull Street in Wangaratta (named for George Faithfull), and the Warby Ranges (named for Benjamin Warby), to name just two of many examples. As people think of renaming places, there has been a corresponding interest in original Aboriginal place names. I am publishing this list of original local place names (below) as an addition to Megan Carter’s larger list. You can find this list on her blog at: It’s all in a name: a resurfaced collection Aboriginal place names in North East Victoria

In 1858, District Surveyor A. L. Martin, who was based at the Survey Office in Beechworth, supplied a list of local place names to the Surveyor General in Melbourne. These were ‘native names which I have been able to learn from a gentleman who has resided a considerable time in this District.’ [1] (I speculate either David or Curtis Reid, who were among the first non-Aboriginal people to settle in the area, and were still in the district in 1858, as likely candidates).

Currarrarbyandigee — the township of Wangaratta 

Byamotha — Reid’s Creek or Woolshed 

Bontharambo — Docker’s Plains

Currurargarmongee — Reid’s Station 

Moyhu — Chisholm’s station, King River 

Burrurrurgurmonge — Hodgson’s Creek 

Kirah — River Ovens 

(B?)amorrmongee — 3 Mile Creek, Wangaratta 

Loahwambiah — One Mile Creek, Wangaratta 

Mowongboga — Fifteen Mile Creek, Wangaratta 

Bialagarngee — Everton 


On 23 February 1841, Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson recorded in his journal place names collected from local Aboriginal people, whom he spoke with while at Bontharambo station. One of these names, for the junction of the Ovens and King Rivers, was ‘Corram-beyan-didder’. This easily corresponds with ‘Currarrar-byan-digee,’ supporting the authenticity of this place name for Wangaratta, and more specifically the river junction area.

I also find it especially interesting that ‘Moyhu’ is an original Aboriginal name, which puts a convincing end to the myth that it was derived from two Chinese men, Ah Moy and Ah Yu! Likewise, as you will see on Megan’s list, Edi is also an original name, and is not a foreshortened version of ‘Heide’ as one finds as a dubious explanation in some local histories.

Finally, Aboriginal people often had multiple names for one water course, as they named them in sections.

So what do you prefer: Everton or ‘Bya-la-garngee’? Faithfull Street or ‘Corram-byan-diddah Street’?


Letter from A. L. Martin, District Surveyor, to the Surveyor General, Melbourne, 4 November, 1858, Public Records Office Victoria.

I have sighted a copy of the original letter as an appendix in Marie Hansen Fel’s unpublished report ‘These Singular People — The Ovens Blacks’, 1997. Fels did not provide a full bibliographic citation, but I would suggest the letter is held in either of these files:

VPRS 16685/ P1  unit 26,  item Bundle 162, Book 2110 

VPRS 16685/ P1  unit 26,  item Bundle 162, Book 2115

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!

Revisiting the forgotten world of Victoria’s alpine valleys and ranges: the case for restoring our ancient open woodlands


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For ecological inspiration, and climatic salvation, we need to revisit the ancient open woodlands of North East Victoria.

warby 3

A vista looking south-east from Mount Glenrowan, drawn by Eugen von Guerard in the 1860s, shows the Ovens, King River and Fifteen Mile Creek Valleys clothed in open red gum and box woodland. Blakey’s Red Gum can be seen in the foreground.

Note: This is a referenced transcript of the lecture I delivered at the Stanley Hall in the Spring of 2019 for the Geoff Craig Memorial lecture, organised by the Stanley Athenaeum.

I’d like to start by offering my thanks to the Friends of the Stanley Athenaeum for bestowing upon me the honour of giving this year’s Geoff Craig Memorial lecture, which I’ve titled ‘Revisiting the forgotten world of Victoria’s alpine valleys and ranges,’ and which I have decided to subtitle, ‘the case for restoring our ancient open woodlands’.

This lecture has its origins in the exhibition, Fire on the Plateau — A History of Fire and its Management in Stanley, which opened at the Stanley Athenaeum in May to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the 2009 bushfires. It was curated by Ali Rowe, and I was employed as the principal researcher for the project with the idea that I would produce some panel text and a short essay. I started researching, and before I knew it, I had enough information for a book.

Today I won’t be speaking directly to the content of the book. Instead, I want to tell you about some of the broader insights I gained while I was researching. At the beginning of the project, myself, Ali Rowe and the Friends of the Stanley Athenaeum — in this case, namely Chris Dormer, Helen McIntyre, Janet Sutherland and Valerie Privett — brainstormed what we knew about the history of fire in Stanley. I asked, When was the last big bushfire in Stanley, prior to the 2003 fires? There’d been some big fire events in Victoria the 1980s — Ash Wednesday in 1983, and big fires through Mount Pilot and Mount Buffalo in 1985, and we expected that Stanley would have a similar history of bushfire. But no one could remember a bushfire in Stanley in the 1980s. We soon realised there were no stories about Stanley being burnt-out even in the infamous Black Friday bushfires of 1939, when most of Victoria was burnt. I trawled through the archives, and what I discovered was quite unexpected, at least to us: that there had been no significant bushfires on the Stanley Plateau for well over 100 years. 

On reflection, what’s really interesting to me, is that we had started out expecting that Stanley would have this long history of big bushfires — it was almost as if we had projected our current expectations of the environment backwards through time — and it took a historical study to correct our view.

There’s no hard scientific evidence as to why Stanley had so few bushfires prior to 2003, but quite clearly, the area used to be a pretty safe bet in terms bushfire risk. The Stanley Plateau had a cool climate, with a high ground moisture content, and wet peppermint and blue gum forests, with ferny gullies that remained damp even in Summer; in fact it was so damp that if you walked through the forest, you’d come out with leeches on your legs. But as we all know, something really big has changed. The Plateau is drier and Stanley is now officially classified as an area of ‘extreme risk’ on the CFA’s Victorian Fire Risk Register. 

When I started the project, I didn’t realise that I would be charting such a big environmental change. But during the research, I was engaging with letters, diaries, reminiscences and government records dating from the time of the arrival of Europeans in North East Victoria from the late 1830s onwards; and I came to realise that the environment I was reading about in these historical documents was so different from our current understanding of the environment today, that it now constitutes a kind of ‘forgotten world’ to us. However through historical records, we can revisit this forgotten world of North East Victoria’s alpine valleys and ranges, and see what’s changed.


When I was at university I was very fortunate to be lectured by a historian called Greg Dening, who earlier in his life had been a Jesuit priest. Dening used to talk about a particular Spiritual Practice originally taught to the Jesuit order by theologian Ignatius Loyola, which he in turn applied to his own method of composing history — a practice called ‘composition of place.’ In composition of place, when one reflects on a scriptural passage or events, one first imagines the scene in concrete detail, places oneself inside that scene, and then attends to the thoughts and feelings that arise in order to comprehend it. And this is what I would like for us to be able to do today with some of the vivid sites, sounds and sensations, that I have found in the archives, relating to this forgotten world of our alpine valleys and ranges. 

A good place to start composing our forgotten world, is by using the reminiscences of George Kinchington. Kinchington was a child when he first arrived in the Yackandandah Valley in the winter of 1838. He was in the company of his family; his father was to be the manager of the newly formed Kergunyah station. They were among the very first non-Aboriginal people to enter the Yackandandah Valley. And he would later recall of it,

‘As we approached the Murramerangbong Hills and crossed the creek, I thought that of all the pretty places I had seen, Yackandandah was the prettiest. As far as the eye could reach stretched a great park, covered with large timber and under-growths of luxuriant grass. The creek itself could be seen for miles, and wound along in a wide and continuous bed of reeds and raspberry briars, with here and there a lake, in which were immense flocks of wild duck, widgeon, teal, black swan, and pelicans. The water, too, was beautifully clear and abounded with fish. Occasionally some native dogs, of which there were large numbers, would run across our path, and we would some times catch sight of a herd of kangaroo or wallaby, or see an emu raise its startled head to look at us. The country was very open; and with the exception of some native hop, grass trees, gebung, a little ti-tree, and some wild cherries, the land was quite devoid of scrub….’ [1]

This valley, in fact all of valleys of North East Victoria, were like parkland: grasslands interspersed with stately trees spaced widely enough to allow for easy travel — you could gallop a horse or pull a wagon through a valley, completely unhindered by undergrowth. Pre-Raphaelite artist Thomas Woolner who visited in 1852, described it as ‘splendid country that looked like an immense park left to decay and run wild: the trees shoot in sinuous, fantastic growth … the ground [is] spangled with serene little wildflowers’. [2] Woolner’s description of this park as being left to ‘decay and run wild’, was entirely appropriate, because by the time he was seeing it in 1852, European settlement had interrupted the Aboriginal burning regimes that had helped give the countryside its manicured, park-like appearance.

The native pasture in these valleys was spectacular; the first Europeans could barely believe their eyes. Local squatter David Reid noted that along the banks of the Ovens River at Tarrawingee in the late 1830s the kangaroo grass looked ‘more like a field of barley, or rather oats, than anything else’ and was so tall, it could be tied over a horse’s withers as it grew on either side. [3] I thought this had to be a bit of an exaggeration, but William Hovell (of Hume and Hovell fame) wrote in 1824 that in Victoria, ‘The grass .. is … frequently as high as [our] heads, and seldom lower than [our] waists.’ [4]

We can add to our composition of place by knowing that the soils of these valleys was soft, even spongy underfoot, because it had never been compacted by hard-hoofed animals. Early European arrivals had found their way into North East Victoria simply by following the impressions of cartwheels left by Major Mitchell’s expedition of 1836, which had sunk into the soft soils. Some Europeans were even distrustful of this weirdly open soil. Ovens Valley selector Edward Hulme complained of his ‘inferior crab-holey grassland’. [5] When in the Buckland Valley in 1853, English author William Howitt complained that ‘everywhere the soil is of a light porous quality, which absorbs the rain like a sponge, and in the heat exhales malaria. You may smell the dry-rot of decaying roots of trees as you walk over the surface.’ [6] Howitt thought the soils produced dangerous miasmas that were making the gold miners ill, but what he was describing was the rich smell of hummus, which retained moisture in soils, kept open and alive partly by the sheer mass of insect life.

You see, Howitt was a complainer, also about the insects here, which he said were ‘endless in numbers and form. Many are most singular and curious; but the ants, the flies, the centipedes, and the scorpions, are a terrific nuisance. … They cover the whole surface of the ground, I might almost say of the whole colony, of all colours and sizes; and almost every variety of them stings keenly. Nor is it the ground only on which they swarm; there is not a log lying on the ground, nor a tree standing in the forest, up and down which they are not creeping in myriads.’ [7] And I think, one can only imagine that the sound of cicadas and crickets in the summer must have been deafening.

Which brings us to another aspect of this forgotten world — the way it sounded. It was noisy! Across much of the countryside in Victoria were vast woodlands of silver banksia, which the colonists called ‘honeysuckle’. At Wooragee, Greta, Carboor, Myrtleford, Mudgegonga, and Whorouly — where the banksia vied with grasstrees — these woodlands, in season, were dripping with nectar, supporting huge numbers of insects, mammals — and of course, birds: black cockatoos and parrots, and songbirds — the sittellas, robins, honey-eaters, spine-bills, wattlebirds and friarbirds, made the bush a noisy place. It had been rumoured in England that Australian songbirds had no song — but Australian birds are louder and more melodious than any birds on earth. In fact, we now know that Australia is the ancestral birth place of songbirds. [8]

Murmungee Map

A map of newly surveyed agricultural lots at Murmungee (roughly 10km south of Beechworth), demonstrates that it was originally clad in a forest which included ‘Honeysuckle’ (Silver Banksia).

But it was at night that the sounds of the alpine valleys and ranges really came into themselves. Assistant Protector of Aborigines James Dredge complained of a night spent on Bontharambo station near Wangaratta in 1840, that he was kept awake all night by the ‘romping of rabbit rats’, [9] which were probably Rufus Bettongs — cute little animals, which scratch about and make a noise like a chainsaw when annoyed. Around Stanley, we still hear the hideous, choking growl of koalas in mating season, but we no longer hear the wailing, banshee-like cry of Bush Stone Curlews piercing the darkness of local forests. [10] Imagine what these two hideous calls sounded like in combination; and on top of that, Emily Skinner, the wife of a gold miner living in the Buckland Valley in the 1850s, described how the howling of dingoes at the top end of the valley would set off the next pack howling, so that the howling would spread down the length of the Buckland. [11] In 1881, Beechworth’s Ovens and Murray Advertiser reported that Mrs Morrison of Mudegonga had been ‘almost frightened to death with the yells of the dingoes all night’ when stranded overnight on the road to Stanley. [12]

And dingoes weren’t the only carnivorous predators in these forests. On 4 July 1854, American gold seeker Gordon Tucker celebrated Independence Day in Beechworth with a day’s sport of ‘killing native cats’. [13] He was shooting the glorious Tiger Quoll, aka the Spot-tailed Quoll — the largest marsupial carnivore of mainland Australia — it’s roughly 2/3 the size of a Tasmanian tiger — really, it’s a mini-Tassie-tiger with spots instead of stripes — with a piecing rasp of a bark.

But one of the weirdest sounds was a booming noise that came from swamplands, that many people thought could only be the call of the mythical bunyip; for it was a noise that came from an almost equally elusive and secretive marsh-dweller. William Howitt described its call, while travelling alongside a vast marsh near Wangaratta — the Greta swamp — in late 1852: ‘the most extraordinary thing there, was the booming of the bitterns. I never heard anything like it, and could not have supposed any bird capable of producing such a sound. It was like the low bellowing of bulls… but perhaps still more like some one blowing into the spout of a watering-[can]. The force and [the] compass of it, and the distance to which the sound could be heard, were amazing.’ [14]

The shallow cane-grass marshes at places like Tangambalanga, Bontharambo, and Greta not only supported the Australasian bittern, but also attracted flocks of Magpie geese, [15] and the dancing cranes we call brolgas, but which the Waveroo people called birranga. [16]

The colours of our forgotten world were different too. The Ovens River at Wangaratta wasn’t just clear, it was described as being azure-green. [17] And if you looked into that translucent azure-green water, you would see shoals of fish. At Markwood, in 1871, it was reported that fish of all kinds were constantly turning up in James Henley’s waterwheel, so that in half-an-hour there would be two dozen fish, chiefly bream [probably Macquarie perch] — some three and four pounds each. The small ones were returned to the river, but at least a hundred weight [50kg] of saleable fish were pulled out every 24 hours.’ [18]

Being able to see clearly what was at the bottom of a river could be a wondrous thing, but at the same time, it might put you off swimming. In 1885, the Ovens and Murray Advertiser recalled a time, ‘before the Snowy Creek and Omeo [gold] rushes took place, when [on] any day, in the then pellucid waters of the Mitta Mitta, one could see… fish, from the size of a minnow to the “leviathan,” …voracious codfish that could swallow a dog — or, for that matter, a baby — whole, disporting themselves in the depths among the boulders which are so marked a feature in the upper reaches of this lovely and picturesque river.’ [19]

Even tiny streams like Holmes’ Creek in Beechworth (which crosses Camp Street at the bottom of the hill), such a minor creek that barely anyone today even remembers its name, was a ‘beautifully clear stream with crayfish in it; and wild hop and may over-hung the water which sheltered the wild violet and geranium.’ [20] Beechworth was called Baarmutha by the Waveroo people, said to mean ‘many creeks’, which also suggests plenty of crayfish in winter. [21]

Creeks and Rivers often moved far more slowly than what they do today, as their banks were dense with reeds, and their waters snagged with timber. JFH Mitchell recalled that in his childhood, in the 1840s, the banks of the Murray River at Wodonga were dense with cumbungi and common reed, up to 20 feet high. [22] When it flooded in Spring, you could take a canoe from Wodonga to Townsend Street in Albury. [23] And when the water receded along the banks of the Ovens and Murray, it replenished the lagoons, whose warmer, stiller waters would be filled with river catfish, and thick beds of freshwater mussels. The catfish, which are now almost locally extinct, also thrived in the kinds of waterways like the Whorouly Creek and the Broken River, originally called the ‘Winding Swamp,’ that ceased to flow in summer. [24] George Kinchington explained, ‘The creeks stopped running about Christmas time [and] then became a chain of water-holes.’ [25]

What the woodlands surrounding these rivers, creeks and lagoons lacked in density they often made up for in height. In 1853, William Howitt reported fallen trees on the Nine Mile Creek up to 60 metres long. [26] That’s a tree which stood at least four storeys high; higher than the very top of the bell-tower on the old Beechworth Post Office. Today the tallest Brittle Gums we have in Beechworth, for example on the Golf Course, are probably 25 metres high. But where you have tall trees, you have a different animals. From the Gold Commissioner’s camp in 1853 on High Street in Beechworth, tent keeper William Murdoch recorded how, ‘One of the men shot a large flying squirrel, its length from the nose to the tip of the tail — four feet.’ [27] This was the beautiful Greater Glider, a wholly arboreal animal with such a huge wingspan that it can only glide safely between very tall, widely spaced trees. The presence of this glider tells us that our forests in Beechworth had mammoth and widely-spaced trees, mature enough to sustain these large flying marsupials in their canopies.

And imagining these tall tree canopies brings me to one last sensation that was once familiar but is becoming increasingly rare, and this comes from a Beechworth resident who wrote to the Ovens and Murray Advertiser in 1907:

‘Next to the Buckland Gap, probably the most delightful spot in the neighborhood of Beechworth was what was called the Cemetery Creek, but which has been more appropriately styled the Emerald Cascades by recent visitors, since [this] more nearly describes its beauties. … this charming locality is at the rear of Baarmutha Park, and consists of a wild glen. The well-worn path charmingly follows the parting stream of crystal water, which leaps from cascade to cascade for at least a mile, between cool-looking, moss-covered rocks. On a hot summer morning this glen was a most inviting scene for the painter, owing to the rare color effects that were produced in the natural objects from the bright sunshine, which with difficulty glanced through the clefts of the dense and beautifully disposed eucalyptus and [native] pines, dappling the deep green moss and grey rocks with its glories. No one ever visited it who did not loudly praise its wonderful coolness or its delirious shade.’ [28]

However, this letter was one of dismay, for the writer continued, ‘On visiting this spot a few weeks ago, sir, imagine my feelings in discovering these lovely trees, which were the cause of all this charm, were all rung [ringbarked] and fast dying! In a year they will be dead and falling, and nothing will be left but a bare, bold blazing mass of rocks. In this case there is I think not even the semblance of an excuse for the destruction.’ [29]


If you visit the Emerald Cascades today, I can guarantee you won’t recognise it. It’s a gully near the old rifle range at the back of the Beechworth golf course; which has trickle of water but no cascades. Its tree canopy is sparse, and the granite boulders have been swallowed by a mass of blackberry briars. Only a solitary tree fern still struggles on. In so many ways, the Emerald Cascades is a microcosm of the kinds of environmental changes we’ve wrought on the environment, and how far we’ve got to go in terms of restoring it.

In fact, if there was one lesson from the research done for Fire on the Plateau, it’s that the greatest environmental challenge we have now is how to restore and conserve the environment in ways that will accomodate climate change, but remain in sympathy with the environment of old. Designing ‘climate-smart’ environmental projects might sound like a controversial issue, but the reality is that even locally, ecologists and environmental organisations are now making some pretty valiant attempts to future-proof our forests and fauna:

In Chiltern where conservations have spent decades trying to conserve habitat for the critically endangered Regent Honeyeater, Trust for Nature and BirdLife Australia have given up on the idea of relying solely on local trees like Mugga Ironbark to provide enough nectar. The ironbark isn’t flowering consistently enough to ensure the survival of the honeyeaters, so they’ve started trials, planting super-tough non-indigenous native species —  things like Hairpin Banksia, Crimson Bottlebrush, Spotted Gum, and Silky Oak — in an effort to guarantee that there will be food for the birds all year-round. Not so long ago, this would have been considered a form of environmental heresy.

Over the border on the Monaro Tablelands, the majestic Ribbon Gums (E. viminalis) — kind of like the Monaro equivalent of Victoria’s high country Snow Gums (E. pauciflora) — have been dying across the landscape since the 1990s. The weather’s been just too hot, and there have been too many droughts, and the gums are so water-stressed that they’ve become susceptible to invasion by Eucalyptus Weevil, which have been literally eating the tree canopies to death. Now Greening Australia and Upper Snowy Landcare have started running trials of 16 genetically different varieties of Ribbon gum, sourced from areas where the climate is hotter and drier, to see which varieties can withstand the changed climatic conditions on the Monaro.

Like the regent honey eater, the elusive bunyip bird of the marshlands, the Australasian Bittern, is also now critically endangered; and in their case, it’s due to loss of natural wetlands. The total population worldwide is now estimated at no more than 2,500 adults; and ecologist Matt Herring has made the amazing discovery that 40% of this global population has been forced to adopt the rice fields in the Riverina as their habitat during breeding season. Matt’s Bitterns in Rice project has been working with Birdlife Australia and the Ricegrowers’ Association to help farmers adapt their farming practices — things like water depth, and time-of-harvest — to help out the nesting birds. And to their credit, many rice farmers are starting to take pride in having bitterns in their rice. Herring says that, ‘There’s a growing body of global research investigating how human-made habitats can help fill the gap left by our vanishing wetlands, from ditches for rare turtles to constructed ponds for threatened amphibians.’ (And here’s where I quickly take my hat off to Beechworth Urban Landcare for their new frog pond on Silver Creek).

In short, there are now many environmental projects aimed at safeguarding flora and fauna against climate change, but if this is the way of the future, one might well ask, what’s the point of environmental history? What’s the point of us reimagining those forgotten valleys and ranges of North East Victoria from 150 years ago? 

I think that the tangible sensations of this forgotten world — the coolness of the shade at places like the Emerald Cascades, the softness underfoot of healthy soils, the azure green sparkle of the Ovens River, and the orchestra of songbirds rising from open woodlands of stately gums, banksia and grass trees — these are ideas worth holding onto. I think they provide us with a vision.

I think that we might be able to have something approaching this stable and abundant environment once again, if we adopted a vision for restoring the ancient parklike woodlands of old. We still have the remnants of this woodland — in the form of veteran paddock trees — but these have a limited life span, and we need to bolster their ranks. Writing of Dunkeld at the southern end of the Grampians, ecologist Ian Lunt has described the way in which the remnant woodland there, while filled with venerable paddock trees, has not seen any meaningful regeneration. And he states, quite poetically (in his blog post ‘The Candles of Dunkeld’):

‘The woodlands bear the weight of a generation gap 100 years wide. We can’t fill that gap. But we can belatedly heal it. If we don’t, the woodlands won’t go on forever, but will peter out… We owe a huge debt to the farmers of Dunkeld. Their stewardship has kept the trees of Dunkeld alive for over a century. But stewardship of the past creates no future for the trees of Dunkeld. The Dunkeld woodlands need stewardship and more. They need some Succession Planning (and planting). Without a rapid transfusion of new plants, the beautiful woodlands of Dunkeld are doomed.’ 

And of course, so are ours in the alpine valleys and ranges.

It sounds like a big job, restoring woodlands, but elsewhere around the world we’ve seen the most spectacular efforts at reforestation in regions far tougher than our own, and I have to raise the example of Tony Rinaudo: he was a Myrtleford boy, who went on to join World Vision and has been instrumental in the reforestation of 5 million hectares of land in sub-Saharan Africa, simply by helping farmers to regenerate existing tree stocks. The farmers initially had some incentives (which is only fair), but when they saw that reforestation boosted soil fertility and crop yields, the project took off on its own.

The localised benefits of restoring the ancient woodlands of our alpine valleys and ranges are are profound. It’s a simple observation but — woodland creates its own local microclimate: the delirious shade of its trees really does create a wonderful coolness; the shelter of trees protects animals and pastures, and the evapo-transpiration from their leaves actually recycles rain into more rain. More tree coverage means less drought. Even if we forget about global climate change priorities like planting forests to capture carbon — and I’m not saying we should (!) but if we did — we still have plenty of reasons to restore our woodlands.

There’s not a fisherman in the world who wouldn’t like a bag a trout cod big enough to swallow a dog, there’s barely a farmer who wouldn’t want to have their stock grazing on rich native pastures — spangled with wildflowers no less, not a child who wouldn’t love to have the pants scared off them by the boom of the Bunyip Bird in Greta swamp. And personally, I’d like to see more Tiger Quolls in our forests again. The last sighting was at Staghorn Flat in 2015, but this is one of only a handful of sightings in the last 20 years.

There are dozens of interesting ideas I’d love to mention in relation to restoring our environment, which of course isn’t just about the trees and shrubs — there are regenerative agriculture practices including the use of diverse native grasses and different grazing regimes to restore soils and pastures; and there’s also the special need to slow down and retain water in our landscape, in the form of unregulated rivers, peatlands, marshlands, lagoons, and of course — importantly for Stanley as a high recharge area — retain ground water to feed natural surface discharge.

In conclusion, acknowledging how much the environment has already been degraded, and how rapidly it’s still changing in the face of climate change, can be psychologically debilitating. But I think if we care about the environment, that one of the most profound acts we can do now, is to raise our baseline of expectations. To do this, we have to commit radical acts of community remembering — we have to remember by whatever means possible and in as vivid terms as possible, the richness, diversity, and abundance that our environment used to have. We need to adopt that old Jesuit meditative practice of ‘composition of place’ — to hold onto to the vision of our ancient open woodlands — and share this vision, to raise the bar on what we will accept and create as our future environmental reality.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!


[1] ‘YACKANDANDAH IN 1838. SOME REMINISCENCES. BY MR. GEORGE KINCHINGTON.’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Saturday 16 September, 1899, p.8.
[2] Thomas Woolner, in Amy Woolner [ed.], Thomas Woolner RA – His Life in Letters, London, Chapman and Hall, 1917, p.20.
[3] Reminiscences of David Reid: as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, type-written manuscript, National Library of Australia, p.37.
[4] Bill Gammage, The biggest estate on earth : how Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2011, p.175
[5] Edward Hulme, A settler’s 35 years’ experience in Victoria, Australia, M. L. Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1891, p.18.
[6] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Sydney University Press, 1972 [first edn: 1855]. This reference: Volume 2, pp.153-4.
[7] William Howitt, op. cit., This reference: Volume 1, Chapter 11.
[8] ‘Where Birdsong Began,’ Catalyst, ABC television, 10 March, 2015.
[9] James Dredge, Assistant Protector of Aborigines, Goulburn Protectorate, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16]. The diaries contain daily and weekly entries from 1817 to 1833 and 1839–1843. This entry: 22 April 1840.
[10] D. M. W. McKenzie, “To the Pioneers” Looking Back, The Early Days of Stanley, 1891, re-printed in association with the “Back-to” Stanley, January 1976, from the original publication by the late D. M. W. McKenzie.
[11] Edward Duyker (ed.), A Woman On The Goldfields, Recollections of Emily Skinner, 1852-1878, Melbourne University Press, 1995.
[12] MUDGEGONGA. Saturday. Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Tuesday, 8 February, 1881, p.2.
[13] Gordon Tucker, Journal, 1853 Apr. 12-1857 June 6. Manuscript 10649, State Library of Victoria. This entry: 4 July, 1854.
[14] William Howitt, op. cit., This reference: Volume 1, Chapter 9.
[16] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.46; for Waywurru language, see: Dictionary of Way Wurru and Dhudhuroa Language, Nyanda Ngudjuwa Aboriginal Corporation Way Wurru and Dhudhuroa Language Program, Wodonga, 2007/8 (draft edition).
[17] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volume 1, Chapter 9 (this edition Cambridge University Press digital editions, 2010, p.153).
Last summer (in early 2020), my son and I visited a swimming hole in the Upper King River. It was sufficiently clear enough that it did have a slight azure green tinge, and I was able to imagine what Howitt meant.
[18] ‘District Road Boards,’ The Argus Supplement, 25 January 1871, p.1.
[19] ‘Our River Fish’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Thursday, 6 August, 1885, p.2.
[20] ‘Old Memories’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 10 November, 1908, p.8
[21] Dictionary of Way Wurru and Dhudhuroa Language, op. cit.
[22] J.F.H Mitchell Papers, 1903-1923, State Library of New South Wales. Mitchell gives many descriptions of the environment around Albury-Wodonga in the 1840s in these often rambling type-written notes.
[23] David Reid, ‘Old Memories — Floods and Droughts,’ Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 30 December, 1898, p.16.
[24] For an amazing historical account of local fish stocks including catfish, see: Will Trueman, True Tales of the Trout Cod: River Histories of the Murray–Darling Basin, (Ovens River catchment booklet), Murray–Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), Canberra, 2012.
[25] George Kinchington, op. cit.
[26] William Howitt, op. cit., This reference: Volume 1: Chapter 13.
[27] William Murdoch, A Journey to Australia in 1852 and Peregrinations in that Land of Dirt and Gold, unpublished diary manuscript (digital form), held by the Robert O-Hara Burke Memorial Museum. This entry: 26 November 1852.
[28] ‘The Destruction of Beautiful Beechworth’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 23 November 1907, p.6.
[29] ibid.

Beechworth’s finest hour


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On 18 February, I gave a short speech at the Beechworth Courthouse at the event ‘The Beechworth Principles — Towards a Federal Integrity Commission’ in which Helen Haines MP outlined what she believes should be the ‘core characteristics by which any model for a federal integrity commission can be measured.’ You can read about the Beechworth Principles on her website.

The speech I gave in support of the Beechworth Principles was illustrative of the fact that, since the earliest days of the gold rush, Beechworth has a long (if little known) history of standing up for principles of integrity and political rights. The text that follows  is a slightly modified version of the speech I gave, including a few extra details that I was not able to include in the Court House Speech for reasons of brevity. (Apologies for the fact that this material is as yet un-footnoted, but I can assure you it is drawn from primary source materials.)


(Image by Thennicke, via wikimedia commons)

In 1853, at the height of the gold rush on the Ovens goldfield, a young gold digger at Reid’s Creek named William Guest was shot by police. Guest was an innocent man – his death the result of a flagrant misuse of police power by an inept Assistant Gold Commissioner, Edwin Meyer. The initial reaction to Guest’s shooting was a riot, in which almost 3000 diggers stormed the Assistant Commissioner’s Camp, during which time the policeman responsible for the shooting, Constable Hallet, was almost beaten to death, and in which Assistant Commissioner Meyer was pelted with rocks, shot at, and very nearly lynched.

At two subsequent death inquests in the the shooting of William Guest, held at the Spring Creek Commissioner’s Camp (near where the Beechworth courthouse stands today), local police and government officials suppressed key evidence to cover-up their own mismanagement and corruption.

In response, the gold diggers of the Ovens called for an independent inquiry into the circumstances of William Guest’s shooting and into the conduct of local officials, specifying that the inquiry should be conducted by parties wholly unconnected with those responsible for the shooting — the Gold Commission and the Police.

When Governor LaTrobe made clear that his government would hold a closed inquiry – from which the press was to be barred, and which would be run by the head of the department (Chief Gold Commissioner William Wright) about which the diggers were complaining – the diggers realised that they would not receive a fair hearing.

Led by Dr John Owens, the diggers resolutely refused to accept that their government — to which they paid taxes in the form of a gold license fee, but for which they were not able to vote — could respond to serious breaches of public trust by conducting closed inquiries into itself. At a public meeting held on Spring Creek, Dr Owens said:

‘We pay our license fee month after month, trusting to the integrity of the Government: bred to respect the law, we expect to be secured the upright and efficient administration of the law.’

Dissatisfied with the government’s conduct, on 2 April 1853 at Spring Creek, the Beechworth diggers then decided to do something which had not yet been done on any other goldfield in Australia: they decided to petition the government for the right to vote.

Today, when we look at their Petition, we can see embodied in it some timeless values.

Its call for a ‘full and fair’ franchise for people of all backgrounds and races: this spoke to the eternal need for equality between all people, and accountability in government to the people it serves.

Its call to replace the gold license tax with a tax which would be applied fairly across the community as a civic duty: this spoke to the call for fairness for all people.

Its call to dismantle the system of ‘Gold Commissioners’— a body of self-interested public officials who misused their power and public funds to benefit and protect themselves and their friends: this spoke to the need for public officials to act with integrity.

In 1853, Dr Owens warned that ‘if the government tenaciously refused to grant the rights of representation, the consequences would be fatal’.

This prophecy was borne out at the Eureka Rebellion, near Ballarat, in December 1854. However, thankfully, by that time, the key tenets of the ‘Beechworth Petition’ — notions of equality, accountability, fairness and integrity — were already coming to underpin what we comprehend today as values fundamental to the Australian democratic process.

Beechworth has a proud history of taking the principles of political representation seriously. In 1853 Dr Owens asked the people of Beechworth and the people of Australia:

 ‘Do you know what the word representation means? Of course you do! It means that if those who by wealth, or station or authority, are placed over you, do wrong, you have the power of compelling them to do right.’

Today, our heritage precinct in Beechworth – which features magnificent public buildings like the court house and post office beside the far more modest offices built for government officials – stands as a reminder written in stone. That the people do not serve the government; the government serves the people.


To this short speech, I would like to add the following contextual comments, explaining why I think the Ovens Petition was Beechworth’s finest hour.


John Owens: Beechworth’s founding father of Australian democracy.

The ‘Ovens Petition’ was finally submitted to the Victorian Legislative Council on 16 September 1853. The initial public meetings (in February, March and April) on the Ovens diggings had been led by Dr John Owens, whom the Ovens diggers had elected the ‘Diggers’ Representative’. In late April, Owens moved to Melbourne where he continued to advocate for the interests of the Ovens diggers, spreading their call for a ‘full and fair franchise’, and advocating not for a mere reduction in the gold license fee, but its compete abolition.

Meanwhile, in what was about to become the newly proclaimed town of Beechworth, the Chartist George Black took charge of the Ovens movement, organising the final public ‘Monster Meeting’ of thousands of diggers, which garnered support for the petition in its final form. George Black was the principal speaker at large public meetings held on the Spring Creek diggings in August 1853. Understanding the influence of both men — John Owens and George Black — is critical to comprehending the influence of the Ovens Petition on the Ballarat Reform League, and its role in the Eureka Rebellion.

John Owens had warned that ‘if the government tenaciously refused to grant the rights of representation, the consequences would be fatal.’ Unfortunately, the politicians and officials of the day did not heed his advice. In fact, political agitations on the goldfields proliferated. George Black moved from the Ovens diggings to Ballarat, where he acquired the reactionary newspaper The Digger’s Advocate, and where he became a founding member of the Ballarat Reform League. The Ballarat Reform League’s Charter fully adopted the stance established by the Ovens petitioners. The Reform League, like the Ovens Petitioners, had initially also held fast to the principle that political issues should be fought through ‘moral force’ and not physical force. However, in the wake of a heavily-armed police license raid on 30 November, 1854, the leadership of Reform League switched to Peter Lalor. Lalor also had been on the Ovens diggings around the time of the riot that took place at the time of the shooting of William Guest, and so he knew of and may have even witnessed the terrifying power of open resistance to the authorities.

The violence of the resulting Eureka Rebellion (December 1854) ran counter to one of the key tenets of the Ovens petitioners: that they ‘approved of “revolutionary principles”, but [were] of the opinion that they should be worked out by moral and not physical force.’ Although the sensational events of Eureka Stockade would become celebrated in history, these events can now be seen as an aberration in the Australian political landscape. It was, in fact, the Ovens Petitioners who gave Australia its preferred mode of grass-roots political activism. In the words of George Black, ‘express your will in the firm and determined manner, [and] you will accomplish your objects and obtain your rights: there is no need of force and of arms, for reason, mind, intelligence, are all-sufficient for the attainment of your rights.’

In the wake of the Eureka Rebellion, the government rapidly convened a Goldfields Commission (which sat for the first time on 14 December 1854). Their recommendations mirrored those put forward in the Ovens Petition of August 1853. On 27 March 1855, the Commission recommended the replacement of the gold license tax with an export duty on gold; the introduction of the Miner’s Right, which gave the holder the right to vote; and the abolition of the system of Gold Commissioners. All measures were quickly adopted by the Government. In two years the Ovens Petitioners had been largely vindicated, and although not all Victorian men would be able to vote until 1856, their efforts had irrevocably changed the political landscape of Australia.

Beechworth might be the first place in Australia in which people actively petitioned for the right to vote. If this could be firmly established, it would surely make Beechworth if not the birthplace of Australian democracy, then most certainly its place of conception.

In addition, the adherence of the Ovens Petitioners to non-violent political activism — the belief that ‘there is no need of force and of arms; for reason, mind, intelligence, are all-sufficient for the attainment of your rights’ — created a legacy of peaceful protest in the Australian political landscape which has since emerged in events such as the Women’s Suffrage Petition (‘Monster Petition’) of 1891, the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam of 1969, and the protests against the Franklin dam in 1982.

The calls of the Ovens Petitions for democratic rights and government accountability, as well as their legacy of peaceful protest conducted within constitutional means; continue to hold cultural currency in Australia. This history deserves to be celebrated with intense pride.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2020. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!


Mysterious Mogullumbidj — First People of Mount Buffalo


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Please note: this blog post has been superseded by a refereed academic paper, which expands and refines this content. If you are using this material for academic or professional purposes, please refer to:

Jacqui Durrant, ‘Mogullumbidj: First People of Mount Buffalo’, Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 91, Number 1, June 2020.

Who were the Mogullumbidj, what happened to them, and why aren’t they on any maps of Aboriginal Victoria?

Mount Buffalo

Looking towards Mount Buffalo, across the Ovens Valley from Reform Hill in Myrtleford (image: Jacqui Durrant, 2019)

I’ve titled this blog post ‘the Mysterious Mogullumbidj’. The reason why I describe the Mogullumbidj people as ‘mysterious’, is that as a historian looking through archival materials, I’ve found different groups of Aboriginal people, from the 1840s right through to the end of the 19th century — from locations from Mansfield to Melbourne and Omeo, referring to the people of Mount Buffalo as the ‘Mogullumbidj’ or ‘Mogullumbeek’ (or variations on these spellings), but today, this name is practically unknown outside of obscure academic and historical sources. You will not find Mogullumbidj on many maps of Aboriginal Victoria. Instead, you will sometimes find what to the untrained ear seems like a related term, but which is actually unrelated — ‘Minyambuta’. So the predominant questions I hope to answer in this post are — who were the Mogullumbidj, what happened to them, and why aren’t they ‘on the map’?

Aboriginal society in the alpine valleys of North East Victoria

In order to explain who the Aboriginal people of the Mount Buffalo and surrounding areas were, first it’s necessary to explain the structuring principles which organised Aboriginal society in this part of the world. 

To begin with, when talking about their social organisation with Europeans, it seems that historically, Aboriginal people always identified first and foremost the name of their local area group, which some anthropologists have referred to as ‘clans’, or more recently and more correctly (in my opinion) as ‘areal-moieties’ (a social group attached to a geographical area, with a ‘moiety’ also attached to that group). [1] Local groups actually comprised a number of smaller ‘patri-clans’, which were land-owning families headed up by the male head of that family, but when Aboriginal people identified themselves to Europeans, they generally named their local group (areal-moiety) first and foremost. In this blog post, I will simply refer to these areal-moieties as ‘local groups’. At this time — the 1830s and 1840s — local groups appear to have been the principal unit of identity from an Aboriginal point of view — as least in terms of defining an inherited attachment to an area of land, or rather, the right to manage, utilise and belong to a certain area of country. It’s thought that such a local group would typically comprise a few hundred individuals, [2] and usually they had a core area of country which Europeans would readily associate with the presence of that particular group. 

Only after a massive decline in the Aboriginal population which frequently reduced these local groups from a few hundred to a mere handful of survivors did Aboriginal peoples in north east Victoria begin to drop their local group names, and eventually replace them with the broader language-based names that we see today.

The territorial boundaries of these local groups were likely indicated by landscape features, and people from a different area needed permission to enter that country and make use of its resources. [3]

Each local group was essentially independent, and governed by collective decisions. Insofar as we know, each had one or two heads; who would provide guidance and advice during group discussions, and represent that group at larger meetings in which a number of local groups assembled to make joint decisions. These head positions were neither automatically inherited nor elected. Often a head person, towards the end of his or her life (because women also had some power), would nominate their successor, but that nominee still had to prove their competence and win endorsement. [4]

As an aside, there was communication across different language groups, so most adults were multi-lingual, and etiquette seems to have required that visitors to another language area should make polite efforts to substitute some words of that country. [5]

Usually, the actual name of this local group would have a suffix on the end which denoted its status as a local area group. Closer to Melbourne, the suffix was ‘—[w]illum’ (or ‘—yellum’) meaning ‘dwelling place’ or ‘—balluk’ meaning number of people. However, in north east Victoria, this suffix was ‘—mittung’ (or variations), which also meant a group or number of people. So you get names in the north east like Pallangan-middang, Djinning-mittung, Yait-mathang and so on. [6] Now, I can hear some brains ticking over, and you’re thinking — what about the Mogullumbidj? It’s a local group name, but it has no ‘—mittung’ or ‘—illum’ suffix on the end, which is one part of the mystery we’ll come to, but we do know that in all likelihood, they were a local group, because of the context in which their name was used.

The next tier in the social structure, is that ‘local groups’ were usually a part of a broader group sharing the same language — whether directly or in the form of a dialect. For many of these broader groups, stretching from Melbourne right into North East Victoria, the suffix used to denote these broader groups was ‘-(w)urrung’, which means mouth or speech. In simple terms ‘—wurrung’ denoted a collection of local groups sharing a language. The —wurrung suffix can be heard in the name of the North East Victorian group, Taungurung (Daung-wurrung), and also in ‘Woi-wurrung’, and ‘Ngaurai-illum wurrung’. Further to the north and north-east of the Taungurung, ‘—wurrung’ was replaced by ‘—wurru’, so that one finds a broader group named Waveroo (Way-wurru). The suffix ‘—wurru’ can even be found in a vestigial form in the language name Dhudhuroa (Dhu-dhu-[wu]rru-wa). [7]

In some cases, these broad language groups also considered themselves part of an even larger group, which have been described by non-Aboriginal people as ‘nations’ or ‘confederacies’. One of these ‘nations’, which reached from the Mornington Peninsula and Melbourne, right through the upper Goulburn and Campaspe River Valleys and into North East Victoria, at least as far as the Broken and Delatite Rivers, and perhaps further — was the ‘Kulin’ nation — a block of five broad language groups. All of the Kulin nation’s constituent members shared similar languages, as well as cultural practices and close diplomatic relations. [8]

So — local area group, language group, sometimes ‘nation’. Worth pointing out is Europeans have generally hopelessly confused these different elements in NE Victoria, especially on maps.

The other important organising principal of Aboriginal society within south-eastern Australia, which was generally invisible to Europeans, was the ‘moiety’ system. From the Port Phillip Bay area into North East Victoria and beyond in some cases, each local group belonged to either one of two moieties, which were named for the ancestral creation figures of Bunjil — the eagle hawk, and Waa — the crow. This division between the two moieties effectively divided society into two parts. If you were born into one moiety, you had to marry someone of the opposite moiety — necessarily someone of a different local group. Bunjil always married waa and vice versa. Women went to live on their husband’s country — sometimes to quite distant localities. Moiety affiliations shaped patterns of intermarriage, and therefore also reciprocal rights to resources. As the late anthropologist Diane Barwick once wrote of the Kulin peoples, through the moiety system, ‘District loyalties were thereby extended, and travel and trade with more remote areas were encouraged by the resulting web of kinship ties.’ [9]

One thing we can say about the Mogullumbidj, from information collected by nineteenth century anthropologist Alfred Howitt, who interviewed Wurundjeri elder William Barak, is that the Mogullumbidj were Bunjil — eagle hawk moiety,  which meant that they could have, for example, intermarried with their immediate neighbours to the south, a Taungurung local group of the Mansfield area, Yowen-illum-balak, but not with their Pallangan-middang neighbours just over in Whorouly, Milawa and Beechworth area, who were also Bunjil. [10] In theory, they also could have intermarried with groups like Wurundjeri-illum, a waa local group, whose country reached along the south banks of the Yarra River from about Blackburn, right up to the Northern slopes of the Dandenong ranges. Certainly, Mogullumbidj and Dhudhuroa peoples were remembered by William Barak as having visited their ‘friends at the Dandenong mountain.’ This friendship probably came from kinship ties. [11]

Diplomatic, trade and kinship ties with other groups

The next thing I want to talk about is whether the Mogullumbidj were, like the Taungurung local groups, part of the ‘Kulin nation’.  Right now, it’s of great topical interest that the modern-day Taungurung Lands and Waters Council to the south, which represent the Taungurung peoples of the ‘Kulin nation’, have become the Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) for an area including Mount Buffalo  — and this claim has been challenged by other local Aboriginal groups. Consequently, I thought I would pose the question as to whether or not the Mogullumbidj can be considered a Taungurung local group, or more broadly, a Kulin local group. I think this is a worthwhile question — not because there is an easy answer, but because in attempting to answer that question, we can actually get a real insight into the complexity of local Aboriginal society at the time of European settlement.

In late 1838, what would become North East Victoria was being ‘settled’ by European pastoralists, and the following year, the colonial government of NSW, appointed its first ‘Aboriginal Protectorate’ for the Port Philip district (which would become Victoria). Headed up by a Chief Protector, George Augustus Robinson, the Protectorate was a mere handful of men, ‘Assistant Protectors’, each stationed in a different area, supposedly to look out for the interests of Aboriginal peoples whose lands had been invaded. The Protectorate was hopelessly underfunded, under-staffed and generally powerless. Despite calls from the Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, [12] no Assistant Protector was ever appointed to oversee this north east region. The notes of George Augustus Robinson and his Assistant Protectors, have provided an invaluable historical record of early Aboriginal Victoria, but none them were ever stationed in North East Victoria, or visited certain parts of North East Victoria like Mount Buffalo. This is a major reason why we have nothing recorded about the Mogullumbidj that has come from the Mogullumbidj people themselves. Instead, we only have information about the Mogullumbidj that has come from what Aboriginal people from other areas told various officers of the Aboriginal Protectorate. However, from Aboriginal people who spoke to George Augustus Robinson, and one of his Assistant Protectors, James Dredge, in the 1840s, we know that the Mogullumbidj people of the Buffalo River had country that extended to the south at least as far as Dandongadale and the Wabonga Plateau, to the back of Mount Buller. [13] Beyond this, we know next to nothing about the extent of their country other than what we can establish by exclusion: the fact that they were bounded by country associated with a Gunai-Kurnai local group on the Dargo High Plains, [14] and by the Pallangan-middang local group, whose country included Whorouly, and the King River Valley as far as the confluence of the King and Ovens River at Wangaratta. [15] The Mogullumbidj also would have had various Dhudhuroa-speaking neighbours to their north east and east. [16]

The Kulin peoples to the south, [17] and other people of the Victorian alpine region, [18] referred to the people of the Buffalo River as ‘Mo-gullum-bidj’ or variations of this (like ‘Mokeallumbeet’). As I said before, this name has no typical north-east Victorian suffix of ‘—mittung’ on the end, and nor does it have a typical Kulin suffix of ‘—illum’ or ‘—baluk’ on the end. Almost all the Taungurung local groups had an ‘—illum or ‘—baluk’ suffix, donating Kulin connections, but not so with the Mogullumbidj. It is possible that ‘—bidj’ is an actual suffix, and that it denotes something in particular, but unfortunately we just don’t know. And there are other possible explanations — that ‘Mogullumbidj’ may have, for example, been a descriptive term, applied by other peoples who for some reason didn’t want to speak the ‘Mogullumbidj’s’ self-designated name aloud. Ian Clark has also come up with alternative theories for their unusual name. [19] In essence, their name alone cannot help us understand their cultural position, other than to suggest something separate or possibly special about them.

So if their actual name tells us very little about where they fit in culturally, then perhaps we can consider their diplomatic relations with other groups: Who were they on good terms with, for trade and cultural exchange; and who were they hostile towards? In 1844, George Augustus Robinson undertook a journey which took him through Gippsland, Omeo, and the Monaro, to Twofold Bay (Eden), then over to Albury and back down to Melbourne. [20] For the part of the journey which would take him to Omeo, he was guided by an Aboriginal man from Omeo, whose conferred name was ‘Charley’, and it was Charley who explained to Robinson that ‘The Yowenillum are mermate with Mokeallumbeet, then Dodora, then Kinimittum, then Omeo.’ [21] The term ‘mermate’ or ‘mey-met’ means that the Yowung-illum-balluk were on unfriendly terms with the Mogullumbidj, Dodora, Djinning-mittung and Yaitmathang, which were all adjoining groups of the alpine valleys. Whether Charley was overstating the fact about this Taungurung group being at odds with the others, or over-simplifying things for Robinson, we’ll never know. But what’s interesting about this grouping is that the local groups are actually listed in consecutive geographical order from west to east — suggesting that Charley had a very clear picture in his mind of this allied block of alpine peoples reaching from Mount Buffalo to Omeo.

The same local group names appeared again in Robinson’s journal, written while he was on the Tambo River. He recorded that ‘Two miles above the crossing place up the stream is the spot where a great slaughter of Gipps Land blacks by the Omeo and the Mokeallumbeets and Tinnermittum, their allies, took place; [I] was shown the spot by… Charley…’ [22] Once again, this can be seen as an expression of an alpine-based group alliance against a common enemy, in this case, the Kurnai peoples of Gippsland.

So there’s some evidence that the Mogullumbidj were on unfriendly terms with the Kurnai and perhaps some Taungurung local groups, and that they were allied in battle with other alpine groups. However, what I can now say, with the overview that a historical perspective provides, is that Robinson’s guide Charley was seemingly unaware of what was then a very recent event — and this was that, only the preceding summer to that journey with Robinson, the Mogullumbidj had actually travelled to Melbourne and undertaken a special new ceremony (called a ‘Gaiggip’) with the Yowung-illum-balluk and other Kulin groups in order to ‘make friends’. [23]

That summer of 1843-44, the Mogullumbidj people visited Yarra Bend (where Merri Creek meets the Yarra) in Melbourne, for a large ceremonial gathering with Kulin peoples, which involved 800 people of seven different groups. The ‘gaiggip’ ceremony, which they had brought with them, was recorded in a good amount of detail at the time by another Assistant Protector of Aborigines in Melbourne, William Thomas. He wrote that the ceremony, which ran for six days, consisted of seven different dances: the first six involved an individual weapon of war, but the 7th dance was with a leafy bough — the emblem of peace. Each group was represented by its own bark emblem ‘each of which has a division of seven patches of “wurup” (an emblem of joy & cheerfulness), and at the end of the ceremony, these were ‘collected together and put in the centre of the encampment in silence, proclaiming goodwill to all around.’ [24]

One can speculate that when the Mogullumbidj participated in the gaiggip ceremony in Melbourne to ‘make friends’ with the various Kulin groups, that they were in the process of realigning their diplomatic relations, and perhaps were even being newly incorporated into the Kulin polity. This should be considered in context: that the early 1840s was an unprecedented period of social turmoil and upheaval, in which Aboriginal people were dealing with a horrific destruction of their lands and people — and that this social upheaval may have encouraged previously disparate Aboriginal groups to unite in their common struggle for cultural, spiritual and everyday survival.

Indeed one newspaper report of the day, in which a European man asked some Kulin people what the gaiggip was about, he recorded that the ceremony was ‘an incantation — the intention of which is to remove the terrible epidemic under which so many of them are labouring.’ [25] I’m certain that this was an extraordinarily over-simplified explanation, but it still conveys a sense of urgent response to the circumstances of the day.

What language did the Mogullumbidj speak?

The other thing we might consider about the Mogullumbidj in trying to determine where they fit in culturally, is to ask what language they spoke. In Melbourne, assistant protector William Thomas did manage to record six words of Mogullumbidj language. Six words isn’t a lot to go on, but on the basis of what we have, leading La Trobe University linguist Stephen Morey has concluded that the Mogullumbidj clearly spoke Dhudhuroa language. [26]

And there’s other evidence to suggest they spoke at least a form of Dhudhuroa language. Just after the turn of the century, amateur ethnographer RH Mathews interviewed a Djinning-mittang man from the lower Mitta Mitta valley, Neddy Wheeler, who said that his people spoke Dhudhuroa, and that surrounding peoples south of the Murray River spoke — at least what Mathews recorded as a ‘dialect of Dhudhuroa’ — called ‘Minyambuta.’ According to Mathews, Minyambuta was spoken from Wangaratta to Bright, to Beechworth, Mount Buffalo, and even in Benalla. [27]  Supporting evidence includes that in 1844, a Pallanganmiddang man Mol.le.min.ner gave George Augustus Robinson a vocabulary of his own peoples’ language (which Robinson recorded as ‘Pallangan-middang’), but Mol.le.min.ner also added that when at Yackandandah, his people spoke ‘Min-u-buddong’. [28] Decades later, when Alfred Howitt asked the Wurunjeri elder William Barak if he could remember what language the Mogullumbidj spoke, he answered ‘Yambun’, which sounds like a foreshortened version of Min-yambun. [29] So we have three historical records of the term: ‘Minyambuta’ ‘Minubuddong’ and (possibly) Min-‘yambun’. There is just one complicating factor in all this — that Mathews’ description of the area in which Minyambuta was spoken, overlaps heavily with the area in which Pallangan-middang was spoken, so either Minyambuta and Pallanganmiddang are the same language (bearing in mind that Pallanganmiddang had a 25% commonality with Dhudhuroa), [30] or that one language gradually ‘bled’ into the other depending on your location and perhaps who you were talking with — meaning that Minyambuta was the term for this ‘language strategy,’ rather than an actual dialect.

(As an aside, it is important to note that ‘Minyambuta’ is language term, not a people, and also that it is certainly not a word meaning ‘hills and ranges’ — even though Norman Tindale mapped it in 1974 seemingly as a people who lived among hills and ranges! Also, if you see it spelled ‘Minjambuta,’ the use of the J in place of a Y simply reflects a fashion in linguistics from the 1970s. You will also see Yorta Yorta appear on maps in the 1970s as Jota Jota.)

The bottom line is that in Melbourne, William Thomas was so proficient in Woiwurrung and Boonwurrung languages that he could deliver parts of his religion sermons in those Kulin languages, [31] but when he heard Mogullumbidj people speaking, it was incomprehensible to him. [32] Therefore it is unlikely the Mogullumbidj spoke a Kulin language as their first language.

And there is one other point worth considering about language. The song performed at the gaiggip ceremony, which was brought to Melbourne by the Mogullumbidj and their Taungurung neighbours, and was written down, seems to have been sung in one of the Yuin languages [33] — which I  note includes Ngarigu, which was spoken in different forms from the Snowy Mountains to the Monaro and Omeo. The presence of this language at a ceremony in Melbourne demonstrates a great cultural connectivity between the Aboriginal groups of the alpine areas from the Snowy mountains right down to Mount Buffalo and Mount Buller.

The Mogullumbidj and cultural knowledge

Despite the fact that we know very little about the exact place of the Mogullumbidj in the wider Aboriginal society, we do know that they were a people who held significant, sacred cultural knowledge. When in 1843, William Thomas inquired with a Taungurung man about the history of the gaiggip ceremony that had been brought to Melbourne with the Mogullumbidj, he was told in no uncertain terms that there was, in the Alps, a group of Aboriginal people called the Bul-lun.ger.metum (Bullunger-mittung) who lived in stone houses of their own making, and who never went out to seek their own food, but instead ate herbs and relied on what others brought them, and they focused solely on creating new sacred songs and dances. [34] These people were something akin to a superior religious class, but which Thomas would later classify as Aboriginal druids. [35] These ‘great wise blacks’ were responsible for teaching song and dance to people from Omeo, to Mansfield, Benalla and Wangaratta, and as far as the Murrumbidgee River and even to Eden on the coast. And when one of these groups had a gaiggip ceremony with another, from that time they were friends. [36]

Moreover, different Aboriginal peoples sent their own ‘doctors’ to these druids in order to learn, but by the same token, the druids were able to make other people dream, or they could appear before them, to show them new dances (and by the term ‘dances’, we should infer a much deeper form of sacred and cultural knowledge than what non-Aboriginal peoples would generally imagine). Thomas also would later write that ‘I am informed that from these sages of the rocks or druids have sprung [this] new series of sacred dances with such curious effigies, altogether new from any thing that has as yet been heard or seen among the Aborigines of Victoria.’ [37]

Clearly, if the Mogullumbidj weren’t the actual druids in question, they were in close contact with them, and able to transmit the sacred cultural and spiritual information encoded in these new forms of ceremony, song and dance, to the wider world.

When the revered head man of the Mogullumbidj, Kullakullup, came to Melbourne in March 1845, [38] he was of advanced age, but hundreds of people from different Kulin groups assembled at what is now Yarra Bend park to receive his teachings. Thomas wrote that, ‘the sight was truly imposing’… Kullakullup was idolised to the point where at each daybreak people assembled in crescent rows, and sat in profound silence while, in Thomas’s words, the ‘Old Patriarch would be holding forth as though laying down some code of laws for their guidance or giving instructions… I often endeavour’d to catch his words and pencil them down as well as I could but in vain, the old Idol and Chief would immediately stop on my approach.’ [39]

Thomas eventually made inquiries with one of the men attending Kullakullup’s teachings — Billibellary, who was an influential Wurunjeri head-man and song-man in his own right. Billibellary told William Thomas that Kullerkullup had spoken of this class of druid-like people who lived in the Alps who created corroborees for everyone, and Kullerkullup also said that he received corroborees communicated to him in dreams. It is likely that Billibellary was not communicating to Thomas the full scope of what was being taught by Kullakullup, but Thomas was left with the impression that the much venerated headman had been ‘laying down some code of laws (for their guidance) or giving instructions’. [40] Unfortunately for us, this seems to be the only remaining record we have of this venerable headman of Mount Buffalo.

What happened to the Mogullumbidj people?

In North East Victoria, there was a huge decline in the local Aboriginal population from mid-1838 onwards. For years this was blamed in retrospect on the introduction of European diseases, and then the excess consumption of alcohol. And it is true that lethal new diseases like small pox and syphilis brought on a massive loss of life and also caused infertility.

However, the population decline among local Aboriginal people in the immediate decade from 1838 onwards was predominantly by illegal poisoning and shooting, carried out by European settlers. When asked about this population decline 20 years later, at an 1858 Select Committee of the NSW Legislative Council, most of those questioned — all European men of some social and economic standing from around Victoria — avoided the awful truth by referring only to events of the preceding decade. However, Mr Wills of Omeo replied, ‘The mortality has been… caused by intoxicating drinks and the worst form of venereal disease, and last though not least, by gunshot wounds inflicted by stockmen.’ [41]

Can we say that this happened to the Mogullumbidj people of Mount Buffalo?

When visiting the region in February 1841, a little over two years after the first permanent arrival of Europeans, George Augustus Robinson wrote of pastoralist George Faithfull at Oxley on the King River, that ‘Faithful has the credit for having shot a number of blacks in his time and for having encouraged his men who were convicts.’ [42] Faithful even later recorded in a letter to Govenor La Trobe his shooting of Aboriginal people on the King River; [43] and towards the end of his life, Faithfull’s stockman James Howard would reminiscence in The Argus newspaper about Faithfull’s men having shot more than 200 Aboriginal people in one day, leaving bodies along the river. [44] 

Significantly, it was George Faithful and his brutal convict servants who were the first to take up the Buffalo River area as a heifer station in the summer of 1839-40. [45] At the time it was a remote location beyond the reach of the Border Police, and there is no record of what happened. Sadly, this post cannot begin to touch on the level of brutality of the Europeans at this time, the factors which enabled the massacres to happen and go unpunished, and the impact that this had on Aboriginal people.

However, it is worth noting that some Aboriginal people in north east Victoria survived and did their utmost to stay on country; and that they retained their traditional seasonal patterns of movement well after European settlement, for as long as possible. Certainly, in Beechworth, the gold rush era of the 1850s overlapped with Aboriginal people still living a traditional lifestyle, as best they could manage. We even have a photograph of Aboriginal people in the Mount Buffalo area probably from the late 19th century, who are clearly living a partly Europeanised but still partly traditional existence, and we know that they continued to use a campsite at Nug Nug until the closing decades of the 19th century. [46] While some were pushed onto religious missions and government reserves off country, others integrated into European society as station-hands and household servants — their children and grandchildren progressively concealed their Aboriginality, and so they disappeared from the historical record, but interestingly, some are now being rediscovered as ancestors, by their descendants of today.

To return to my initial questions, of who were the Mogullumbidj, what happened to them, and why aren’t the Mogullumbidj ‘on the map’? The answer to who they were is complicated: they were a local group who considered the Buffalo River valley a part of their country, and who — at least around the time of early Aboriginal-European contact — had alliances against common foes with a range of ‘—mittung’ local groups of the alpine valleys and ranges, not just on the western side of the Alps, but over to Omeo. The Mogullumbidj were, it seems, one possible conduit through which a special class of stone-house-dwelling Aboriginal ‘druids’ passed on new and sacred forms of song and dance; and they also had a widely revered headman in Kullakullup, who transmitted valuable cultural and spiritual information from the alps to as far away as as Melbourne. And within a few years of European settlement, it seems that the Mogullumbidj were either forging new, or strengthen existing, diplomatic relations with the Kulin peoples. Why aren’t they on most maps? The short answer is that local group names, or ‘clan’ names, particularly in north east Victoria, rapidly fell from use, and instead have been replaced with broader language-based group names. The debate about which broader group name should be associated with the people of Mount Buffalo is still continuing among Aboriginal groups today.


[1] Tony Jeffries, ‘The Eastern Kulin Confederacy: Did it exist? If so, what were its features?’ Forthcoming paper to be published in Artefact (journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria).
[2] Gary Presland, First People: The Eastern Kulin of Melbourne, Port Phillip & Central Victoria, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 2010, p.18.
[3] Diane Barwick, ‘Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904,’ Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984, pp100-131. This reference, p. 106; Gary Presland, op. cit. p.16.
[4] Diane Barwick, ibid., pp: 107-8.
[5] Diane Barwick, ibid., p.105.
[6] Diane Barwick, ibid, p.106, including footnote 9.
[7] Clark, Ian, ‘Aboriginal languages in North-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): 2-22 [see this discussion of ‘Waywurru’ in this paper]; Barry J. Blake and Julie Reid, ‘The Dhudhuroa language of northeastern Victoria: a description based on historical sources,’ ABORIGINAL HISTORY, 2002, VOL 26, pp: 177-210, this reference, p.179
[8] Diane Barwick, op. cit., pp:104-6.; Gary Presland, op. cit.
[9] Diane Barwick, ibid, p.105.
[10] A large list of areal-moieties is contained in Alfred Howitt’s notebook XM690; and information specifically about the Mogullumbidj appears in Alfred Howitt’s notebook XM765, p.12 (both held in Museum of Victoria archives).
[11] Alfred Howitt notebook: hw0391 ‘Notes by Howitt on Kulin from Barak,’ p.96. This is held at the State Library of Victoria.
Barak explains to Howitt that it was Theddora-mittung (Dhudhuroa) who came to Melbourne as ‘friends of the Kulin of the Dandenong Mountain’, and this is discussed in relation to visits of the Mogullumbidj to Melbourne.
[12] British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Conditions of Aborigines, House of Commons, Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627; p.85-87-96; p,106, p.124, p.237-238, p.281. This reference, p.109. Robinson wrote: ‘I am induced under the current circumstances to recommend a subordinate agent be appointed to the Ovens district.’
[13] Assistant Protector of Aborigines James Dredge told George Augustus Robinson that the Mogullumbidj occupied country on ‘Hunter and Watson’s outermost station’. [James Dredge, cited by Robinson, 9 April 1840, in Ian Clark (ed.), The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, and this same information was repeated to Robinson by a group of Kulin speakers in Taungurung lands, to the effect that the Mogullumbidj lived on country at Hunter and Watson’s beyond Marine and Warinebut, to the SE.’ [Robinson, 1 June 1840] (That is beyond Marine and Warinebut, meaning Mount Buller and Timbertop).
[14] Alfred Howitt, notebook XM690, p.51; held at Museum of Victoria archives; accessible (with other materials referenced here) via the Howitt and Fison Archives.
[15] The evidence for this is contained in my essay ‘Who were the Aboriginal people of Beechworth? A historical perspective’ published on this blog.
[16] Clark, Ian, ‘Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang languages and social groups in north-east Victoria – a reconstruction,’ ABORIGINAL HISTORY, 2009 VOL 33, pp.201-229, offers the best explanation to date of the Dhudhuroa and Yaitmathang areal moiety groups. For all that Clark gets right, I do not agree completely with his assessment of the Yaitmathang, but this is a matter unrelated to this post.
[17] Alfred Howitt’s information from William Barak, is an example of a Kulin person referring to the ‘Mogullum-bitch’. (See: Alfred Howitt, hw0391 Notes by Howitt on Kulin from Barak, p.96 held at the State Library of Victoria.)
[18] An example of an Omeo (Yaitmathang) man referring to the ‘Mokeallumbeet’ is found in the The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, entry for 3 June 1844.
[19] Ian Clark, ‘Aboriginal language areas in Northeast Victoria: ‘Mogullumbidj’ reconsidered.’ Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 81 Issue 2 (Nov 2010), 181-192.
[20] George Mackaness (ed.), George Augustus Robinson’s journey into south-eastern Australia, 1844, with George Henry Haydon’s narrative of part of the same journey. Australian Historical Monographs, Volume XIX, Sydney, 1941.
[21] The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, entry for 3 June 1844.
[22] Robinson, entry for 15 June 1844.
[23] Excerpt from a ‘
Quarterly Report from 1 Dec 1843 to 1 March 1844′ by William Thomas, contained in: Marguerita Stephens, The Journal of William Thomas, Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip & Guardian to the Aborigines of Victoria 1839-1867, Volume One: 1839-1843, VCAL, Melbourne, 2014, page 572-3, footnote 240. See also the same transcribed in: Christie, M F, 1979. Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835-1886. Sydney University Press, p.19. Note: Stephens had partly mis-transcribed the Report, and my information comes from a combination of Christie and Stephens.
[24] ibid.
‘ORIGINAL CORRESPONDENCE. ABORIGINAL CEREMONY.’ Letter from J. H. McCabe, published in the Port Philip Gazette, Saturday, 11 February, 1843, p.3.
[26] Stephen Morey, Indigenous Songs of Victoria, in section ‘ The Tanderrum Ceremony,’ publication forthcoming, hopefully soon in 2020. (Personal comment: I believe this book will become extremely important in our understanding of Aboriginal Victoria.)
[27] R. H. Matthews, MS 8006, Series 3, Item 4, Volume 2 [Marked on notebook ‘6’], pp.38, 40; and R H Mathews, MS8006 Series 5 File 3 Box 6, ‘The Dhudhuroa Language,’ material held at National Library of Australia.
It is very important to note that Matthews’ writings, after having communicated with Dhudhuroa-speaker Neddy Wheeler, are the primary source of the term ‘Minyambuta’, and are also the sole source used by Tindale, who actually mapped it in 1974 as if the term referred to an identifiable people. When one reads Matthews’ manuscript materials, it is apparent that it is not a people.
[28] Journals of George Augustus Robinson (ed. Ian Clark), entry for 30 September, 1844.
[29] Diane Barwick, manuscript material MS 13521, at the State Library of Victoria, Series 4, 4006, folder 1248.
In a note at the bottom of a page on the ‘Mokalumbeets’, Barwick has written ‘Mo-gullum-bitch tribe of Buffalo Rivber – name of language was Yambun  (Shaw to Howitt 27.7.00) (says Barak), and in pencil ‘Barak info in 1900 letter Shaw to Howitt named language of Mogullumbitch is Yambun’. (Personal comment: I have not been able to locate the original letter yet. If you know of its whereabouts, please let me know.)
[30] Barry J. Blake and Julie Reid, ‘Pallanganmiddang: a language of the Upper Murray,’ Aboriginal History, 1999, Vol. 23, pp.15-30. This reference, p.17.
[31] Throughout William Thomas’s journal (Stephens, Volume One, op. cit.) one can see Thomas initially lamenting his lack of Aboriginal language skills, and his intentional building of those skills so that he can give lessons and sermons using local languages.
[32] William Thomas wrote in his journal on 22 March 1845 of the Mogullumbidj  ‘I cannot understand a word of their language.’ in Marguerita Stephens, The Journal of William Thomas, Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip & Guardian to the Aborigines of Victoria 1839-1867, Volume Two: 1844-1853, VCAL, Melbourne, 2014, p.94.
[33] Stephen Morey, op. cit., in the section ‘ Text of the Gaiggip and notes on the analysis’. On the basis of linguistic analysis, Morey notes: ‘It seems possible that the language of this Gaiggip was either Gippsland or one of the Yuin languages. ‘ I would personally suggest that it was far more likely to have been a Yuin language, and most likely Ngarigu, based on the poor diplomatic relationship with the Gippsland peoples at this time, and the strong possibility of kin and other relations between the various alpine peoples.
[34] William Thomas in Stephens, Volume One, op. cit. For the actual name of the Aboriginal ‘druids,’ which Thomas records as having the name Bullunger-metum (in which the suffix —metum is a cognate of the common alpine suffix —mittung), see Morey, op cit.
[35] William Thomas, in Stephens, Volume One, ibid.
[36] ibid.
[37] William Thomas in ‘Paper No.11 ‘Superior Races’ sent to Duffy on 13 July 1858,’ in Marguerita Stephens, The Journal of William Thomas, Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip & Guardian to the Aborigines of Victoria 1839-1867, Volume Two: 1844 to 1853, VCAL, Melbourne, 2014, page 95, continuation of footnote 49.
[38] William Thomas, ‘Writing’ entitled “Native Encampment”, (The fourth of the papers prepared by William Thomas for Charles Gavan Duffy and sent in on 25/5/58. [Box 3 item 1/R3f59], Mitchell Library) in Marguerita Stephens, The Journal of William Thomas, Assistant Protector of the Aborigines of Port Phillip & Guardian to the Aborigines of Victoria 1839-1867, Volume Two: 1844 to 1853, VCAL, Melbourne, 2014, page 94, footnote 49.
[39] ibid.
[40] ibid.
[41] REPORT SELECT COMMITTEE OF THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL — THE ABORIGINES; John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1858-9, p.29.
[42] Journals of George Augustus Robinson (ed. Ian Clark), entry for: Monday, 15 February 1841.
[43] Letter from George Faithfull to Lieutenant-Governor LaTrobe, Letter number No. 27. in Thomas Francis McBride (ed.) Letters from Victorian Pioneers, A Series of Papers on the Early Occupation of the Colony, the Aborigines, etc, Addressed by Victorian Pioneers to His Excellency Charles Joseph LaTrobe, Esq, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria, Trustees of the Public Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 1898.
Faithfull describes the site of the shooting as being on an ‘anabranch’ of the River, which when correlated with stockman James Howard’s account (footnote below), would appear to be Hurdle Creek on the King River.
[44] ‘SETTLEMENT IN THE KELLY COUNTRY (BY OUR SPECIAL REPORTER),’ The Argus, 13 September, 1883, p.9.
[45] ‘COUNTRY NEWS. (From various Correspondents) THE OVENS,’ The Sydney Herald, 8 July 1840, p.1
[46] Kay Robertson, Myrtleford, Gateway to the Alps, Rigby, Adelaide, 1973, p.98.

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First people of Beechworth — answering some criticisms


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WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In particular, I acknowledge the Aboriginal ancestors whose words are quoted within this post, with the greatest respect for their legacy.

This post relates to my previous post on the Pallanganmiddang — First Peoples of Beechworth and Beyond, addressing some potential criticisms of the research. Be warned: it is technical!

In my last post, I stated that from a historical perspective, the first people of the Beechworth region, and in fact a much broader area, were a local area group (in anthropological language, an ‘areal-moiety’ grouping, ie: belonging to an area, with a moiety attached), called the Pallangan-middang. The Pallangan-middang spoke a unique language which was neither Pangerang/Yorta Yorta, nor Dhudhuroa. They also appear in multiple detailed references in one historical source (the journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines) as a sub-set of a larger group called the Waywurru (Waveroo).

Since the last post was published, I have had some suggestions which in turn constitute arguments to the effect that I (and others) have misinterpreted the historical source materials. The body of this argument is that when Europeans talked to Aboriginal people and then tried to write down what they said, they got it wrong. One reason they got it wrong is because Aboriginal languages are difficult for Europeans to interpret and transcribe. Another reason is that they didn’t understand Aboriginal culture and frequently misinterpreted things. As a professional historian who trained at a university (La Trobe University), whose history department was internationally known for its ‘ethnographic history’, I was exposed to individual historians who made it their life’s work to grapple specifically with these kinds of historical problems. In a nutshell, these issues of cross-cultural interpretation do constitute real problems for historians. No sound historian would negate that argument, and would always seek strategies to attempt to compensate for the possibility of such misreadings.

Conversely, to consign to the ‘rubbish bin’ written historical source materials just because they were created by European colonisers, would mean losing a lot of valuable information. Very few scholars of Victorian Aboriginal history (Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal), would consign the massive journals of writers like George Augustus Robinson or William Thomas, written mainly in the 1840s, to the bin — no matter how offensive some of the actions of these individuals with regards to Aboriginal people were. All historians should be suspicious of what their sources have to say, and attempt to ‘test them’ using historiographical  practices such as cross-referencing, and placing source materials in their correct historical context.

Particularly when talking in a public forum, it is difficult to counter-argue an argument against one’s own work without actually pulling out enormous wads of source materials in order to demonstrate to lay people in the audience that I have already considered certain potential errors and done my best to compensate for the possibility of these errors. However, I would like to take this opportunity to address four specific arguments which suggest my work is the result of faulty interpretation of the historical source materials. I cannot prevent people from reading primary source materials however they like. However, I can at least respond to criticisms of my own work by explaining how I have gone about some specific points in relation to my interpretation of primary source materials.

Counter argument 1: ‘In the historical records, Pallanganmiddang is just a misspelling of Pangerang. They are the same thing.’

This argument was systematically dismantled by historian Dr Marie Hansen Fels in her monumental report ‘These Singular People — The Ovens Blacks, Supplementary Report, 28 July 1997’ written in response to anthropologist Rod Hagen’s critique of her initial report, produced for the Yorta Yorta Native Title case during the mid-1990s. However, because this report was never published, this argument continues to be raised.

My response to the argument that Pallanganmiddang is a misspelling of Pangerang runs like this: Yes, Europeans did struggle with spelling Aboriginal names and words, and frequently, they spelled the same name or word in several different ways. Aboriginal cultures were oral cultures, and there were no conventional ways of spelling Aboriginals names and words. However, when one sees attempts to write certain words written enough times, one can discern a similarity between these various attempts at spelling, which unifies them.

In Victoria generally, some common issues arise in spelling, which can be easily accounted for, if one is aware of them. The first is to do with the way Europeans struggled to record the sounds ‘P’ and ‘B’ which as a consequence are used interchangeably. Even today, as well as historically, one may often see ‘Pangerang’ written as ‘Bangerang’ (or even Bpangerang), but we are all aware that Pangerang, Bangerang and Bpangerang refer to the same group. Certainly one also finds, in the historical sources, Pallanganmiddang also written a ‘B’ instead of a ‘P’. (The same kid of transposition often occurs with the sounds ‘T’, ‘K’ and ‘Dj’.)

The second issue with spelling is cultural: it seems that the Pallanganmiddang people frequently deployed the Kulin areal-moiety (local area) group suffix ‘—illum’ instead of the north east Victorian alpine areal-moiety (local area) group suffix ‘—mittung’, depending largely on where they were in the landscape. So it is possible to see the name appearing as Pallangan-illum, or, Ballangan-illum, as well as Pallengan-mittung. (One also sees the second ‘a’ replaced with an ‘i’, and the third ‘a’ replaced with an ‘o’ — especially in geographical zones associated with Kulin peoples. So one sees Ballingo-illum, Ballingon-illum, or variations of this.)

In fact, we do see a lot of spelling variation in Robertson of the name Pallanganmiddang. However, he does spell Pangerang rather consistently throughout as ‘Pingerine’. Take, for instance, Robinson’s first visit into North East Victoria. On 20 April 1840, at Brodribb’s station on the Broken River (near Benalla), he meets a number of Aboriginal men, who may be passing through, or may be station workers. He writes:

‘We ascertained these natives belong to or were parts of three tribes [in fact, he goes on to list four, but I will list the two relevant to this discussion!]:
1. Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo, so says Mr Brodribb (queri)

4. And the Pine.ger.rines, a large tribe inhabiting the country on the south and south west banks of the Murry.’

From this excerpt we can see that Robinson has clearly met two different groups, the Ballingoyallums and the Pinegerines.

The following February (1841) Robinson revisits north east Victoria, and on the 9th and 10th of February, he meets with a large mixed group of Aboriginal people on Bontharambo station (just out of Wangaratta). He sits down and records their names, gender, ages, what groups they belong to, and sometimes their kin relationship. On the 23 February 1841, he writes down his findings. He records the names of around 15 people who are specifically ‘Pallengoillum’ or ‘Pallengomitty,’ belonging to the ‘Waveroo’ or ‘Wave.veroo’ ‘nation’, plus another 10 or so generally Waveroo people. He also records about 28 ‘Pinegerine’ people. (As an aside, Robinson also records roughly equal numbers of Wiradjuri and Taungurung people on the same site on that occasion.) Insofar as I can see, Robinson has interviewed in this instance, around 95 people, and within that large group he has clearly identified people who are ‘Pallengoillum’/’Pallengomitty’ (Pallanganillum/Pallanganmiddang) as well as people who are ‘Pinegerine’ (Pangerang). The two groups are clearly identified, with exceptional clarity, as separate groups.

Counter argument 2: ‘Waywurru is really a misspelling of the Melbourne broader group Woiwurrung.’

This could easily be a legitimate concern. The argument runs along the lines that when Robinson was in north east Victoria, he was meeting a lot of Woiwurrung people who were in transit, using the Port Phillip route (ie: the modern day Hume Freeway, which was the original overlanding track), as a means of travel. Thus he was meeting Woiwurrung in North East Victoria, and he recorded them as ‘Waywurru’ (in fact, variations of this spelling such as ‘Wee-her-roo,’ ‘Waveroo’ and so on).

This seems plausible until one realises that Robinson had spent a lot of time in Melbourne around the Woiwurrung and that he could identify this language when he heard it spoken. However, in north east Victoria, he clearly treats the ‘Wee-her-roo,’ or ‘Wave-veroo’ as a new and unknown group, which he has to learn about. Whenever Robinson was unsure about something, and knew he had to continue to check the facts, he made a note in his journal to himself to ‘queri’ the statement.

When, on Monday 20 April 1840, Robinson met some ‘Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo, so says Mr Brodribb (queri)’ , Robinson made a note to ‘query’ further about this group.

On Thursday 23 April 1840,  Robinson wrote, ‘The natives at Dockers [ie: Bontharambo station] prostitute their women in like manner as do many other tribes: Goulburn, Waverong; Barrable, &c.’

Here we can see that within the same short period of time (four days), Robinson has chosen to identify ‘Wee.her.roo’ and ‘Waverong’ separately. Dr Ian Clark has accounted for the different ways in which Robinson wrote Waywurru: Wee.her.roo, Way.u.roo;, Waveroo, Wavaroo, Wavoroo, Wave.veroo,, Wayerroo (Ian Clarke, ‘Aboriginal languages in north-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered,’ Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): 2-22). Critically, Robinson only used these spellings in the geographical context of north east Victorian locations. 

We can compare this with the way Robinson wrote Woiwurrung, frequently as ‘Waverong’ (eg: on 18 July 1839, 11 October 1840, 16 November 1840 as examples) and ‘’ (1 June 1840). (There are probably more examples  but I do not have time to scan the 800+ journal pages I have before me.) Moreover Robinson’s geographical context for using ‘Waverong’ never applies to north east Victoria (ie: country north of the Broken River).

It is easy to see that Robinson differentiated between Waywurru by creating the sound ‘—varoo’ on the end of the word — a linguistic gesture he retained exclusively for a group in north east Victoria; while in the case of Waverong, he created the sound ‘—erong’ on the end of the word, and used this in context appropriate to an area and people we now comprehend as Woi-wurrung.

One could argue that this differentiation is due to a dialectical difference between say Melbourne and North East Victoria, but that it still refers to the same group of people. That argument comes unstuck when one considers that none of the people whom Robinson associates with Wavaroo claim any connection to Melbourne: Quite the opposite; several openly claim specific connection to areas of land in north east Victoria. The same cannot be said for anyone associated with Waverong. There still exists a remote possibility that Pallanganmiddang were a non-contiguous areal moiety of ‘Woi-wurrung’, and that they pronounced it ‘Waveroo’. However it would require a lot of evidence to establish this in concrete terms, as a non-contiguous areal moiety speaking an entirely different language doesn’t fit the broader pattern of Kulin society.

Counter argument 3: ‘There is only one historical source for the term Waywurru, therefore its existence might be just the faulty perception of one person.’

In his paper published in the journal Aboriginal History (Volume 25, 2005, pp.216-227), titled ‘Ethnographic information and anthropological interpretation in a Native Title claim: the Yorta Yorta experience’, anthropologist Rod Hagen stated that with regards to the term ‘Waveroo,’ aside from the journal of George Augustus Robinson, ‘No other 19th century commentator makes mention of them.’  While there is not much evidence for ‘Waveroo’ as a term, it is easy to demonstrate Hagen’s statement as inaccurate. There are two other contemporary sources (squatters Benjamin Barber and David Reid) who agree with George Augustus Robinson, referring to a ‘Weeroo’ or ‘Weiro’ broad group in the area of north east Victoria north of the Broken River and south of the Murray River (Letter from Benjamin Barber, in ‘Replies to the following Circular Letter on the subject of the Aborigines, addressed to gentlemen residing too remote from Sydney, to expect the favour of their personal attendance upon the Committee, in Select Committee Enquiry into Immigration, NSW Legislative Council, 1841; and David Reid in ‘Aboriginal Population 1860, The Argus, Friday 5 October, 1860. p.5). While Barber’s knowledge was mainly in relation to the area of Barnawatha Station, Reid had lived on the Ovens at what is now Tarrawingee, and had also lived in Yackandandah, and consequently his statement would reflect this experience. Three independent sources is not a substantial historical record compared to other large groups such as the Wiradjuri or Taungurung, but the paucity of information about them must be contextualised by the fact that the Waywurru/Waveroo were a comparatively small group which bore the brunt of violence from numerous overlanding parties travelling to Port Phillip, as well as violent squatters who settled in north east Victoria, all through the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Counter argument 4: ‘There are old maps, and these maps show the Pangerang on country where you say the Pallanganmiddang should be.’

Another criticism of my work on the Pallanganmiddang is that what I have written and describe doesn’t accord well with maps of Aboriginal Victoria. Some of them, like Norman Tindale’s map of 1940, revised in 1974, are very famous and well-regarded. Unfortunately, maps have a power to them that people don’t often question, but one has to remember that maps of Aboriginal Victoria are based on historical information. 

The criticism of my work on Pallanganmiddang could be expressed more specifically as ‘Durrant’s work does not accord well with maps of Aboriginal Victoria produced before the 1990s.’ ‘Why discard maps produced before the 1990s?’ I hear you ask. ‘Surely old maps are more accurate?’ I hear you say. The simple answer is that in the 1990s, historians and linguists suddenly found themselves in possession of information about Aboriginal Victoria recorded far earlier than the oldest maps of Aboriginal Victoria (for instance, Brough Smyth’s map which appeared in his 1878 book The Aborigines of Victoria: With Notes Relating to the Habits of the Natives of Other Parts of Australia and Tasmania.), and they began using this ‘new’ (in fact, much older) information to produce new maps. In particular, the Victorian Aboriginal Languages Corporation commissioned Dr Ian Clark to produce a new map, based on the new archival materials which had come to light. These new maps accord far more closely with the historical picture that I have painted of the Pallanganmiddang local group of the Waywurru broad group.

There is, in fact, a backstory behind the creation of these ‘new maps based on old material’:

By the early 1980s, the late, great anthropologist Diane Barwick (1938-1986), was dissatisfied with the Victorian section of Tindale’s maps, and was trying to unravel the issue of which Aboriginal groups occupied different parts of Victoria. She’d tackled some of Victoria, and published a major article titled ‘Mapping the Past, Part I’. She was in the middle of working on a new paper devoted to North East Victoria (intended as ‘Mapping the Past, Part II’) when she died tragically and suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. However, this is what Barwick had to say about Norman Tindale’s mapping in 1984, about two years before she died:

‘The best-known map of Victorian ‘tribes’ is the continental ‘tribal map’ published in 1940 by South Australian Museum biologist and ethnologist Norman B. Tindale, which was explicitly “based principally on recent fieldwork with additions from the literature”. Dr Tindale’s unparalleled record of ethnographic publications dates back to 1925, but it appears that the Victorian fieldwork which shaped this map was undertaken when he and Dr Joseph Birdsell were co-leaders of the 1938/39 Harvard-Adelaide Universities Anthropological Expedition. Tindale’s 1940 tribal labels were admittedly the basis for more recent maps of language distribution in Victoria — with some amendments resulting from linguistic research during the 1960s and/or consultation of the original notes compiled by amateur ethnographers A.W. Howitt, R.H. Mathews and John Mathew, which were not accessible for scholarly study until the 1970s. Tindale’s 1974 revision of his 1940 map incorporated available information from recent research but necessarily relied upon published material, mainly the writings of Howitt, Curr, Smyth, R.H. Mathews (whose reliability he had questioned in 1940 but now acclaimed), and the few accessible Protectorate records from the 1840s. His tentative boundaries in central and northeastern Victoria were admittedly deduced from discrepant published sources…’ (Barwick, Diane E. Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904 [online]. Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984: 100-131. This reference: pp.100-101. My emphasis added.)

What Barwick was saying is that, with regards to North East Victoria, Tindale’s first map was compiled principally from his interpretation of four historical sources, written by men who were contemporary to each other: R. Brough Smyth, Edward Curr, Alfred Howitt and R.H. Mathews (and some of his own research conducted at places such as Cumeragunga). At a later date, Tindale had access to some field notes and manuscript materials left by some of these same men. Each of these men had his own distinctive limitations, and when their work was combined, there were discrepancies between them which were difficult to reconcile. There were a number of professional jealousies between them, but perhaps the biggest limitation of their work as a whole is that each man had laboured under the misapprehension that Aboriginal people would soon be ‘extinct’, which led them to believe that if they simplified or fudged some information for publication, that no Aboriginal people would be around to question their work at a later date. They were wrong.

By 1986, the year of her death, Diane Barwick had credible reasons for thinking she could revise the map covering North East Victoria on Normal Tindale’s by now famous map of Aboriginal tribes. ‘Why not get Tindale to do it?’ I hear you ask. —Tindale was 86 years old. ‘Why did Barwick think she could do better?’ I hear you ask. — Let me reply first with some rhetorical questions: What if some absolutely critical sources of information had simply vanished from the historical record, only to reappear at a later date? What if some source materials previously inaccessible were suddenly entered into a local public institution and made available to researchers? This is precisely what happened with regards to information about Aboriginal history in North East Victoria. Where there had been, at first, slender and contradictory evidence, there came a pivotal moment that changed everything: and this a happened when the journal of G.A. Robinson was returned to Australia from Great Britain!

George Augustus Robinson was the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District, from 1839 to 1849. Robinson was a prolific writer, and kept a daily journal as he travelled around the Port Phillip district (in what would become Victoria in 1851). His observations about Aboriginal people were made on location, usually written on the same day, and he often conversed with Aboriginal people and even recorded their names (both Aboriginal and ‘conferred’ white names). Robinson visited the northeast of Victoria in 1840, January-February 1841, 1842 and 1844, and recorded a considerable amount of information about the people he met.

Historian Dr Marie Hansen Fels has lucidly described the impact that having access to Robinson’s journal had on historians:

‘The return to Australia of Robinson’s material in 1949 (he took his papers back to England with him in 1852 and there they remained, inaccessible to scholars for nearly 100 years) transformed the nature of Aboriginal research in Victoria. We no longer had to rely on 19th century collectors of information with all the dangers of their filling in the gaps in knowledge with speculation (Howitt is a good example of this – in the 1904 edition of Native Tribes of South Eastern Australia he states on page 54 that ‘I have not been able to obtain any information as to the tribes occupying the course of the Murray between the Bangarang and Albury, or on the Ovens River lower than the “Buffalo Mountains”,’ but this absence of information does not prevent him from conjecture about them on page 101.)’ (Marie Hansen Fels, ‘These Singular People…’ p.8)

There is, however, something that Fels fails to mention — and that is that Robinson’s handwriting was atrocious. Deciphering his journal notes would only ever be a labour of love for a handful of the most diligent historians, anthropologists and linguists, like Diane Barwick and Fels herself. Thus, even up to the latter part of the 1980s, the Robinson journals remained an under-utilised resource. Historian and archaeologist Dr Gary Presland began transcribing some parts of Robinson’s journal. As soon as he did, it seems that other historians started borrowing his transcripts. In 1989, Presland wrote:

‘…the journal has proved to be an invaluable and, in some cases, unique source of data. Ironically however, although it has been used widely and is informing an increasing number of studies, it remains substantially unknown and untapped. In part this is due to the sheer physical volume of the source (the manuscript takes up more than one shelf metre). It is due also in part to the difficulties of reading Robinson’s poor handwriting. To a limited extent this difficulty has been lessened but more needs to be done towards publishing this invaluable source of information.’ (Gary Presland, ‘The Journals of George Augustus Robinson’, The LaTrobe Journal, No 43, Autumn 1989, p.12).

In fact, it wasn’t until Dr Ian Clark (of Federation University at Ballarat) undertook the mammoth, almost monk-like task of transcribing Robinson’s journals in their entirety, initially publishing them in sections from 1996-2000, that the average researcher had ready access to this incredible storehouse of information. There are copies of Clark’s monumental work available for purchase, but they are still very expensive. (In north east Victoria, the only public copy is at Charles Sturt University’s Albury campus library, which has an annoyingly incomplete set of Clark’s transcriptions. The current complete volumes that I use are on loan to me from a generous local person!)

To recap once again: Tindale’s 1974 map did not make use of the journal of George Augustus Robinson. Diane Barwick knew the Robinson material. She knew that in the 1840s, Robinson had repeatedly met and talked with numerous Waveroo people at places like Wangaratta, Oxley and Albury-Wodonga. Robinson even recorded a vocabulary of the Pallanganmiddang (Waywurru) language in north east Victoria — a language which would later go on to be studied by linguists in the 1990s. Clearly, these people, the Pallanganmiddang people of the Waveroo ‘nation’ (as Robinson described them) existed, but were entirely absent from Tindale’s map. Barwick was also carefully reviewing other resources, such as Alfred Howitt’s field notes and correspondences (held between three different institutions, but now available on line here). She had also examined the unpublished manuscript notes of R.H. Mathews (manuscript material in the National Library of Australia catalogued as MS8006), rather than his publications, and learned that his ‘Minyambuta group’ overlapped a little too suspiciously with Pallanganmiddang/Waveroo (she surmised the Minyambuta was an exonym for Pallanganmiddang language), and extended geographically as far as Wangaratta, which once again, was at odds with Tindale’s map. And so, she had started re-mapping the northeast Victorian section of Tindale’s map. And then before she was finished, she died. Vale Diane Barwick.

Diane Barwick’s work laid the ground work for Dr Ian Clarke, who had also transcribed George Augustus Roninson’s papers, to substantially revise the map of Aboriginal groups in North East Victoria. Clarke did not use Barwick’s manuscript papers (now in the State Library of Victoria) uncritically. However, he seems to have used them as a starting point for creating a new map based on early and credible documents such as George Augustus Robinson’s journal (to which we can now add the journals and papers of Assistant Chief Protector of Aborigines, William Thomas). My work accords well with Clarke’s work not because I am drawing directly from it, but because we are both using a storehouse of primary source materials far more substantial than what Norman Tindale ever had access to. And if Tindale was alive today, I am sure he would revise his 1974 map based on new sources, just as he had previously revised his 1940 map after new sources came to light.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!

Who were the Aboriginal people of Beechworth? A historical perspective.


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WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this blog post includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In particular, I acknowledge the Aboriginal ancestors whose words are quoted within this post, with the greatest respect for their legacy.

There’s much confusion as to who were the first people of Beechworth and the surrounding areas. In this post I intend to lay out the historical evidence for which Aboriginal local group occupied the Beechworth area, the Pallanganmiddang.

Firstly, some clarifications…

Before leaping into this post, I would like to state clearly that in my opinion, how Aboriginal people choose to define their particular ‘clan’, ‘tribe’ and ‘country’ (or any other group category), in the present day is solely a matter for Aboriginal people, not to be defined by non-Aboriginal historians. However, historical information furnished by historians (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike) may still be of interest to Aboriginal people, particularly as it contains the voices of their ancestors. As with any history ever written, what I present here is a historical (and linguistic) interpretation, supported by evidence; and my interpretation is open to debate if it is likewise supported by evidence.

The principal historical evidence that I will draw upon in this post will be the oral testimony of Aboriginal people, as told to various Europeans (mainly government officials) in the mid to late 19th century. I will do my best to privilege Aboriginal voices as they appear in historical documents, as I place a lot of weight on these ancestral voices. While it is true that the documents themselves have been created by Europeans, it is possible to discern when an Aboriginal person has related something directly to the author of a document, as opposed to the author’s later speculations, or speculations by other Europeans who have related information to a document’s author.

There are many interpretive considerations to take into account when reading historical documents in order to determine which Aboriginal groups existed and what country they belonged to, but for the sake of this blog post, I will point out this one major consideration: that in all the historical documents available in which there are Aboriginal people talking with Europeans about North East Victoria, Aboriginal people tend to identify first and foremost the names of what are now widely referred to as ‘clans’. A ‘clan’ can be considered a smaller ‘local group’ within what is colloquially known as a ‘tribe’. I will refer to them here as ‘local groups’, and ‘tribes’ as ‘broader groups’. Local groups appear to have been the principal unit of identity from an Aboriginal point of view — as least in terms of defining land ownership.

Finally, people unused to reading Victorian Aboriginal local group and broader group names may find this post a bit mind-boggling. For now, the post is necessarily argued in detail so that the sources of the information are as transparent as I can make them. I apologise if this makes the post difficult to read.

Pallanganmiddang, the people of Beechworth and surrounds

The local group historically associated with modern-day Beechworth, and in fact a much wider surrounding area, was the Pallanganmiddang. There are various ways in which their name is spelled in historical texts. Sometimes it begins with a B rather than a P, because Europeans apparently struggled to transcribe the sound ‘Bp’. Sometimes the local group name is given the suffixes ‘-illum’ and/or ‘-balluk’ (used by the ‘Kulin’ ‘tribes’ from the Broken River down to Melbourne) rather than the local group suffix common to local groups of north-east of Victoria and the southern Wiradjuri ‘-mittang’ or ‘-middang’. In both cases these suffixes (as Theddora woman Jenny Cooper related to anthropologist Alfred Howitt) simply meant ‘a group of people’. [1a]

Anyone reading the historical documents will soon notice that the name Pallanganmiddang has a number of ‘cognates’ (linguistically, a different spelling with the same etymological origin): Ballŭng-kara-mittang-bula, Ballinggon-willum, Bal.lin.go.yal.lum, Pallingoilum, Pallanganmiddang, Pallanganmiddah, Pallengoinmitty,, and so on. Although it may be difficult to grasp, ‘Pallanganmiddang’ and its cognates are not linguistically the same as ‘Bpangerang’. For the sake of making this post easier to read, I have put the various cognates of Pallanganmiddang in bold throughout the text.

The Pallanganmiddang was recognised as a local group by William Barak, ngurungaeta (respected head) of the Wurundjeri-willam local group (Melbourne area). When interviewed by anthropologist Alfred Howitt in the late 19th century, Barak stated that the local group associated with Wangaratta was the ‘Ballŭng-kara-mittang-bula‘. Incidentally, Barak separated this local group from the Bpangerang by stating that the ‘Baingerang’ were associated geographically with Echuca. Barak also provided an indication of the boundary of Pallanganmiddang country to the south by stating that the Yeerŭn-illŭm-ballŭk local group (a local group of the Taungurung ‘tribe’ or broad group) were associated with a ‘big swamp Below Benalla’. [1b] This geographical descriptor definitely associates the Yeerŭn-illŭm with Benalla, and perhaps also with the big swamp now known as Winton Wetlands (although this is not ‘below’ Benalla according to cardinal points), or more likely the symbolically important waterhole ‘Marangan’ (which now forms Lake Benalla).* Importantly, this raw information appears in Alfred Howitt’s primary interview notes with Barak, which are entirely free of Howitt’s subsequent interpretations and categorisations, as seen in his The Native Tribes of South East Australia (1904).

[*Since originally writing this post I have found quite a few references to Marangan indicating its cultural significance, and I now think it more likely that Barak was referring to Marangan when he spoke to Howitt of a ‘big swamp’. — 29 May 2020]

The Pallanganmiddang were also recognised by Kulin people who gave information to Assistant Protector of Aborigines William Thomas in Melbourne in the early to mid-1840s. One or more Kulin men told Thomas that ‘The Goulborne Tribes comprehend 6 sections’; and list these sections (local groups), and the geographical localities for each local group (the geographical locality denoted mainly by the names of the pastoralists who held stations on that local group’s country). Thus the last of these six sections listed by Thomas’s informant/s was the ‘Ballinggon willum Dr Mackey, Mr Wendberg &c’. [2] This ‘Ballinggon-willum’ clan (or as Barak would have it, ‘Ballŭng-Kara-mittang’), is associated with a surprisingly accurate geographical descriptor, that of the pastoral run of ‘Dr Mackey’. At the time of Thomas’s writing, there was only one pastoralist with a station in the whole of the Port Phillip district with the name ‘Dr Mackey’, which was Dr George Edward Mackay at Whorouly.

The inclusion of ‘Ballinggon-willum‘ as comprising one of the six sections (local groups) of the Goulburn tribe (ie: Taungurung), is of interest — not least to the modern day Taungurung clans, but this is an issue which cannot be taken at face value, given the complexities of social relations between the Pallanganmiddang and several Kulin clans — especially as Thomas excluded them from his later 1858 list of Kulin nation peoples. For now, let us note that other Taungurung clans are absent from the same list: Leuk-willam, Moomoomgoondeet, Nattarak-bulluck and Waring-illum-balluk, and that these absences make it at best an incomplete if not inaccurate list. [3]

Pallanganmiddang local group was also recognised by Taungurung people (around Mansfield/Delatite River). When travelling through Taungurung country, Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, spoke with Taungurung  people who provided him with a list of local groups occupying adjoining country (on 1 June 1840) [4]. Contained within this list, headed, ‘Vocabulary: Goulburn blacks at Mt. Buller and Crossing Place, May 1840’ is the clear statement ‘ this last [local group] at the junction of the Ovens’. The ‘junction of the Ovens,’ which was familiar to all ‘overlanders’ at this time was the junction of the Ovens River with the King River, at Wangaratta. Also contained within the vocabulary information is a numbered list of adjoining local groups [my clarification of modern-day spellings and localities in square brackets]:

‘1.; [Djinning-mittang, Mitta Mitta Valley]
2.; [Mogullumbidj, Mount Buffalo]
3. Peer.eng.ile: are the; [‘’ may be Wiradjuri]
4. at Dow.koy.yong; to the NE of Mt Battery’

In this list, Robinson records the, at ‘’, North East of Mount Battery. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a present-day Dow.koy.yong. North-east of Mount Battery is the location of present-day town of Barwite, and further in that same direction in the ranges, lies the upper reaches of the King Valley.  So it would seem that ‘’ is either at Barwite, Tolmie, or in the upper King Valley. 

This information constitutes almost* as much as I could find that is on record that the Kulin peoples had to say about the Pallanganmiddang and their location: that they existed, and their country included Wangaratta, the King Valley, and Whorouly. As Kulin country lay to the south of Pallanganmiddang country (speaking in broad terms and leaving aside whether Pallanganmiddang were in fact also Kulin), it makes sense that Kulin people spoke about the southern extent of that country.

[*I am currently re-examining some statements made by Taungurung to Robinson in the Upper Broken River Valley. — JD 20 August 2020]

And now we must turn to what the Pallanganmiddang had to say about themselves and their country. Much of what is recorded of what Pallanganmiddang people had to say directly was recorded by the Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson, on three separate visits (April 1840, February 1841, and September 1844) to north-east Victoria. In particular, the visit of February 1841 was associated with Robinson escorting some Aboriginal men, who had been gaoled in Melbourne for an attack on Mackay’s station in May 1840, home — a journey on which he became quite closely acquainted with a young Pallanganmiddang man, Mul.lo.nin.ner (a.k.a. ‘Joe’).

Robinsons’ visit of April 1840: Robinson’s first encounter with some Pallanganmiddang people was at ‘Brodribb’s station’ at the Broken River (present-day Benalla), on Monday 20 April 1840. Robinson records that he has met 10 men of four different local groups, including [my clarification of modern-day spellings and localities in square brackets]:
‘1. Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo (queri); [Waywurru/Waveroo]
2. The, a section of the Tar.doon.gerong; [Butherballuk, Taungurung]
3. The Wor.rile.lum, a large tribe inhabiting the country down the Goulburn River by the Murray, east side; [likely Ngurai-illum, or alternatively a Pangerang clan on the lower Goulburn]
4. And the Pine.ger.rines, a large tribe inhabiting the country on the south and southwest banks of the Murray.’ [Pangerangs]

At this point in time Robinson is aware that the Bal.lin.go.yal.lums are a section (local group) from a larger ‘Ovens tribe’, but still unsure that the ‘Ovens tribe’ is called ‘Wee.her.roo’ [ie: Waywurru, Waveroo], so he has written a note to himself (as he does at other places in his journals) to ‘queri’ this information. For now I will say that the debates about ‘Waywurru’ constitute a different discussion to the one in this post, but it is worth noting that modern-day descendants of Pallangan-middang tend to identify as ‘Waywurru’. However, what is relevant to this post is that Robinson makes a clear distinction between the ‘Bal.lin.go.yal.lums’ who are an Ovens River clan, and the ‘Pine.ger.rines’ (Pangerang), who are a Murray River clan. His query about Waywurru seems to have been answered after he ‘spent time in conversation with the natives,’ on the 23 of April 1840. After this time he tends to refer to the Waywurru as a ‘nation’ (of which Pallangan-middang is a constituent part). Two other contemporary sources (squatters Benjamin Barber and David Reid) agree with Robinson, referring to a ‘Weeroo’ and ‘Weiro’ broad group in the area. [6]

Specifically, Benjamin Barber wrote from Barnawatha in 1841: ‘there are three distinct tribes in this neighbourhood, the Hume or Uradgerry [Wiradjuri], the Weiro [Waywurru] or Ovens, and the Unangan [Pangerang], or Lower Hume…’ [6b] It is also worth noting that in the geographical sensibilities of the day ‘Lower Hume’ generally meant downstream from Albury.

Visit of February 1841: By the end of 1840, Robinson was organising to have some Aboriginal men from North East Victoria released from gaol in Melbourne; and after talking with each, he takes down their details. The first man he organises to be released is Pallangan-middang man, Min.nup (Merriman), on 28 December 1840. [5] In taking the details of the various men being released, Robinson finds that several of these men describe Bontharambo (just out of Wangaratta) as their ‘native country’. For instance, on 10 December 1840, he records ‘, conferred name Harlequin, belonging to the Pal.len.go.illum section of the Wavaroo tribe, country between the Broken River [Benalla] and Hume [Murray River], … locality at [Bontharambo], Docker’s Plains’. On 2 January 1841 Robinson spoke with Wine.ger.rine (aka. Parngurite, conferred name who ‘belongs to the tribe of Wavoroo, section 1. Pal.len.go.mittum, 2., native locality On the 3 February 1841 Robinson organises for three men to be released from gaol, including ‘Mul.lo.nin.ner, alias Joe,, country Panderambo; stating further that he ‘is married, wife’s name country Panderambo. Joe is about 18 years.’

Robinson escorts three of these men back to North East Victoria. When they reach 15 Mile Creek, on 8 February 1841, Mul.lo.nin.ner tells Robinson ‘the country at 15 Mile Creek belongs to to and, two blacks who belong to the 15 Mile Creek at the place where the drays stop.’ (Fifteen Mile Creek is the former name for Glenrowan.) It is worth noting that Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe), is well placed to relate this information, as he is married to, who is a sister to Min.nup (Merriman), and that is one of Meriman’s ‘three fathers’ (in Aboriginal kinship systems, Merriman’s paternal uncles would also be considered ‘fathers’). In other words, Joe is Merriman’s brother-in-law and is’s son-in-law.

By Tuesday 9 February 1841, the party has made it to Joseph Docker’s Bontharambo station, where Robinson meets with a large gathering of at least 150 Aboriginal people including ‘Pingerines… Worilum, Pallengoillum, Yarranillum, Butherbulluc.’ He later adds that he held communication with parts of four nations, viz:

  1. Urungung [ie: Wiradjuri name for Pangerang (refer to Robinson, 25.4.1840)]
  2. Waradgery [ie: Wiradjuri]
  3. Dorngorong [ie: Taungurung]
  4. Waveroo

The number of Aboriginal people present at Bontharambo on this occasion, of different broader groups and local groups, demonstrates that the mere presence of these various people together at Bontharambo did not confer ownership of that country: in other words, there were plenty of ‘visitors’. This should surprise no one, when one considers that Joseph Docker was sympathetic to Aboriginal people, and his station Bontharambo was a safe harbour in a landscape awash with frontier violence. However, it is only Pallanganmiddang people who tell Robinson that Bonthrambo is their native locality. Moreover, Robinson notes on 11 February 1841, ‘The Pingerines are going away to their own country.’ This further indicates the status of the Pangerang as visitors at Bontharambo, like the Wiradjuri and Taungurung.

Visit of September 1844: George Augustus Robinson visited ‘the Hume’ (Albury-Wodonga) in late September 1844, where he once again met Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe). He found Mul.lo.nin.ner in the company of  large gathering of 250 people, including many people from southern Wiradjuri local groups. Mul.lo.nin.ner immediately recognised Robinson, and over the course of two days furnished him with information, including a vocabulary of Pallanganmiddang language.

On 30 September 1844, Robinson noted: ‘ belong to Nar.rar, called Little River where Mr Huon’s station; language spoken is different to the Way.rad.jerre.’ (Wiradjuri). The ‘Mr Huon’ referred to here is Aime Huon who held a station on the ‘Little River’ (now known as the Kiewa River), which was named after its location ‘Merimarenbung’ [ie Mount Murramurrangbong]. Robinson took down the names of 22 Pallanganmiddang people at this gathering, and the same day he also took down a vocabulary from Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe), which is prefaced by the statement ‘Pal.loo.ang.mitter, or, speak language Min.u.bud.dong.’ [ie: Pallanganmiddang at Yackandandah speak Min.u.bud.dong.] The following day Robinson recorded a second vocabulary list with Joe, which is described more simply as as ‘ language‘.

Through the 1840s and 1850s, and in some cases right up to the 1870s, identifiable individuals from the Pallanganmiddang show up in many stories and reports in locations from Wodonga to Mount Murramurrangbong, Tangambalanga, Yackandandah, Barwidgee, Beechworth, Stanley, Whorouly, Milawa, Oxley, Tarrawingee and Wangaratta. The evidence of their movement through their country is literally a historical confetti of stories and connections (too much to relate here), but these ‘adventures’ virtually never extend beyond the geographical extent originally outlined by the Aboriginal informants of Robinson and Thomas in the 1840s, and by William Barak in the latter 19th century.

However, one thing is clear: the newspaper reports of the Aboriginal people who visit Beechworth in 1858 and 1858 describe this group as led by Merriman and his father, ‘King Billy’ of Barwidgee, and the article clearly states that this  group make a point of visiting Beechworth as a part of their country: ‘They pay periodical visits to every part of their district, always reaching Beechworth about the time when the races come off’. [7] From all the evidence, we know that King Billy and his son Merriman, are Pallanganmiddang people.

You can read about King Billy and his clan in the post ‘Were Aboriginal people in Beechworth in the 1850s? (Following a new lead)’.

Pallanganmiddang language

In the mid-1990s, linguists Julie Reid and Barry Blake, identified on the basis of vocabularies collected in the 19th century (including those collected by George Augustus Robinson), that the Pallanganmiddang spoke a distinctive language, which is markedly different from Wiradjuri to the north and was also not a language belonging to the ‘Kulin cultural bloc’ (such as Taungurung to the south). On the basis of what we know, the language shares 25% of its vocabulary in common with Bpangerang/Yorta Yorta, and 21% in common with Dhudhuroa.  In the words of Blake and Reid, ‘It seems likely that Pallanganmiddang represents a language quite distinct from those of its neighbours.’ [8] This language is a cultural difference which sets Pallanganmiddang apart from its neighbours.

Linguistically, the two vocabulary lists that Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe) gave Robinson in 1844 are the same language, even though only one list is prefaced by the information that Pallanganmiddang speak ‘Min.u.bud.dong’. This suggests that the name of Pallanganmiddang clan language is in fact ‘Min.u.bud.dong’, or at the very least that Min.u.bud.dong is an alternative name for Pallanganmiddang language. For his part, Dr Ian Clark has suggested, ‘that Minubuddong is a Wiradjuri exonym applied to the Pallanganmiddang.’ [9]

The same language term appears in only one other known historical source (appearing as a cognate), recorded when ethnographer R.H. Mathews interviewed Dhudhuroa man Neddy Wheeler, around five decades after Robinson spoke with Mul.lo.nin.ner (Joe). From the information Mathews gathered from Wheeler, he wrote that ‘Minyambuta, a dialect of the Dhudhuroa, was the speech of the tribe occupying the Buffalo, King, Ovens and Broken Rivers and the tributaries of these streams’ [10]. Mathews also records that ‘Minyambuta’ was spoken at Buffalo, Beechworth, Wangaratta, and Bright. [11]

When Mathews recorded ‘Minyambuta’ as a dialect of Dhudhuroa, his interpretation seems to have given rise to the idea that the Dhudhuroa peoples’ territory extended from their core country in the Mitta Mitta Valley to as far as Wangaratta (and this is actually illustrated as such on some published maps). However, modern linguists now suggest that ‘Pallanganmiddang’ language, which seems to also be known as ‘Min.u.bud.dong’ language, or by its cognate ‘Minyambuta’ language, was largely a different language to Dhudhuroa. Ian Clark states, ‘If Minyambuta is a variant of Minubuddong, which is probable, then Mathews (1909) was wrong to consider it a Dhudhuroa dialect.’ [12] Certainly, the area in which Neddy Wheeler says Minyambuta was spoken overlaps heavily with many of the locations claimed as Pallanganmiddang country in other sources, which caused Diane Barwick to consider that ‘Minjambuta’ simply referred to Pallanganmiddang. [13] (The exception to this rule does seem to be that Minjambuta was also spoken at Broken River (Benalla), which is country belonging to the Yeerŭn-illŭm local group [of the Taungurung]. However, this anomaly could be accounted for by the fact that the Yeerŭn-illŭm may have resorted to using Minyambuta language to communicate with their Pallanganmiddang neighbours.)


When looking at the primary historical evidence, there are references which clearly place the Pallanganmiddang ‘on country’ from Glenrowan, across to the King Valley, Whorouly, Beechworth, Yackandandah, Mount Murramurrangbong, the lower Kiewa River, Wangaratta and Bontharambo.

In all of the historical primary source materials located in state and national archives — including materials written from direct communication with Aboriginal people — it is notable that the Pallanganmiddang people are the only people who make claims of connection to the country from Wangaratta, up the Ovens Valley, over the Beechworth plateau and across to the lower Kiewa Valley. There is not a single historical reference directly connecting Pangerang to these places as owners of that country as opposed to being visitors, and although modern-day people may differ in their opinions, nor is there a single historical reference from which it can be inferred that Pallanganmiddang are a group within the Pangerang tribe. Moreover, in the historical sources I have not found a single individual who identifies as Pangerang anywhere east of Wodonga and Wangaratta; in other words there are no records of Pangerang people at all east of the line which has become the Hume Freeway. What we do find are references to the Mogullumbidj around Mount Buffalo, and of course the Dhudhuroa (aka Dodoro, or Theddora-mittung, not much further east). There are, however, numerous historical sources which talk about Pangerang in other locations much further west.

Current claims that Pallanganmiddang country is within the Taungurung nation, and also the notion that Pallanganmiddang is a clan of Dhudhuroa, are a far more complex and interesting questions to me, from an ethno-historical point of view, which deserve substantial discussion in their own right.

Post-script: An article written decades after European colonisation in 1887, about a group of Aboriginal ‘missionaries’ travelling the North East from Maloga mission to preach Christianity, reported that one of the group was Aboriginal man named Paddy Swift, who ‘aged 40, belongs to the Nanga tribe of Oxley. ‘”There was, a great crowd of my people there” he says, “but I do not think there are 20 left now.”‘ [14] Accounting for poor journalistic transcription, I see a possible correlation between ‘Nanga’ and ‘Pallangan’. Equally, ‘Nanga’ could have been a poor transcription of the Wiradjuri word for Pangerang, ‘Unangan’. However, I now think the most likely explanation is that Nanga is in fact referring to ‘Thilingananga’ — the original name adopted for the pastoral run at what was later renamed ‘Bruarong’. Interestingly, the ‘tribal’ name used by non-Aboriginal people by the early 20th century to refer to the people occupying the same general area was the ‘Barwidgees’ (the name of the adjoining pastoral run), and finally,  we also know that ‘King Billy of Barwidgee’ and his people also occupied Oxley.

Post-script 2: I also note that the name ‘Wangaratta’, which is local history books is said to be ‘Aboriginal for resting place of cormorants’, bares a linguistic relation to the Waywurru word for brolga, birranga. As we do not have the word for ‘cormorants’ in any local vocabulary, it is possible that the word was a category applied to tall waterbirds and applied to both brolgas and cormorants.


[1a] Alfred Howitt, notebook hw0436, State Library of Victoria, ‘Notes by Howitt on Omeo ‘tribe’ and letter from Bulmer’, p.3; this explanation is given: ‘Mittŭng = a number, or many [people]’.

[1b] Alfred Howitt, Original field notebook catalogued as XM759, held at the Museum of Victoria, p.6.

[2] William Thomas, William Thomas Papers, 1834-1868, 1902, Mitchell Library MS 214, Box 23, Section 1 (Book A (Microfilm CY 3130), p.65, 68. Transcript courtesy Dr Stephen Morey.
In the same notebook, an informant by the name of Gibberook, who was the son of ‘Netkulluk’, ‘King’ the ‘Yerren Nillum’ (Yeerŭn-illŭm) clan of the Taungurung tribe, offers a list of ‘ten sections’ (clans) and their ‘chiefs’ (clan heads); and in that list he includes more of what are now commonly understood to be Taungurung clans, but excludes Ballinggon-willum — which is interesting, considering Yeerŭn-illŭm and Ballinggon-willum are geographical neighbours.

[3] Here I have used as a guide to Taungurung clans Diane E. Barwick, ‘Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904’. Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984: 100-131.

William Thomas later reported to the Select Committee of the Legislative Council of the Aborigines given in 1858 (Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Council of the Aborigines , 1858-59 p. 68),

‘Between the five nearest tribes to Melbourne there is a kind of confederacy or relationship, which, I apprehend, is followed out throughout the length and breadth of Victoria. Thus, the Yarra, Western Port, Geelong, Goulburn, and Devil’s River tribes, though continually quarrelling, nevertheless are in a degree united; and to accomplish (or force) this united interest, according to their laws, marriages are not contracted in their own tribe – for instance, a Yarra man must get himself a wife, not out of his own tribe, but either of the other tribes. In like manner a Goulburn must get his lubra from the Yarra, Devil’s River, Western Port, or Geelong tribe. Thus a kind of social compact is formed against any distant tribe who might intrude upon their country, when all unite to expel the intruder…’

[4] Ian Clark [ed.], The Journal of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, 1839-1852, published by Ian Clark, 2014. NB: For all references to Robinson I have provided the journal entry dates rather than a page number. This should enable the read who wishes to check references to pick up any published edition of Robinson’s journal and check the reference.

[5] On the 20 December, Robinson organises for Min.nup (Merriman) to be released from gaol. At the time, he takes down this information: ‘Min.nup says he has three fathers: 1. Lang.wal.lurt, 2., 3. Sue.wat.ware.rum. He says he has two brothers: 1., 2. Taw.row, one sister: This is important contextual information in terms of demonstrating Merriman’s relationship to country, given that’s country is 15 Mile Creek (Glenrowan).

[6] Marie Hansen Fels, ‘These Singular People — The Ovens Blacks, Supplementary Report,’ 28th July 1997 (unpublished technical report prepared for the Yorta Yorta Native Title Claim), p.8.

[6b] Letter from Benjamin Barber, in ‘Replies to the following Circular Letter on the subject of the Aborigines, addressed to gentlemen residing too remote from Sydney, to expect the favour of their personal attendance upon the Committee, in Select Committee Enquiry into Immigration, NSW Legislative Council, 1841; David Reid in ‘Aboriginal Population 1860, The Argus, Friday 5 October, 1860. p.5.

[7] ‘Fashionable Arrivals’, Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Wednesday 23 February, 1859, p.2

[8] Barry J. Blake and Julie Reid, ‘Pallanganmiddang: a language of the Upper Murray,’ Aboriginal History, 1999, Vol. 23, pp.15-30; this direct quote on p.17.

[9] Ian Clark, ‘Aboriginal languages in North-east Victoria – the status of ‘Waveru’ reconsidered’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): pp.2-22; this direct quote on p.5.

[10] R. H. Mathews, MS8006, Series 5, File 3, Box 6, National Library of Australia.

[11] R. H. Matthews, MS 8006, Series 3, Item 4, Volume 2 [Marked on notebook ‘6’], National Library Australia.

[12] Clark, ibid, p.7.

[13] ibid.

[14] ‘An Aboriginal Revival’, The Corowa Free Press, Friday 25 February 1887, p 5.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!

Sweet Damper on the Little River


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Imagine yourself in 1839, having just eaten a good meal by the side of a creek running into the Kiewa River, in north east Victoria: a safe place you’ve known your entire life. Soon you will be dead.


Mound at House Creek, Dederang (Photograph: Megan Carter, 2019)

Imagine yourself in 1839, having just eaten a good meal by the side of a creek in north east Victoria: a safe place you’ve known your entire life. Suddenly you start to experience severe stomach pain and cramping, as well as diarrhea and vomiting; not regular vomiting, but the kind that contains blood. Soon you are urinating blood too. Those around you — your friends, family, your children and elders — are suffering the same. Before you can try to help them, your condition  deteriorates into convulsions and confusion. You finally collapse into a coma. Soon you will be dead.

There is a story among locals in the Kiewa Valley about a strange mound on the banks of House Creek at Dederang, in which the mound is described as a mass grave of Aboriginal people, buried after a massacre committed by early settlers using arsenic-laced damper. To my knowledge the story has appeared in print twice; the first of which was in Desmond Martin’s local history book, Tale of Two Cities. Martin wrote,

‘In addition there is the story of the 180 Aboriginals allegedly buried beneath the two pine trees beside House Creek, south of Dederang, on the old Woodside property… Way back in the foundation years people whose names seem to be unknown moved out onto the back of the run to muster cattle, leaving the woman of the house alone except for a house gin or two. The local tribe cannily paid her a visit and got into the store room as she was getting them a handout of flour etc to keep them peaceable. That night they all had a big feed up down by the creek, and in the morning only a few of the 200 or so visitors were still alive. The rest had been poisoned by the damper made from the station flour. If this is true then it is most unlikely that the unfortunate lady had anything to do with doping the dough. Her visitors probably grabbed a tin of arsenic, or possibly strychnine as these two poisons were common to most properties in the early days, thinking it was “sugarbag”, shared it up, and everybody mixed a fine damper that contained poison instead of sugar. The returning men are said to have buried all the bodies under the mound, and later planted the pines over them.’ [1]

Only recently, the same story has resurfaced in an new, locally published book, Squatters, Selectors and Settlers, Dederang, Gundowring and Mongan’s Bridge Pioneering District, by Dulcie Smith with Mary Cardwell:

‘One story is told that a tribe of Indigenous people called at a homestead near House Creek. The settler’s wife was there alone and frightened. Her husband and his cattlemen were away working. She deemed it best to give the visitors the good quality flour they demanded. It was possible that there was arsenic mixed in the flour. Around 180 people died where they had their feed. The returning bushmen buried them and their grave is thought to be the hillock. This is where corroborees were thought to happen. “Through the dark branches of the pine trees, the wind groans dirges for the people buried below.”‘ This information is attributed to ‘Alvara McKillop and other anonymous locals’. [2]

This is one of those stories that, considering contextual evidence, seems more than likely to be based on a real event. However there exist some elements which are suspicious. Firstly, it is unlikely that returning stockmen would have gone to the trouble of creating such a huge mound in order to bury these bodies. The mound is clearly unnatural, and if is wasn’t created by stockmen, it may well have been of pre-existing Aboriginal origins. Whatever the case, this mound has been associated with Aboriginal people at least since the late nineteenth century. While touring the region in 1886, James Stirling reported that:

‘At Dederang we noticed a peculiarly rounded hillock at the junction of a small creek… We regretted that we had not time to examine it, but our driver informed us it was locally known as a blackfellow’s mound, one of those monuments which remain of a fast expiring race’. [3]

Secondly, the story is structured to absolve early settlers of murder by attributing the 180 deaths to an accidental poisoning, for which a frightened white woman and the Aboriginal people themselves (Waywurru and/or Dhudhuroa) are responsible. This too, is highly unlikely, since there is enough evidence that European settlers in north east Victoria did deliberately poison Aboriginal people.

One highly suggestive piece of circumstantial evidence comes in the form of an ‘early warning,’ that the first pastoralists in north-east Victoria had either started, or were about to start, deliberately killing local Aboriginal people with sweet damper — damper laced with sugar to mask the taste of arsenic. In June 1838, a pastoralist based in Berrima, in the New South Wales southern highlands, wrote a letter to the editor of Sydney-based paper, The Colonist, complaining that the Government had not given mounted police discretionary power to shoot Aboriginal people. Written only months after the Faithfull Massacre at Benalla, in which Aboriginal people had attacked and killed a number of shepherds, the letter warned that in the absence of police power to kill Aboriginal people they deemed dangerous, pastoralists were about to take matters into their own hands:

‘Since the Colonial Government, by virtually tying down the hands of the party of mounted policemen despatched towards the Hume [i.e.: Murray] River, has refused to afford to the proprietors of sheep and cattle stations on the Port Phillip Road, the necessary protection against the aggressions of the blacks, allow me to call the attention of those gentlemen who, like myself, have sent live stock to the Murray and its vicinity, to the expediency of forming a sort of militia corps, consisting of every hut-keeper, watchman, and stockman, able to shoulder a musket, in order that we may thus be enabled to repel force by force.’

The writer reported that Aboriginal people had ‘recently committed two more murders; one of these unfortunate victims was a shepherd belonging to a gentleman (Mr. Bowman), who resides in this neighbourhood; … I have been informed on good authority, that stockmen and others have often tried the experiment of mixing up arsenic in a damper, placed where the blacks were in the habit of frequenting. No atrocities on the part of the blacks, can in my opinion justify the whites in resorting to such treacherous means of retaliation. Assuredly the end does not justify the means. But what can they (the whites) do?’ … What I would here suggest is, that, until the government see the necessity of giving the mounted police already despatched a discretionary power to shoot a few of the blacks who commit outrages among the stations, the proprietors themselves should, by forming a militia corps, follow the example of Major Mitchell. It is, I admit, truly distressing to be driven to this necessity. But it appears to me that there is no other alternative. … However paradoxical the assertion may sound, I am convinced that the most humane course we can adopt as regards the majority of the blacks themselves, would be to shoot a few of their ring-leaders when detected in the act of committing their outrages. It must come to this at last. There is no other way of convincing them of the superiority of the whites.’

The article concluded with a plea to the Government to let mounted police shoot specific Aboriginal people, lest the pastoralists turn to the indiscriminate wholesale murder of Aboriginal people by arsenic:

‘Let the Government only act with vigour tempered with humanity, and these outrages will soon be put an end to. Treat the blacks as rational beings, and their natural sense of justice will make them hear reason. Treat them as wild beasts, and they will continue wild to the last. The arsenic affair is horrific! It makes one’s blood curdle!’ [4]

There is no doubt that the author of the letter was well-informed concerning matters in north east Victoria. He already had stock in the area, which means that he would have — either as an individual or partner — held a license to depasture herds and flocks and had registered a ‘run’ with the nearest Crown Lands Commissioner. He also resided at Berrima on the New South Wales southern highlands, which was the geographical base from which almost all of the early pastoralists of north east Victoria established themselves. He refers to William Bowman, whose pastoral leases took in the area from Everton on the Ovens River, through ‘Bowman’s Forest’ and the rest of the Murmungee Basin to Beechworth and country as far as Wooragee. He also suggests that pastoralists should ‘follow the example of Major Mitchell’, which can only be a reference to the fact that Mitchell and his party on their ‘Third Expedition of Discovery’ had killed a number of Aboriginal people at what has become known as the ‘Mount Dispersion massacre’ in 1836. Mitchell only received a reprimand for leading the massacre, having claimed self-defence.

The Government never did grant its mounted police powers to shoot Aboriginal people: As subjects of the Crown, Aboriginal people had to be arrested for crimes, and brought to trial like everyone else. Likewise, as subjects of the Crown, neither was it ever legal to murder Aboriginal people — but this didn’t stop the early European pastoralists. When stockmen were implicated in the mass killing of mainly women, children and old men at Myall Creek, the Government committed them to trial, and hanged seven of the perpetrators in November 1838. However, instead of ending the killings; this only meant that pastoralists devoted greater efforts to covering up their wanton acts of murder.

In his letter of 1853, squatter George Faithful of Oxley Plains would recall of these early years of European settlement, ‘The Government … threatened to hang any one who dared to shoot a black, even in protection of his property, and appointed Protectors to search about the country for information as to the destruction of the natives. These gentlemen resorted to the most contemptible means to gain information against individuals, whom the trumpet-tongue of falsehood had branded as having destroyed many of these savages. This, instead of doing good, did much evil. People formed themselves into bands of alliance and allegiance to each other, and then it was the destruction of the natives really did take place.’ [5]

The evidence that pastoralists used arsenic-laced damper to kill Aboriginal people in north east Victoria at this time, doesn’t name the individuals responsible, but it does exist. Assistant Aboriginal Protectors employed under the Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate (mainly religious men, not given to ‘trumpet tongued falsehoods’) knew too well what was going on in north east Victoria — where the colonial authorities had opted not to post a regional Protector, resolutely refusing to do so even after Chief Protector George Augustus Robinson requested it. [6]

In June 1839, not even a year after its initial settlement by Europeans, Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Goulburn district, James Dredge, recorded the prevalence of mass poisonings with ‘sweet damper’. [7] Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Melbourne area, William Thomas, also recorded in March 1839 that Aboriginal people on the Broken and Ovens Rivers had been ‘put out in this way.’ [8] 

Although Thomas does not specifically note the Kiewa River, it is worth pointing out that the Kiewa was at this time barely known to most Europeans, as it lay quite some distance off the main over-landing route from Sydney to the Port Phillip district, and only later did it come to be referred to by them as ‘Little River’. A letter from his stockman to pastoral lisencee John Jobbins, dated from 2 October 1839, locates Jobbins’ run Towangah (Tawonga) Station as being ‘near the head of the ‘Ovens’,’ [9] demonstrating that people at this time were generally unable to find an appropriate geographical descriptor for the Kiewa Valley. Thus when William Thomas writes that arsenic was being used on the Broken and Ovens Rivers, he could well also mean the Kiewa.

If we consider sometime after the Faithfull Massacre in April 1838 up until mid 1839, as a likely timeframe for the massacre on the Kiewa River, this allows us to speculate on which of the settlers in the district at that time could have been the perpetrators. There were, at this time, four stations (pastoral runs) in the immediate area: Kergunyah (‘Kergunnnia’) station, held by John Morrice, Robert Wylde and David MacKenzie, and managed by George Kinchington (who arrived in June 1838 with his wife and family, and would later go on to hold ‘Thilingananga’ station at what would become Bruarong) [10]; ‘Gundowring’ Station on the opposite side of the Kiewa River, held by George Hume Barber, and run by his young son Charles Barber, and their manager Frederick Street (who was a brother-in-law of George Kinchington) [11]; ‘Dederang’ Station, held by absentee pastoralist James Roberts of the property Currawang (near Young), and run by stockmen (one of whom we only know as ‘old Tom’); and finally ‘Towangah’ (Tawonga) Station, held by John Jobbins and managed on his behalf by stockmen whose names are unknown. [12] (*Since first writing this, I have discovered that Dederang station was superintended by John Wingrove. [12b]) All stations would have had a number of assigned or ticket-of-leave convict labourers.

Of the four station-holders, emancipated convict John Jobbins is the only one with a proven record of killing, or inciting his station labourers, to kill Aboriginal people, [13] but this does not lessen the chance that the other station holders and/or their managers were responsible for this mass poisoning. Of the three men who held Kergunyah Station, it seems the Reverends Wylde and MacKenzie (both school teachers at Australian College in Sydney) were merely investors, while only John Morrice was hands-on (and even then, perhaps only occasionally, as he lived at Sutton Forest on the New South Wales southern highlands, with his wife Jane, the daughter of Yackandandah’s first European settler James Osborne). Morrice would have been no stranger to the mentality of racism and brutality: his Scottish-born father had been a slave-owning tea planter in Jamaica. [14] While avoiding naming anyone specifically, Reverend David MacKenzie recounted the use of arsenic to murder Aboriginal people in his 1845 book The Emigrant’s Guide; or Ten Years’ Practical Experience in Australia [15]. MacKenzie’s comments indicate that at the very least he was familiar with the practice of poisoning Aboriginal people. Furthermore, his comments also illustrate that — particularly after the prosecution of men for the Myall Creek massacre — this method was used in preference to shooting, because it was harder to prove Aboriginal deaths by poisoning as actual murder: one could, as the oral history stories from the Kiewa Valley suggest, always blame the frightened wife of a stockman, and the Aboriginal people themselves.

We cannot point directly to anyone who was responsible for poisoning Aboriginal people in the Kiewa Valley, but we can think about the mentalities that went with such an act. It is likely there are still descendants of some early settlers possibly implicated in the murder of local Aboriginal people in the Kiewa Valley, still living locally. It could be distressing for some of these people to imagine that their ancestors were possibly involved in such horrific acts of murder. And yet, the acknowledgement of atrocities needs to happen for the descendants of the Aboriginal people who survived, and for the wellbeing of us all.

Further reading

Megan Carter has published a blog post on the Dederang Mount the same day that I wrote this post. Please read it to gain the Aboriginal (Waywurru) perspective: ‘Though the dark branches of the pine trees, the wind’s groan dirges for the people buried below’- The Dederang Mound, Kiewa Valley Also The Dederang Mound Continued.


This post could not have been written without the assistance of Megan Carter and Belinda Pearce. It is dedicated to Russell Bellingham, because he keeps asking these kinds of questions.


[1] Desmond Martin, A Tale of Twin Cities: Part 1 — The Founding Years, Graphic Books, Armadale, 1981, pp.43-44.

[2] Dulcie Stiff with Mary Cardwell, Squatters, Selectors and Settlers, Dederang, Gundowring and Monaghan’s Bridge Pioneering District, self-published locally, 2019, p.4.

[3] James Stirling, ‘FROM OMEO TO SYDNEY VIA MOUNT BOGONG, THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN VICTORIA. VIII.’ Gippsland Times, Monday 22 March 1886 p.3.

[4] ‘Original Correspondence. PORT PHILLIP. TO THE EDITOR OF THE COLONIST. Berrima’, June 30, 1838, The Colonist, Wednesday 4 July 1838 p.2

[5] George Faithfull, Letter number No. 27; in Thomas Francis McBride (ed.) Letters from Victorian Pioneers, A Series of Papers on the Early Occupation of the Colony, the Aborigines, etc, Addressed by Victorian Pioneers to His Excellency Charles Joseph LaTrobe, Esq, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Victoria, Trustees of the Public Library of Victoria, Melbourne, 1898.

[6] British Parliamentary Papers, Despatches of Governors of Australian Colonies, illustrative of Condition of Aborigines, House of Commons, Paper Series: House of Commons Papers, Paper Type: Accounts and Papers Parliament: 1844, Paper Number: 627, p.109.

[7] James Dredge Diary, 1 June 1839, p.52. James Dredge, Three volumes and one transcript of the diary, a letter book and a note book are in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection of the State Library [MS 11625 and MS 5244 (transcript) Box 16].

[8] Dr Marguerita Stephens (ed) The Journal of Assistant Protector William Thomas 1839-67, Volume 1: 1839-1943, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), Melbourne, p.8. Entry for Sunday 24 March 1839.

[9] ‘To the Editor of the Sydney Herald.’ The Sydney Herald, Friday 25 October 1839, p.2.

[10] George Kinchinton Junior, ‘Yackandandah in 1838,’ Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 16 September 1899, p.8.

[11] Street is mentioned as manager somewhere in the JFH Mitchell papers, in the Mitchell Library. I’m sorry but I don’t have the time right now to give you the exact page reference.

[12] ‘To the Editor of the Sydney Herald.’ The Sydney Herald, Friday 25 October 1839, p.2. This article contains a letter written by a stockman on Tawonga station to John Jobbins, detailing an attack by Aboriginal people, and says that ‘We certainly must have been murdered had it not been for the providential appearance of old ‘Tom,’ Mr. Robert’s man…’

[12b] Henry Bingham; Crown Lands Commissioner for Murray District, Itineraries, entry 29 August, 1839. New South Wales State Archives.

[13]  John Jobbins massacre of Wiradjuri people at Dora Dora, see Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930, Colonial Massacres Map, University of Newcastle.

[14] Advertisement for Australian College, The Sydney Herald, Wednesday 17 Jul 1839, Page 3; on John Morrice’s residence: Berrima District Historical and Family History Society; ‘Eling Forest property established 1835,’ Southern Highland News, 11 JUNE 2012; on John Morrice’s father: ‘David Morrice, Imperial Legacy Details‘, Legacies of British Slave-ownership, website, accessed, 24 March 2019; John Morrice’s wife Jane: see notice of her death, Yackandandah Times, 1 February, 1917, p.2.

[15] Rev David McKenzie, The Emigrant’s Guide; or Ten Years’ Practical Experience in Australia, W S Orr & Co, London, 1845, p.235-6.

This is original written content that is copyright protected to ©Jacqui Durrant, 2019. You are welcome to share links to this blog, but please do not use the content elsewhere without permission. Thank you!