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It’s an important question, is it not? North-east Victoria was 100% populated by Aboriginal peoples when the first pastoralists arrived here around 1838; and yet there is almost no mention of Aboriginal people in association with the Beechworth gold rush, which happened only 14 years later. What happened to them?

William Barak

William Barak, Figures in Possum Skin Cloaks, 1898. (Painted on Corranderrk reserve at Healesville).

I haven’t made a post on Life on Spring Creek for a while, as I had a break while teaching Introduction to Aboriginal Australia at La Trobe University. That experience has drawn me to want to tell you about Aboriginal people during the gold rush: a story which cannot be told without some deeper historical background:

In 1836 Major Mitchell passed through North East Victoria. When he returned to Sydney, he reported that he had found ‘Australia Felix’, a Latin term which denoted the country south of the Hume [Murray] River as a ‘pleasant land’. Australia Felix was a landscape that had been cultivated for thousands of years by Aboriginal ‘fire-stick farming.’ Its lush pasture was interspersed by mature shade trees, largely free of dense understory. Its green sward drew grazing game species; its openness made for ease of hunting and travel. Its wetlands and rivers ran clear, and were abundant with fish and crustacea. To Europeans, Australia Felix looked like an English nobleman’s country park left to go wild. To prospective ‘squatters’ (pastoralists) looking to establish new sheep and cattle stations for stock which were languishing in the drought-stricken ’19 counties’ around Sydney, it smelled like opportunity. In his report, Mitchell didn’t make much of fact that the land was already occupied. But the squatters weren’t stupid; they knew what they were up for when they decided to take their vast flocks of sheep and herds of cattle beyond what was officially designated as ‘the limits of location’.

As Mitchell’s drays rolled through this countryside, the cart-wheels sunk into the ground, leaving ruts: the soils were soft and spongey, having never been trodden by hard-hoofed animals. The ruts, leading from the Murray River all the way down to the Port Phillip district [Melbourne], became the path that squatters followed in search of pasture for the thousands upon thousands of sheep and cattle they brought with them, despoiling the countryside and fouling river crossings as they went. One of these river crossings was at a place local Aboriginal people called ‘Benalta’ (thought to derive from the local word for musk duck). This became the site of one key event that history has recorded, as opposed to the doubtless numerous subsequent events that went unrecorded. It became the site of The Faithfull Massacre.

On 11 April 1838, the stockmen of squatters George and William Faithfull were attacked by a party of perhaps 20 Aboriginal people on the banks of the Broken River at Benalta (where present-day Benalla is situated). Eight of the 18 stockmen were speared to death, and in return, one Aboriginal man was killed by musket fire. Historian Judith Bassett suggests that rather than an act of war, this massacre was a guerilla-attack by a band of Aborigines intent on inflicting retributive justice against the stockmen who shot some of their people on the Ovens River seven days earlier. [1] [I now think this interpretation is pen to question. J.D. 5/9/2021]

In the wake of this attack, the Faithfulls, along with squatters on other runs nearby, retreated to the relative safety of the Murray River. That June, a group of more than 80 squatters with stations along the Port Phillip route [now the Hume Highway] petitioned Governor Gipps, who in turn refused their request: he would not sanction a war on the Aboriginal population, let alone allow the squatters to take matters into their own hands as was their threat. [2] As Dr George Edward Mackay, a squatter who was based at Everton (if you’re a local, think of the location of the ‘Pioneer Bridges’ crossing on the Ovens River) would later bitterly recount, the government wasn’t at all sympathetic to their plight: after all, they had knowingly gone beyond ‘the limits of location’. [3] They had wittingly taken a risk and now they had to bear the cost.

Nevertheless, Governor Gipps did answer their petition with the establishment of a ‘Border Force’ along the Port Phillip route. The government would set up a police post at several river and creek crossings between Sydney and Port Phillip (Melbourne), but until they did so, there existed a window of opportunity in which squatters in North East Victoria, intent on settling the land to their purposes and fuelled by a desire to undertake retribution for the Faithfull Massacre, were well beyond official scrutiny.

There are virtually no historical records of what actually happened at this time. We can only infer what happened from a handful of recollections and a few other fragmented records, which were purposefully written to avoid explicit explanation. The main recollections come from a book called Letters from Victorian Pioneers: a compilation of letters which were written in response to a circular sent by Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe in July 1853, requesting information as to the time and circumstances of the first occupation of various parts of the colony of Victoria by Europeans.

In a letter to La Trobe, George Faithfull explained that the early European settlers in North East Victoria were subject to constant attacks on themselves and their livestock by Aboriginal people, [4] and it is clear that this resulted in retaliatory attacks by the whites, purportedly often more severe in nature than the events which had initiatied them. [4b]

By August 1839, when Henry Bingham, Commissioner for Crown Lands (Murrumbidgee district) visited the region, he found the Aboriginal peoples of the region, for the most part, already visibly afraid. He encountered large parties of ‘natives’ at Howlong, whom he says ‘appeared much alarmed at our first appearance’. At Whorouly he found they were ‘very shy’. And on the Ovens River, he reckoned, ‘the Natives appear to have a hostile feeling for the squatters from past transactions.’ [5]

David Reid, the squatter who held the run ‘Carrajarmongei’ (Carraragarmungee, on which the Beechworth goldrush would later take place), arrived in September 1838, initially building a hut somewhere on the Ovens River near what is now Tarrawingee.* In his recollections (recounted by Reid to J.C.H. Ogier in 1905) it is stated that, ‘It was some eighteen months after Mr Reid had formed his station before he allowed blacks to come there’ (my italics). It isn’t stated by what means Reid kept local Aboriginal people from living on their own land; only that in what probably would have been the late summer of 1839/1840, two Aboriginal men approached Reid as representatives of their clan ‘without instruments of war’ and with a ‘green bough in each hand’ to make peace, so that they could camp nearby on the Ovens River. Three or four weeks later, by which time Reid’s first crop of wheat was being harvested, Reid and his men spotted 15 or 20 Aboriginal men from the same group, now armed with spears and painted with ‘pipe clay’, approaching them from across the River. Reading this as an imminent attack, Reid and his men retreated to their nearby hut, after which they employed double barrelled guns: ‘It is not for Mr Reid to describe what followed but there was soon a scatterment made of our sable foes.’ [6]

[*Almost certainly at the property Reidsdale.]

Even after Reid’s shooting of Aboriginal people along the Ovens River, the hostility between Aboriginal people and squatters continued, and even stepped up. George Edward Mackay had arrived in the district on the eve of the Faithfull Massacre in the Autumn of 1838, and finding his servants unwilling to stay, had retreated to the Hume (Murray) River, returning in the Spring of 1838 to squat on land at ‘Warrouley’ (Whorouly). In his letter to Governor LaTrobe written years later, he stated that:

In May 1840, 21 [Aboriginal men], all armed with guns, besides their native weapons, attacked my station in my absence. They murdered one of my servants and burned my huts and stores, and all my wheat. … only seven head of cattle, out of nearly 3,000, were left alive on the run. … Three special commissioners were sent one after another to examine into the matter, Major Lettsom, of the 80th Regiment, Mr. Bingham, Commissioner of Crown Lands for the district, and Chief Protector Robinson. The whole drift of their inquiries seemed to me to be an attempt to prove that the cause of the attack upon my station by the blacks was an improper treatment of the native women by my servants. This was shown to be totally without foundation, for the natives had no women with them, and it was their first visit to the station. … These, Sir, are the salient points of my experience as a squatter. I have lost my capital. I have lost my health. I have lost fifteen years of the best period of my life. [7]

I don’t doubt Mackay’s sentiment: that the level of conflict with Aborigines in North East Victoria left him a broken man, but bear in mind that this is history written by the victor: he was on the side that won. Take from that what you will about what it was to be on the side that lost.

Reid and Faithfull both mention that it was necessary to be armed while going about daily work on their stations: ‘It was a rule in those days that no man went about any occupation without having his firearms immediately at his disposal, in fact a hut keeper never went for a bucket of water without going armed, not knowing at any moment whether or not he might be intercepted’. [10] George Faithfull wrote, ‘We dared not move to supply our huts with wood or water without a gun, and many of my men absconded from my service, throwing away their firelocks [i.e.: muskets], and in some cases destroying the locks and making them wholly useless from sheer terror of the blacks. This may appear too absurd for belief; nevertheless, it is a fact.’ [8]

Faithfull’s claim as to how this situation was finally ended are worth reading (the locality is probably on the Oxley Plains, on the banks of the King River, where Faithfull had a run):

At last, it so happened that I was the means of putting an end to this warfare. Riding with two of my stockmen one day quietly along the banks of the river, we passed between the ana-branch of the river itself by a narrow neck of land, and, after proceeding about half a mile, we were all at once met by some hundreds of painted warriors with the most dreadful yells I had ever heard. Had they sprung from the regions below we could have hardly been more taken by surprise. Our horses bounded and neighed with fear old brutes, which in other respects required an immense deal of persuasion in the way of spurs to make them go along. Our first impulse was to retreat, but we found the narrow way blocked up by natives two and three deep, and we were at once saluted with a shower of spears. My horse bounded and fell into an immense hole. A spear just then passed over the pummel of my saddle. This was the signal for a general onset. The natives rushed on us like furies, with shouts and savage yells; it was no time for delay. I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at. Unfortunately, the first shot from one of my men’s carbines did not take effect; in a moment we were surrounded on all sides by the savages boldly coming up to us. It was my time now to endeavour to repel them. I fired my double-barrel right and left, and two of the most forward fell; this stopped the impetuosity of their career. I had time to reload, and the war thus begun continued from about ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon. We were slow to fire, which prolonged the battle, and 60 rounds were fired, and I trust and believe that many of the bravest of the savage warriors bit the dust.
It was remarkable that the children, and many of the women likewise, had so little fear that they boldly ran forward, even under our horses’ legs, picked up the spears, and carried them back to the warrior men. We at last beat them off the field, and found that they had a fine fat bullock some of it roasting, some cut up ready for the spit, and more cattle dead ready to portion out. The fight I have described gave them a notion of what sort of stuff the white man was made, and my name was a terror to them ever after. [9]

Let’s analyse Faithfull’s statement, as if we are looking at a silent movie and seeing the actual scene, but with none of the narration: The Aboriginal men are wearing paint. There is a bullock being roasted to feed the masses. Women and children are present. All would suggest that Faithfull and his men have stumbled across a ceremonial gathering. When interrupted, the Aboriginal people throw a ‘shower of spears’ none of which hit their mark, even though these people are consummate hunters. This would suggest that the spears were not thrown to kill or even injure, but more as a warning. In retaliation, as Faithfull explains, ‘I ordered my men to take deliberate aim, and to fire only with certainty of destruction to the individual aimed at…. We were slow to fire, which prolonged the battle, and 60 rounds were fired…’ In other words, Faithfull and his men conserve ammunition by not firing unless they are confident of killing someone, but they still manage to shoot sixty rounds over six hours. You can estimate for yourself: How many Aboriginal people are killed that day? How many children witness family members being shot?

Faithfull also resorted to kidnapping a child to buy himself some protection: ‘I picked up a boy from under a log, took him home and tamed him, and he became very useful to me, and I think was the means of deterring his tribe from committing further wanton depredations upon my property; my neighbours, however, suffered much long after this.’ [10]

Faithfull further explains, without giving explicit examples which would incriminate fellow squatters, that his own mass-killing of Aboriginal people paled to insignificance in comparison of what was to come: ‘The Government during all this time gave no help, no assistance of any kind, and at last threatened to hang any one who dared to shoot a black, even in protection of his property, and appointed [Aboriginal] 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.’ [11] So it would seem that after the Faithfull Massacre in April 1838, there may have been a period of unrestrained slaughter before the arrival of the border police; but also, after the border police were in place, and despite the fact that Aboriginal Protectors were serving from late 1839, the slaughter of Aboriginal people not only continued but worsened as squatters became more organised and clandestine in their activities.

That Faithfull’s men destroyed guns before absconding from his service is telling. These men were servants who had found themselves caught in the midst of an horrific conflict — some of them freemen who probably had known little of what to expect on the colonial frontier before arriving; some of them assigned servants who’d had no choice in the matter at all — and as George Faithfull recounted, at least on one occasion (but we may surmise many more) these men had been pressed into shooting Aboriginal people, moreover, in the presence of children. To assume that these servants had no objections to killing other people is to assume that they came from a supremely brutal and racist mindset,* an assumption which (to adopt a line of argument from historian John Hirst) would ‘mistakenly cast the high racism of the late nineteenth century back to the century’s middle decades.’ [12] We will never know for certain why some of Faithfull’s men destroyed their guns, but it is reasonable to suspect that they wanted to end the horror.

[* Note: since writing this piece, I have concluded that unfortunately many of the early settlers (squatters and convict servants like) were from a ‘supremely brutal and racist mindset’, due to a number of factors: Exposure to violent crime and a brutal system of punishment on the part of the convicts is obviously a brutalising factor for the servants. However the squatters were another matter: many of those ‘first on the ground’ were eldest sons of wealthy landowners and squatters from the NSW southern highlands. I suspect many of their fathers had either been involved in the hands-on administrative side of the convict system, and/or had been directly involved in the Napoleonic wars (eg: Dr David Reid). Many were Scottish, and the slaughter of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, was something that would have in some way been within the intergeneration knowledge of these families.]

Aboriginal people at the Black Swan Inn, Benalla, 1852-53

So where were the remaining Aboriginal people of North East Victoria, during the gold rush of 1852? By this time, the adult Aboriginal population had been children or young adults when they survived the frontier conflict with the squatters. Without doubt they had lost family members to gunshot wounds, and bore the psychological scars. Now the country around them was filling up with gold seekers — all of whom carried guns and fired them regularly. What traces can we find of these Aboriginal survivors?

In 1853, the Commissioner of Crown Lands, Henry Smythe, estimated that there were still 399 Aboriginal people living in the region, and yet as Smythe noted, they were not attracted by the prospect of gold — a fact which he attributed to their ‘natural indolence’. [12b] Their disinterest in gold mining may partly account for why Aboriginal people are almost entirely absent from the diaries and letters of the gold seekers on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings, with the exception of encounters they had with Aboriginal people en route from Melbourne: frequently at Longwood, secondly at Benalla, and more occasionally at Wangaratta. The Aboriginal people at Benalla were met on the banks of the Broken River in the vicinity of the Black Swan Inn (which still stands at 4 Bridge Street West, on the river bank opposite the site of the Faithfull Massacre). These Aboriginal people seemed to offer the gold seekers nothing but hospitality and assistance, and were met in return with a mixture of condescension, fascination and sometimes admiration.

Thomas Woolner, while travelling to the diggings on 15 November 1852, wrote, ‘I saw there a black man attiring himself, performing his toilet duties with grimaces of fastidiousness self-admiration: he combed his thick shock of wool with some pain to himself, then (smeared) it with grease and rubbed some fat over his visage, then combed again twisting his delight into hideous leers; after he had finished I told him he had made himself look very pretty, he grinned at me in ecstasy and asked if I wanted a light for my pipe.’ However, when one of Woolner’s party drowned in the Broken River on the return journey on 18 December, Woolner mentions that ‘a black woman was diving for a long time but could not find him.’ Woolner’s inference is that while he and his party dragged the river, the person most capable of finding their friend’s body — this Aboriginal woman — could not, and therefore efforts to locate the body, though in vain, had been substantial. [13]

Seweryn Korzelinski passed through Benalla around the same time, writing, ‘I saw for the first time native women and their children, called piccaninni.’ He was clearly impressed when ‘One of their men who arrived soon after, on our request for a fish just dived in the river and soon came out with a tasty looking foot-long fish.’ [14] Some five or six months later, Mrs Campbell was travelling to the Spring Creek Commissioner’s Camp where her husband was serving as the new Police Magistrate. On the way, she stayed at the Black Swan Inn with her daughter ‘G’:

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 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 G., who, wiser than her mother, saw nothing to be frightened at in her, and made friends accordingly. Of course she was civilized. In their native state, as I afterwards saw them, they are a very repulsive people, said to be tho lowest of the human race… [15]

There is much one could read into Mrs Campbell’s thoughts about ‘the queen of the tribe’, but what is striking is the good nature of this Aboriginal woman in the face of uncomprehending, almost involuntary prejudice.

I wish I knew what became of these Aboriginal people who were camped at Benalla that Summer leading into the Autumn of 1853, who had lived through such extraordinary changes of circumstance. One sad footnote to this scene at Benalla is a brief entry in a government report of 1861, concerning an orphan Aboriginal ‘or half-caste’ girl living in a ‘public house’ in Benalla (which could well have been the Black Swan). A local man named Banfield had made repeated applications to the government for land on which the girl could live, to improve her situation. The government agency, the new Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, could only think to remove her to an asylum in Melbourne, but once it realise it had no power to do so, did nothing more. [16]

[Since writing this blog post, I have realised that William Howitt (in Land Labour and Gold, Chapter 15) also encounters a substantial encampment of Aboriginal people while en route to Albury, camped on the river near Wodonga, in early 1853. This tells us that Aboriginal people were still in the district, but perhaps were choosing to stay away from the crowded areas impacted by the gold rush.]

Aboriginal people around Beechworth, Yackandandah and Chiltern, 1860-62

In 1860, by which time the Beechworth gold rush had been and gone some six or seven years, the colony of Victoria established the aforementioned Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines. The Board was ‘of the opinion’ that:

it is the bounden duty of the people who have taken possession of their country to protect them as far as possible, and to a certain extent to maintain them. We occupy for pastoral and for other purposes nearly all the land in the Colony, and that which we do not occupy is least fitted for the black population. Under these circumstances it is necessary that permanent reserves should be made for the blacks whenever their numbers are such as to require a tract of country for yielding food. [17]

Ironically, many of those who would be drawn-in by the Board to assess the situation of the Aboriginal peoples of Victoria and assist with ‘protecting them’, were the very same pastoralists who had forcibly taken the land away from Aboriginal peoples in the first place. Needless to say, the few ‘permanent reserves’ created were pitiful in size.

In 1861, the Board made its first report to parliament. Squatter David Reid was one of the Board’s honorary correspondents, as was George Edward Mackay. In the Report, Reid estimated that there were 60 Aboriginal people in the area between Wodonga and Wangaratta, reaching over to the Kiewa Valley. Incidentally, by comparison, this number made this patch of country — originally so rich in natural resources of food, clothing and shelter — one of the least indigenous-populated regions in the state. [18] Mackay commented that these people rarely stayed in one location for more than a couple of weeks. That Aboriginal people continued to move through country, as they had done for millennia, shows extraordinary resilience; and yet the indigenous preference for movement was met with distaste by Mackay and Reid, because their perpetual movement afforded them poor prospects for permanent employment. [19]

In 1862, a reserve of 640 acres on which Aboriginal people were expected — somehow — to live, had been gazetted at Tangambalanga. Police Magistrate H. B. Lane distributed stores (food, blankets and clothing) to 41 people at Tangambalanga, while David Reid, now of The Hermitage (at Barnawatha, near Chiltern), distributed stores to 48 people. [120] Reid wrote that ‘The condition of the blacks is improved, owing to having food and raiment [i.e.: clothing], and being thereby protected in the winter from the effects of cold and rain. This, of course, with wholesome food, which they receive, tends to contentment and good health.’ [21]

In the ten years since the gold rush, and 24 years since the first pastoralists settled in North East Victoria, the miserable handouts, and tiny reserve on which it was hoped Aboriginal people would remain, was a far cry from the Australia Felix that they, and they alone, had created.

[1] Judith Bassett, ‘The Faithfull Massacre at the Broken River,’ in Journal of Australian Studies, Volume 13, Issue 24, 1989, pp.18-22. It is unclear whether the stockmen shot dead or maimed the Aborigines at the Ovens, but it seems they did so in response to two head of their cattle being speared.
[2] Bassett, ibid, p.32; A. G. L. Shaw, A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria Before Separation, MUP, p.114.
[3] George, Edward Mackay, from Tarrawingee, 30th August 1853, Letter 37 in Bride, T. (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898, pp.187-188.
[4] George Faithfull, from Wangaratta, 8th September 1853, Letter 27 in Bride, T. (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1898, pp.152-3.
[4b] (I’m going to be unprofessional here in this footnote, with the excuse that I consider this piece of writing to be a ‘work-in-progress’.) The fact that squatters retaliated against what were commonly referred to as ‘Aboriginal depredations’ with violence far out-weighing the original incidents was a well-known and oft-commented fact in the newspapers of the day. However, in order to demonstrate this fact conclusively, I will have to offer a number of sources — which I will do when I have time to go back over my source materials!
[5] NRS 906: Colonial Secretary: Commissioners of Crown Lands – Itineraries, Murrumbidgee, Henry Bingham, 10 Jul – Nov 1839, Aug 1843, Jul 1844, Mar – Nov 1845, Apr – Jun 1847 [X812], Reel 2748 [Squatters and Graziers Index, State Archives and Records NSW]
[6] 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, pp:28-30.
[7] George Edward Mackay, ibid.
In his letter Mackay attributes the cessation of Aboriginal attacks on his station (barring the occasional taking of a few head of cattle for food), to the fact that he followed the men responsible for the attack for 18 months, apprehending 17 of them who were subsequently gaoled in Melbourne.
[8] op. cit. George Faithful.
[9] ibid for George Faithfull. The Aboriginal Protectors and Assistant Protectors were appointed in late December 1837. The Protector for the Goulburn River district, which included North East Victoria, was James Dredge. The area was also subject to visits by Port Phillip’s Chief Aboriginal Protector, George Augustus Robinson. See: Ian Macfarlane (ed.), Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 2B: Aboriginal and Protectors, Victorian Government Printing Office, Melbourne, 1983, for information on James Dredge and the appointment of protectors in general; and: Ian Clarke [ed.], Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Heritage Matters, Beaconsfield, 1998, for further commentary.
[10] Faithful, ibid.
[11] Faithfull, ibid.
[12] John Hirst, ‘An Indigenous Game,’ in The Monthly, September 2008.
[12b] Aborigines : return to address Mr. Parker, 21st October 1853, Victorian Government paper (Legislative Council), 1853-54, no. C 33, p.24.
[13] Thomas Woolner, in Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner: His Life in Letters, Chapman and Hall, London, 1917.
[14] Seweryn Korzelinski, Memories of Gold Digging in Australia, translated and edited by Stanley Robe, UQP, 1979, p.78.
[15] Mrs Campbell, The Rough and the Smooth or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Quebec [Ontario] : Hunter, Rose & Co., 1865, p.108. (This entry from mid [May?] 1853).
[16] First Report of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, in the Colony of Victoria, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1861, p.9.
[17] ibid., p.11.
[18] ibid., p.13.
Even fewer Aboriginal people lived towards Mitta Mitta (27) and Omeo (6).
[19] idid, p.16, p.17.
[20] Second Report of the Central Board appointed to watch over the interests of The Aborigines, in the Colony of Victoria, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1862, p.17.
[21] ibid., p.10.