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This time, it’s you, my dear readers, who have come up trumps. Cheers all round, especially for those who are furthering my efforts to answer that question of ‘Where were Aboriginal people during the Beechworth gold rush?’

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.


A bark canoe sketched at Little River (Kiewa River, Tangambalanga) by Eugene von Guerard in 1862. (Source: Volume 12: Sketchbook XXXIII, No. 15 Australian. 1862 /​ by Eugene von Guerard. State Library of NSW). ‘King Billy of the Barwidgee tribe’ regularly camped on the Kiewa River at Tangambalanga.

Some months ago after reading my earlier post, Where were Aboriginal people during the gold rush? a reader named Richard (as it turns out, a good friend of good friends) mentioned that some years ago, someone in the Burke Museum showed him a reference in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser to an Aboriginal corroboree held at the races in Beechworth in the late 19th century. Richard suggested I follow it up. It’s taken me some time to get around to it, but I located the article to which he might have referred. And what a suggestion it has turned out to be — as until now I had difficulty placing Aboriginal people right in Beechworth around the time of the gold rush. Not any more.

The article seems to have been a news piece that follows in quick succession a report about the Wangaratta races in February, 1859, and I shall quote it in full:

‘Fashionable Arrivals — Beechworth has been, within the past day or two, honored with the presence of royalty, the representative of kingdoms in this case being no less a personage than King Billy, of the Barwidgee tribe. The king (we learn his rank from the brass plate suspended from his neck) is accompanied by about half a score of his sable countrymen, who, we presume, hold high offices in the executive of His Majesty of Barwidgee. A number of the gentler sex are also attached to the regal retinue, and the peculiarity of whose beauty has attracted the gaze, if not the admiration, of the good people of Beechworth, during the short period they have been sojourning in our midst. The party in the aggregate numbers nearly twenty, including an half cast of about twelve years of age, who we are informed as an indisputable fact has some of the blood of an ancient Scotch family in her veins, and whose familiar patronymic amongst her black companions is the Highland name of her putative father. The notorious Merryman appears to be Prime Minister of the tribe. This individual, it will be remembered, was one of the party of blacks concerned in the murder of Mr Faithful’s men some years ago, and only escaped well-merited retribution from the impossibility of directly connecting him with the crime. The boundaries of the territory, or run perhaps would be more correct, owned by this tribe, extends from the Ovens River to the lands beyond the Omeo, including the Mitta Mitta country, and all this side of the Murray for a great distance from the river. They pay periodical visits to every part of their district, always reaching Beechworth about the time when the races come off, and remain until the curiosity occasioned by their presence has subsided, and they instinctively find that their longer continuance is a nuisance. The number of the blacks in this neighborhood is getting small indeed, ere long, the sight of a member of any of the tribes who formerly hunted the kangaroo and the wallaby in grounds now covered by the habitations of civilized man, will be one of rare occurrence.’ [1]

We may well now cringe at the condescending tone of this article, and its once commonplace supposition that these Aboriginal people would simply ‘die out’, but it does offer some valuable insights. It astounds me that as late as 1859, this clan was still moving about their country — perhaps in something of a traditional manner (with ‘Little River’ [Tangambalanga] being another regular encampment) — despite two decades of European invasion. We can even tell that their arrival in Beechworth was seasonal, as it happened yearly, ‘about the time the races come off’, which seems to have been between late February and early April, if we use the Annual Beechworth Race Meeting as a guide. This is a period in which the seasons are in transition, and according to the late Bpangerang elder Eddie Kneebone, in which Aboriginal peoples made their way from the high country where they harvested bogong moths over Summer, down to the river flats in Autumn. [2]

Who were these people who identified Beechworth as a part of their country in 1859? Who were this clan who could count Merriman — famous for his involvement in the Faithfull Massacre some 21 years earlier — as a leader? One of my readers, Megan, has generously offered that she is descended from the clan involved in the Faithfull Massacre, and says ‘we are multi-clan: Waywurru and Dhudhuroa people. Lots of movement in the old days: from Corryong to Kiewa, Tarrawingee and Oxley up to Wodonga and Rutherglen.’ (*see my note).

Aborignal_breast plate_National_Museum_Australia

A brass breastplate similar to that which was worn by ‘King Billy of the Barwidgee tribe’ when he visited Beechworth in the 1850s. (Image: National Museum of Australia.)

By the mention of King Billy’s ‘brass plate’ (breastplate, which he can be seen wearing in his portrait c. 1869, now held in the National Library), it seems that King Billy was judged by non-Aboriginal administrators to be a ‘chief’ among his people, and yet it also marks him as a man who was most likely cooperative in some way with White people. This fact makes it all the more interesting that he was accompanied by his son Merriman — the warrior who years before was not only involved in the Faithfull Massacre (which destroyed the first attempt by Whites to settle on the Broken River at Benalla), but is also said to have been responsible for a retributive attack on squatter David Reid’s run ‘Currargarmonge’, and later, an attack which completely drove squatter Dr George Edward Mackay’s shepherds, hut keepers and stock off his run at Whorouly in May 1840 — figuratively and quite literally ‘lock, stock and barrel’. [3] At the time of these events, Merriman had been captured by the Border and Mounted Police not once, but twice — and escaped both times to return to his parents ‘King Billy Elengeist’ and ‘Queen Mary’ and family, who were camped at Little River [i.e.: Tangambalanga]. [4]

No doubt many residents of Beechworth took a good look at King Billy and his clan when they came to town each year. Squatter David Reid, who still lived in the district, knew of Merriman and all that he stood for: a warrior who had conducted a guerrilla attack on the Faithfull party’s shepherds in 1838; who’d fronted-up already wise to their ways, wearing European clothes and speaking English [5], and yet was determined to defend his people and lands against the violence and depredation wrought by these White newcomers. And so we might guess that even two decades after these events, many Beechworth residents knew something important about King Billy and his ‘Prime Minister’ Merriman. They may have tried to joke about it, but deep down they knew that there was much more to these ‘Fashionable Arrivals’.

Postscript: if anyone knows the whereabouts of King Billy’s breastplate, or has any more information about King Billy and his family, please share the information.

∗This is not to detract from the fact that an elder in the Bpangerang tribe, Freddie Dowling, has sent me many historic maps [and also included the N. B. Tindale map of 1974] which shows that Beechworth fell in the Bpangerang tribal area. I can only say with the greatest respect that it is not my place to reconcile the varying information.

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

[2] Eddie Kneebone, ‘Interpreting Traditional Culture as Land Management,’ in Birkhead, J., DeLacy, T.’ and Smith, L.J (eds.) Aboriginal Involvement in Parks and Protected Areas, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1993, pp.227-235 [this reference, p.231].

[3] Reminiscences of David Reid : as given to J.C.H. Ogier (in Nov. 1905), who has set them down in the third person, manuscript, National Library of Australia, pp.32-33.
I am generally suspicious of this reference, as it was written when David Reid was of an advanced age, almost seventy years after the events he recounts. However, in this case I think Reid’s memory demonstrates that Merriman had a formidable reputation as a warrior.

[4] Bassett, Judith, ‘The Faithful Massacre at the Broken River,’ in  Journal of Australian Studies, Number 24, May, 1989, p.26. Bassett says that Merriman was the son of ‘King Billy Elengeist’ and ‘Queen Emily’.
Bassett says that Merriman escaped and returned to his family at Little River, Kiewa. Little River is the old name for the Kiewa River. The camp site seems to have been at Tangambalanga/Kiewa, as King Billy and his wife Emily are recorded as having regularly camped there in later years: ‘Grandfather (Joseph Coulston) came to Tangambalanga 61 years ago there was only one house on Tangam then and no fences or roads. Some black fellows, old King Billy and Queen Emily and a few more lived in a tent near where our church is now and when they went away they all carried swags on their backs and about a dozen dogs followed them’ Source: letter written by the mother of Nellie Barton (nee Coulston) in 1933, referring to the 1870s. Letter held by Nellie Barton; excerpt appearing in ‘Kiewa Valley Environmental History‘ slide show, put together by the Kiewa Catchment Landscape Group. Note that the letter specifies ‘when they went away’, meaning that they didn’t camp here permanently.

[5] Bassett, ibid — explains that Merriman was in European dress during the Faithfull Massacre, etc; and Ogier, op. cit., p.32. in which Reid is at pains to state that Merriman had lived with Whites before the Faithfull Massacre, and knew their ways: ‘This this blackfellow [Merriman] had been several years amongst the whites on the Hume River [i.e.: Murray] and therefore was to some extent a half civilised black the most dangerous, because from being brought up amongst white people he had the opportunity of judging as to their means of defence, and their customs were familiar to him. Hence he had the knowledge as to what would be the best means to attack them with the least danger and the greater certainty of success.’ This fact is corroborated (to an extent) by the information that Merriman ran a bark canoe across the river at Albury for Robert Brown, when he set up the first Inn there in 1836. (Dr Arthur Andrews, The History of Albury, 1824-1895, Albury and District Historical Society, Albury, 1988, p.5).