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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.

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