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EThe widespread modern-day convention is that the upper Broken River Valley is regarded as Taungurung country: more specifically, the Yeerun-illum-balluk local group (‘clan’) of the Taungurung-speaking peoples. However, a continuation of my fine-toothed analysis of the primary historical sources suggests that while this local group did indeed exist, they were located father south of Benalla and formed part of a significant Eastern Taungurung cultural block.

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.
A spectacular vantage point from the top of the spiritually significant Cathedral Range in Eastern Taungurung country, looking towards Marysville and down into the Acheron River Valley. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons).

In my last blog post Who were the First People of the Broken River?, I expressed concern over the manner in which Benalla and the upper Broken River Valley have been previously mapped as belonging to a Taungurung local group, named by anthropologist Diane Barwick as the ‘Yeerun-illum-balluk’. I was concerned at the paucity of evidence for this mapping, when there was more substantive evidence to suggest that this area of country was occupied by the Pallangan-middang local group of the Waywurru speaking peoples. However, while I am generally concerned with the history of Waywurru peoples, it is not enough — not really — to remove a Taungurung local group which did exist from a map with no further explanation. From a historical point of view, this is especially problematic when that particular local group formed, along with two other Eastern Taungurung local groups (Yowung-illum and Waring-illum), a highly influential cultural bloc.

I will make a final (but at this stage, brief) discussion of why the Eastern Taungurung people are so important, but first I will make a technical and historiographical explanation of why I think Diane Barwick, in her landmark paper Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904, Part 1 (1984), was incorrect in her mapping not one, but two local groups with remarkably similar names. (I will also briefly reiterate that overall, I greatly admire her work.)

Barwick’s local groups (‘clans‘)

Here are the locational descriptions of two Taungurung-speaking local groups taken directly from Barwick’s Mapping the Past:

‘YEERUN-ILLAM-BALLUK (Yeerungillam, Yirun-illam-baluk, Yarrun-illum-balluk, corrected to Yeerun-illum-balluk, …
Location: Broken river above and below Benalla (H), ‘by swamp below Benalla (H);’


YARAN-ILLAM (Yarranillums, Yarring Nellams, Yeranillum, Yar-re-nil-lum, Yare-re-nil-lum, Yarrerwillums, Yerra-willum)
Location: E side of Goulburn ‘below’ Seymour, at Mitchellstown, at Aitken’s station, Yea;’

A section of Diane Barwick’s map of central Victoria from Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904, Part 1 (1984)

The primary evidence

Warning to readers: this part is a bit tedious, but it must be included for the record.

Barwick has drawn her locational evidence for these local groups from two primary sources: the papers and publications of Alfred Howitt, and the Journals of George Augustus Robinson.

Alfred Howitt

In a notebook, Alfred Howitt recorded notes made while in consultation with Woiwurrung (Wurrundjeri) elder William Barak. Howitt recorded:

‘Big swamp, below Benalla. Yeerŭn illŭm’ (Alfred Howitt notebook XM759, held by Museums Victoria.)

In another notebook also containing notes made in consultation with William Barak, Howitt records ‘ones from Yiran illŭm — lived west side Goulburn river below Seymour at Aitkins Station [,] that is the Yiran illŭm’s creek’. (Alfred Howitt, notebook XM761, Museum of Victoria.)

This piece of information was subsequently re-formatted by Howitt in his manuscript now known as ‘Notes by Howitt on Kulin from Barak,’ in which moieties are discussed. Howitt wrote:

‘The Neri balluk were all Waang and Married wives from the Yiran illŭm who lived on the west-side of the Goulburn River below Seymour at Aitken’s Station[,] all there are Bŭnjil.’ (Alfred Howitt, HOW391, State Library of Victoria.)

In his book Native Tribes of South East Australia (1904, p.71), Howitt then records the group as ‘Yirun-illum-baluk Broken River above and below Benalla.’ I have mentioned in my previous post that Howitt made his own interpolation by adding ‘above’ Benalla, when Barak specifically said ‘below’, arguing that ‘above Benalla’ should be ignored.

At this point it is also worth noting that there are two confusing pieces of information in this primary evidence, placing the Yeerŭn-illŭm at a ‘Big Swamp Below Benalla’; and the information that the Yiran-illŭm, while on Aitkin’s station, were also in a location ‘below Seymour’. How to interpret these snippets? I am convinced that by the time he was interviewed by Howitt, William Barak had a very good grip on cardinal points, having had experience in both the Native Police Corps, and later in helping to track the Kelly Gang. Also, when reading through Howitt’s notes, one sees him using ‘above’ and ‘below’ in place of ‘north’ and ‘south’. Therefore in this context, I would argue that ‘below’ means ‘south of’. It should be also noted that throughout Howitt’s notes and writings, there is only one local group with the name Yeerŭn illŭm, the spelling of which he later changes to Yiran illŭm. One can safely assume that Barak was continuously referring to the same group of people, and that they occupied land south of Seymour and south of Benalla.

George Augustus Robinson

Barwick’s other main evidentiary source was George Augustus Robinson, who makes reference to two local groups which have virtually the same name, but are in two distinct geographical locations. This is almost certainly what led Diane Barwick to distinguish two groups instead of Howitt’s one: she called them Yaran-illum and Yeerun-Illum to distinguish them from one from another, but Robinson evidently heard the same name and used virtually identical spellings.

Yarren-illum 1:

On Wednesday 27 May 1840, while traveling through the Campaspe Plains and Mount Alexander (Harcourt), George Augustus Robinson commented: ‘Yarernillum: country the road runs through.’

Then on Monday 1 June 1840, he commented, ‘Yar.re.nil.lum: these occupy the country at Dredge’s.’ ‘Dredges’ referred to James Dredge’s Protectorate station, at the time located on the Goulburn River at Mitchellstown.

One final piece of locational information regarding this local group comes from a list of First Nations people (variously Taungurung, Waywurru, Pangerang, Wiradjuri and Ngurai-illam-wurrung) collected by Robinson at a large gathering of people on Jospeh Docker’s Bontharambo station, and diarised by him on 23 February, 1841. Robinson recorded the presence of a man known as ‘Out-nort’:

‘Out.nort, alias Billy, Mollison’s shepherd, Yarrernillum’. This means that Outnort had come from Mollison’s Coliban pastoral run, west of Mitchellstown.

Yarren-illum 2:

On Monday 6 April 1840, when passing though what is now Cathkin on the Upper Goulburn River, Robinson recorded of the people he met, stating ‘These blacks belong to the 1. Yow.en.nil.lum, 2. Yare.re.nil.um, 3. War.re.yal.lum sections of the Torngoorong [Taungurung] tribe. The country at Dr Patrick’s belongs to these sections.’ Dr Patrick was located at Cathkin on the upper Goulburn River.

What a comparison between Barwick’s local groups (‘clans’) and the primary evidence can tell us:

Critically, this original primary evidence gives the position of the Yiran-illum (ie: Barwick’s Yaran-illum) as west of the Goulburn River (not east as mis-transcribed by Barwick), and gives the exact position as ‘below Seymour at Aiktin’s station’. Barwick’s reference to ‘Mitchellstown’ is a select piece of information derived from the Journals of George Augustus Robinson inserted into the middle of Howitt’s description, and constitutes her own interpolation — probably an attempt on her part to incorrectly reconcile ‘below Seymour’ as meaning ‘downstream of Seymour’ rather than ‘south of Seymour’. In this context, Mitchellstown can be discounted as irrelevant.

Likewise, the suggestion of ‘Yea’ as a geographical position for the Yaran-illum, which Barwick attributes to Howitt, is contradicted in Howitt’s own notes from William Barak, in which it is stated that the ‘Muddy Creek’ (ie: Yea River) belonged to the ‘Warring-illum’. This was later re-written by Howitt as ‘Waring ilum balluk, Locality – Yea River, Class – Bunjil’. Any mention of Yea in relation to the Yaran-illum can be therefore also discounted.

Fortunately, when looking at Barak’s original statement regarding the Yiran-illum in isolation, the location is quite clear. There were only two ‘Aitkens’ who held stations (pastoral runs) in Victoria, and only one of these, John Christie Aitken, held a pastoral lease in Taungurung country (the other station, Mount Aitken, was in Woiwurrung country). Although John Christie Aitken would at times hold various pastoral runs in the immediate geographical vicinity, his original and longest-held run was ‘Thornton’, which had its head station situated on the west bank of the Goulburn River, just east of its junction with the Rubicon River (the location marked by the present-day township of Thornton. Taungurung people camped at Thornton, some worked for Aitken, and Aitken was a familiar identity to them.). When William Barak stated, ‘that is the Yiran illŭm’s creek,’ he was almost certainly referring to the Rubicon River. This information concerning Aitkin’s station was clearly overlooked by both Barwick and Howitt, and yet it is highly specific.

This easterly position of the Yiran-illum/Yaran-illum clan within Taungurung lands, is also borne out in the geographical locations at which George Augustus Robinson encountered Yaran-illum people (in conjunction with the Mansfield-based Yowung-illum and the Yea-based Waring-illum) when he visited the area in 1840, at the locations of Cathkin and Mount Battery (Mansfield). (See his entries for Monday 6 April 1840, Monday 11 May 1840, Wednesday 13 May, 1840.)

If one accepts that a local group called Yarren-illum/Yiran-illum lived on the Upper Goulburn River and its tributaries, this still leaves a second set of information relating to an area further west: a Yarren-illum group associated with country reaching between the Campaspe Plains, to the Coliban River and Mitchellstown on the mid-Goulburn River, as mentioned by George Augustus Robinson. Doubtless that they existed, but they were a different group to those on the Upper Goulburn.

A draft mapping suggested by this re-analysis of local groups named Yaran-illum/Yiran-illum. It does not include all Taungurung local groups. More research is required to firm-up the location of the Western Yaran-illum.

What’s in a name?

In fact, the name Yarren-illam (and its variant/cognate forms) appears to be, in Kulinic languages, a generic locational name. While the ‘-illum’ suffix on the name simply means ‘dwelling place’, the beginning of the name is a locational reference. As former Assistant Protector of the Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, Edward Stone Parker observed in 1854, ‘we have on the Goulburn [River]… the Yowang-illam, “dwellers on the mountain” [and] the Yerra-william, “dwellers on the river”.’  Under these circumstances, it is not impossible that Yarren-illum (and all its variant spellings) was a generic local group name for people who live on a river — and there is no reason why it might not have been used in more than one location.

*Please note, in this paper I have used multiple historical spellings for what Parker called Yerra-william, but I regard all spellings as representing the same name and meaning.

Why does it even matter?

This analysis places three Eastern Taungurung-speaking local groups — the Yowung-illum (mountain dwellers on the Delatite River, Mansfield, Mount Buller); the Yirun-illum (river dwellers of the Acheron and Rubicon Rivers and Snob’s Creek); and the Waring-illum (people of the upper reaches of the Goulburn River) — people whom we know (from George Augustus Robinson) shared Cathkin/Molesworth (crossing place on the upper Goulburn River) as part of their country; as a group who shared a very distinctive and beautiful block of country reaching from Murrundindi to Yea, to Marysville, Alexandra and Mansfield.

As a historian, one can find individuals from all three groups heavily represented together in several significant historical episodes, including the Lettsom raid of 1840 in which Samuel Lettsom and his troopers brutally rounded up 400 First Nations people at a gathering in Melbourne, shooting prominent Waring-illum figure Winberry, arresting thirty-three men and eventually putting 9 men on trial for stealing sheep (all of whom were Eastern Taungurung); in the deputation of Taungurung men who went to Melbourne to petition the government for their own land in 1859 (with Acheron Reserve all-too-briefly granted to them in 1860); and in the march over the ‘Blacks Spur’ when many Taungurung people left their homelands to resettle at Coranderrk Reserve in Healesville in the 1860s.

These were monumental events within a continuous struggle by Eastern Taungurung people to maintain their place in the world. It helps us to understand these events by examining the individuals involved. To understand these resilient and courageous individuals, it helps to understand how they conceived themselves. Kinship ties and connection to country must surely be central to this understanding.


If you have any other thoughts on this, or any other information which you think can contribute critically to this analysis, comments and constructive criticisms are genuinely welcome.


Diane Barwick, ‘Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835–1904’, Aboriginal History, vol. 8, 1984, pp.100-131.

Ian Clark (ed.), The Journals of George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector, Port Phillip Aboriginal Protectorate, 1839-1852, Ian Clark, Melbourne, 2014.

Alfred Howitt, Native Tribes of South-East Australia, Macmillan, London, 1904.

Edward Stone Parker, The Aborigines of Australia; Delivered in the Mechanics’ Hall, Melbourne, before the John Knox Your Men’s Association, on Wednesday, May, 10th, 1854, Melbourne, Henry Hugh McColl, Melbourne, 1854.  

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