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The widespread modern-day convention is that the upper Broken River Valley is regarded as Taungurung country: more specifically, the Yirun-illum-balluk local group (‘clan’) of the Taungurung-speaking peoples. However, a fine-tooth analysis of the primary historical sources tells a different story about the Broken River Valley stretching from Benalla to the doorstep of Mansfield.


Mount Buller, Māarāain in Taungurung language, as seen from the Howqua Valley. 

Preface: This post is long and largely a technical discussion concerning the historical location of Aboriginal groups in the Broken River Valley between Benalla and Mansfield, according to the key primary historical documents. Like all historical records, these documents present a highly fragmented version of the past; and considering that they were created by European colonisers, offer a culturally compromised account. Nevertheless, some of these records do attempt to record information as stated by Aboriginal people of the period, and as such, represent the best archival information we have in terms of recorded Aboriginal voices relating to the country of the upper Broken River Valley.

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.


Allow me to reassure you, dear readers, that modern-day Mansfield always was and always will be the country of the Yowung-illum-ballak local group of the Taungurung-speaking peoples. I wish to state early in this blog post, that when you look at Mount Battery, the Paps, Mount Buller, or the Delatite River, you should know that you are firmly in the country of the Yowung-illum-ballak local group of the Taungurung-speaking peoples, of the Kulin ‘confederacy.’ The Yowung-illum-ballak whom Europeans once called the ‘Devil’s River’ people. However, it is the purpose of this blog post to demonstrate that, insofar as primary documentary historical evidence is concerned, historically, Taungurung lands do not appear to have extended further down the Broken River to Benalla.

Ever since the publication in 1904 of Alfred Howitt’s Native Tribes of South-East Australia, the Broken River Valley from Benalla to Mansfield, has been described as Taungurung country, and more specifically, as belonging to a local group (‘clan’) said to be located ‘above and below Benalla’ known as the ‘Yirun-illum-baluk’. [Howitt, 1904, p.71] The same group is mapped in American anthropologist Daniel Sutherland Davidson’s book  A preliminary register of Australian tribes and hordes [1938], as extending as far north as the Ovens River Valley.

This idea of the existence of the Yirun-illum-baluk at Benalla was further solidified when the late, great anthropologist Diane Barwick listed this local group in her landmark paper ‘Mapping the Past: An Atlas of Victorian Clans 1835-1904’ [Aboriginal History, Vol. 8, 1984] as the ‘Yeerun-illum-balluk’ which she recorded, quoting from Howitt’s book, as ‘Broken River above and below Benalla’ and, quoting from Howitt’s field notes, as ‘by [sic] swamp below Benalla,’ adding ‘site of April 1838 “Faithfull Massacre”.’ [Barwick, 1984, p.128] Ian Clark reiterates this information in his book Aboriginal languages and clans: an historical atlas of western and central Victoria, 1800-1900 (1990), although as his source material, he quotes Howitt, Davidson and Barwick. [Clark, 1990, p.375]

Note the chain of evidence here: Clark cited Barwick and Howitt, and Barwick cited Howitt. Howitt is the key source under scrutiny.

I will openly admit that for several years, I have just trusted that Barwick’s analysis was correct, principally because she gets so much else right. However, her reference material in ‘Mapping the Past’ is not fully footnoted (she only uses superscript letters to demonstrate the authors of materials from which she has sourced information, but nothing more). This has made checking her references challenging. Nevertheless, Barwick did also state clearly in the same work that, ‘The clan lists which follow are merely a reconstruction from available evidence, offered as a gloss or “crib” for other scholars searching the archival evidence, in the hope that further work will expand and correct my attempt at mapping the past.’ [Barwick, 1984, p.113] On this basis, I hope that it is with Barwick’s blessing that I am about to ‘expand and correct’ a small part of her work (and in turn, my own, considering that I have uncritically referenced her material before).

Since Barwick wrote ‘Mapping the Past’, two important developments have occurred in terms of access to relevant primary historical documentary materials. Firstly, Ian Clark transcribed the Journals of the George Augustus Robinson, Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District in full, so that people like myself could have the luxury of repeatedly pouring over and pondering their contents. Secondly, the Howitt and Fison’s Archive project (a collaborative project which historian Amanda Lourie has had a major hand in conducting), has put virtually all of anthropologist Alfred Howitt’s hand written notebooks and documents (containing the notes which formed the basis of his book Native-Tribes of South East Australia) on-line, where they too have been, for the most part, transcribed. It would be an understatement to say that I am appreciative of these efforts, and it is on the basis of these developments that I am able to make this small challenge to the status quo.

My issue with Barwick’s placement of the Yirun-illum-baluk at Benalla can be summarised as: (a) the paucity of primary evidence which can positively place this clan at Benalla, and (b) the existence of contradictory evidence.

Firstly, to tackle the the paucity of primary evidence which can positively place the Yirun-illum-baluk local group [clan] at Benalla: upon reconstructing Barwick’s footnotes based on her statement of source materials, it is possible to see that her references to Alfred Howitt’s writings can be traced back to one single locative reference to the Yirun-illum-baluk in his original notes, comprising an original interview with Woiwurrung elder William Barak. This is that the Yirun-illum-baluk were located at ‘Big swamp, below Benalla’. The same notebook contains other notes about the extent of the Kulin world mentioning Benalla, but notably also including mention of known Pangerang [Yorta Yorta] lands at Echuca, suggesting Barak was broadly discussing a sphere of Kulin influence rather than strictly describing the boundaries of the Kulin world. [Alfred Howitt notebook XM759, held by Museums Victoria]

I will reiterate: the only direct evidence I can find that the Yirun-illum-baluk / Yeerun-illum-balluk were located anywhere near Benalla comes from Howitt’s original interview notes with Barak, and that simply says ‘Big swamp Below Benalla Yeerŭn illŭm ballŭk’.

When reading Howitt’s manuscript materials (field notes and draft version of text), in which he writes field notes, and then gradually refines his notes in order to work them into book form, it is easy to see how the Yeerŭm illŭm ballŭk, which in the earliest notebook is listed as ‘below Benalla’; is changed in a later notebook [Alfred Howitt notebook XM690, held by the Museum of Victoria] to the ‘Yiran-ilum-balluk of Goulburn River, Seymour to Benalla;’ to finally end up  in the 1904 book being described as being located at ‘Broken River above and below Benalla.’ (The spelling changes too, but this does not matter.) In other words, Howitt’s final published location of Yirun-illum-baluk does not accord well with his earlier interview notes, seemingly written when he was in direct conversation with William Barak. Indeed it very much appears that he has migrated the Yiran-ilum-balluk further north, so that they are no longer somewhere ‘below Benalla’ but ‘above and below Benalla.’ That the Yiran-ilum-balluk are located at Benalla appears to be his later interpolation.

Secondly, to tackle the existence of contradictory evidence: this can be found in two sources: the 1840s journal entries of George Augustus Robinson written in situ, and finally, in the interview notes of ethnographer R.H. Matthews, obviously written sometime after he had a discussion with Dhudhuroa man Neddy Wheeler. [MS 8006, National Library]

Evidence from the journals of George Augustus Robinson, 1840

The only known evidence written by someone who travelled through the Broken River Valley during the early European ‘settlement’ period — a written record in which specific named Aboriginal people and Aboriginal groups are attached to specific geographical locations — exists in the journals of the Chief Protector of Aborigines for the Port Phillip District, George Augustus Robinson. In April 1840, Robinson rode horseback along the east bank of the Broken River from what is now Benalla to the area of Castle Hill (ie: Moorngag area), visiting the ‘run’ of squatter William Broadribb, with its sheep and cattle stations dotted along the river. In May 1840, he also rode along the length of the west bank of the Broken River from what is now modern-day Benalla to modern-day Mansfield, visiting McKellar’s Lima run, Stuckey’s run (later known as Barjarg), and the conglomerate of runs then held by the Scottish syndicate ‘Hunter and Watson’. On this journey, he was accompanied by Assistant Protector James Dredge (of the Goulburn River Aboriginal Protectorate station at Mitchellstown).

Not only were Robinson’s notes written in situ, but they were written decades earlier than those by Alfred Howitt.

Broken River east bank, Benalla to Moorngag area

On the 20 April 1840, Robinson writes in his journal: ‘Bal.lin.go.yallum at Brodrib’s. … Rode on to Broadrib’s first sheep station two miles from the barracks [ie: Benalla Police Barracks]. Left this keeping to the east side of the river as it is called or rather a chain of ponds. At five miles from the last hut reached Brodrib’s head station… I was informed Mr Brodrib was at was the upper station, six miles, I resolved to ride on, particularly as I was informed several natives were there assisting in branding the cattle and I wished to be a spectator and also to see the country. East of the cattle station found the three Brodrib brothers with the cattle in one of the best built stockyards I have ever seen’.

This means that the squatter William Brodribb’s sheep station was two miles [3.5km] from Benalla, and the head station was 7 miles [approx. 11km] from the Benalla Police Barracks, on the east side of the Broken River. (This location is roughly marked by the prominent geographical feature of Mount Pleasant to the south. Interestingly, Robinson records the name of this location as ‘Pen.der.re’.) The cattle station is 13 miles [21km] from Benalla, roughly near Castle Hill Road.

At the cattle station, Robinson records that he communicates with eight Aboriginal men working for Brodribb. Six named men are said by Robinson to be ‘Worile.lum blacks’, one is Pangerang [which he writes as ‘Pingerine,’ ie: Yorta Yorta] and one is named ‘Dart.dark, 25 [years old]. This man is a Balling.yallum, belong to the Ovens River tribe at Broadrib’s.

This group of men was quite clearly a mixed group of station workers, only one or more of whom can be assumed to be ‘on country’, while the rest are outside of their own country. However, it is clear from his descriptions that the ‘Balling.yallum’ local group (‘clan’) belong to the Ovens River tribe at Brodribb’s station. Robinson also later records the presence of two more people — a boy from a Snowy Mountains ‘tribe’ and ‘Also a youth, 17 … belonging to the Ovens River tribe.’

Robinson comments that he has ascertained that ‘these natives belong or were parts of three tribes:’
‘1. The Bal.lin.go.yal.lums, a section* of the Ovens tribe, called I believe Wee.her.roo, so says Mr Broadribb (queri);
2. The Buth.er.rer.bul.luc, a section of the Tar.doon.gerong [ie: a Taungurung local group whose country is known to be located further south]
3. The Wor.rile.lum, a large tribe inhabiting the country down the Goulburn River and by the Murry, east side;
4. And the Pine.gar.rines, a large tribe inhabiting the country on the south and south west banks of the Murry.’

[*’Section’ is Robinson’s term for local group or ‘clan’.]

By 25 April 1840, Robinson is mulling over what he has learned to date about the local Aboriginal people of North East Victoria, and records in his diary:

‘Wee.er.roo; Way.you.roo: the name of the tribe at Brodrib’s: query?’

Quite clearly Robinson has the impression that the Aboriginal people at William Brodribb’s station on the Broken River at and above Benalla might be Waywurru people, that they are an Ovens River-based tribe, but are also the tribe at Broadribb’s run on the Broken River, but he remains unsure and notes that he should ‘query’ some aspect/s of fact.

Broken River west bank, Benalla to Mansfield area

Having travelled up to Wodonga, Robinson returns to Benalla and the upper Broken River in May, on his journey back to Melbourne. This time, he travels from Benalla mostly along the west bank of the Broken River, as far as modern day Mansfield.

On the 9 May 1840, Robinson visits squatter William McKellar, who is located ‘about 14 miles from the police barracks… on the main branch of the Broken River’. (This site is mapped by McKellar Road and what remains to this day as ‘Lima Station’.) From here, Robinson continues to travel further up the river, and on 10 May 1840, he arrives at Peter Stuckey Junior’s station (at what is now Barjarg station), where he stays the night.

On 11 May 1840, he travels further up the Broken River until he comes to the series of runs held by the Scottish company ‘Hunter and Watson’. Robinson says he can see Mount Battery in the near distance, and farther off, the mountains of ‘Mar.rine’ [Mount Buller] and ‘War.rine.but’ [Mount Timbertop]. He notes that ‘On a branch of the Broken River Hunter and Watson have their cattle station.’ He and Dredge meet the superintendent of this cattle run, Mr Young, and then ‘proceeded with Mr Young to Mt Battery, the head sheep station, which was six miles.’ [9.5km]

Three ‘black women’ are at the Mount Battery sheep station when they arrive. Writes Robinson, ‘These women are:
a) 1. Tore.ren.gor.oke, 25, 2. Under.mil.parng.go.nic.tare.rap, alias Betty, a Pal.len.go.il.lum, their country is near the cattle station at Broken River.
b) Tal.lan, 16 alias Mary Ann, a War.ing.il.lum gorroke. Warring: name of the big water river, the Goulburn is called Warrin.
c) Pil.lug.ger.nite, 30, a Yare.rer.nil.lum.

So once again we have a mixed group of women, two of whom (‘Betty’ and ‘Mary Ann’) carry the Taungurung feminine suffix ‘goroke’; and two of whom (the War.ing.il.lum women Mary Ann, and the Yare.rer.nil.lum woman) are certainly Taungurung, as Robinson notes their local groups — known Taungurung ‘clans’. This is to be expected, as Mount Battery is Taungurung country. Even a non-Taungurung woman like Betty might describe herself in Taungurung terms while on this country, hence her use of the suffix ‘goroke’, even though her natal local group (clan) is Pal.len.go.il.lum.

Critically, the woman ‘Under.mil.parng.go.nic.tare.rap, alias Betty,’ is from the ‘Pal.len.go.il.lum’ local group (clan), and Robinson says ‘their country is near the cattle station at Broken River.’ Robinson has only just come from Hunter and Watson’s cattle station on the Broken River, and we can safely assume this is the cattle station to which he is referring. This cattle station has been already described as being six miles (9.5km) from the Mount Battery sheep station.

Robinson re-meets these women plus another two the following day, on 12 May 1840, when he also meets ‘the Chief of the Yow.eng.illum tribe, Bit.er.ruc, a fine good natured old man, 50, called by the whites after the hill, Bay.er.lite’ and a number of other Yowung-illum-ballak local group men, including some of Bitteruc’s sons. What follows is an extraordinary statement by Bitteruc regarding the country of the Yowung-illum-ballak local group, which includes ‘Bayolite’ (Mount Battery), the Paps and the Delatite River. Robinson records: ‘Bit.ter.uc assured me it was his country and in his own language said good country my country.’ Critcally Robinson also adds ‘Bit.ter.ruc informed me that the Pal.len.go.il.lum country was at or by the cattle station, at least so I understood him.’

This is the second time an Aboriginal person appears to have told Robinson that Pallengoillum country is at or near Hunter and Watson’s cattle station. This station, located roughly six miles from Mt Battery on the Broken River, is clearly marked on a map of Hunter and Watson’s holdings, which was sketched by Robert Russel in 1846. It is the head station of their ‘Deuaran run’, where Blue Range Creek flows into the Broken River, which today is the homestead of Dueran Station.

Hunter and Watson'sRobert Russell’s 1846 map of Hunter and Watson’s station illustrates the Duearan station on the east bank of the Broken River.

tempImageMtrSbZThe front gate of Dueran station today, with the Broken River flats in the background.

Later still, on 1 June 1840, Robinson is told by Taungurung people about the  ‘Pal.lum.gy.mit.um: at Dow.koy.yong; to the NE of Mt Battery’. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a present-day Dowkoyong, although there is a Cambatong in the area (parish and road name). 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 ‘Dow.koy.ong’ is either at Barwite, Tolmie, a location in the upper King Valley, or even Cambatong.

By 10 December of that year, Robinson was writing of an Aboriginal who had been taken prisoner and sent to Melbourne, whom he recorded as ‘Jag.ger.rog.rar, conferred name Harlequin, belonging to the Pal.len.go.il.lum section of the Wavaroo tribe, country between the Broken River and the Hume [ie: Murray]…. locality, at Pan.der.ram.bo.go, Docker’s Plains’. In other words, Robinson had formed a firm idea in his mind of the extent of Waywurru country, and that it ran from the Broken River to the Murray.

In summary, in Robinson’s journals we find evidence to strongly suggest that, at the very least, the east side of the Broken River Valley belonged to a local group of the Waywurru people, called the Pal.len.go.il.lum or Bal.lin.go.yal.lum. (Linguistically, ‘P’ and ‘B’ actually represent the same sound in this context). In these instances, the name of this local group bears the Taungurung (and more broadly Kulin) suffix denoting a local area group, ‘—illum’. When we remove the Taungurung suffix, and replace it with the north east Victorian alpine suffix also denoting a local area group, ‘—mittung’, it becomes ‘Pallengomittung’. This is what Robinson is attempting to render when he wrote Pal.lum.gy.mit.um. Today, linguists commonly write this as Pallangan-middang.

Screen Shot 2020-10-01 at 3.44.01 am

A map of the Upper Broken River Valley. Red stars denote places which Robinson thought were areas of Pallangan-middang (broadly speaking, Waywurru) country. Blue stars denote areas stated by Yowung-illum-ballak ‘chief’ Bitteruc as being ‘his country,’ which included the Delatite River Valley.

Corroboration from the Dhudhuroa man Neddy Wheeler

Significantly, there is corroborating evidence to suggest that Robinson’s acquired knowledge — that the Broken River country through which he travelled belonged to the Pallanganmiddang local group of the Waywurru or ‘Ovens River’ people — is correct. This comes from Aboriginal man Neddy Wheeler, who told ethnographer R. H. Mathews that the people in the Broken River Valley spoke the same language as those in the Ovens River Valley; a language which he called ‘Minjambuta’.

As I explained in my recent paper Mogullumbidj: First People of Mount Buffalo (Victorian Historical Journal, Volume 91, Number 1, June 2020):

‘Just after the turn of the century, amateur ethnographer R.H. 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 …  ‘Minyambuta’. According to Mathews, Minyambuta was spoken in the Ovens River Valley from Wangaratta to Bright, to Beechworth, Mount Buffalo, and even in Benalla and the Broken River Valley.’ (Durrant, 2020, p.26)

Scholars Ian Clark and Diane Barwick have both noted the strong geographical overlap of Neddy Wheeler’s outline of ‘Minjambuta’ language with what is otherwise called by linguists ‘Pallanganmiddang’ [ie: Waywurru] language, and they have both suggested that Minjambuta was a synonym (or exonym) for Waywurru. (Ian Clark, ‘Aboriginal languages in North-east Victoria – the status of “Waveru” reconsidered’, Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues, 2011, Vol. 14(4): 2-22) However, when writing ‘Mogullumbidj: First People of Mount Buffalo’, I could not understand why, if Minjambuta and Waywurru language were one and the same, Neddy Wheeler had told R. H. Matthews that Minjambuta was spoken in the Broken River Valley — an area which one hundred years of scholarship has said was Taungurung-speaking country. Instead, I thought that the likely explanation was that ‘Minjambuta’ was a ‘language strategy’ which existed on the margins of country, allowing people of different languages to communicate.

However, when one examines the evidence for Pallanganmiddang local group country including the Broken River Valley from Benalla to just north of Mansfield, then Neddy Wheeler’s description of the extent of ‘Minjambuta’ language as including the Broken River and Benalla makes perfect sense. In essence, once the Broken River Valley is viewed as Pallanganmiddang (Waywurru) country, Neddy Wheeler’s description of the geographical extent of Minjambuta matches Waywurru country very well indeed.


When one reads Howitt’s original interview notes with William Barak, Barak appears to state that Yirun-illum-baluk country is ‘Below Benalla.’ Perhaps if Howitt hadn’t amended this to ‘above and below Benalla’ in 1904, we would have thought differently about Aboriginal Benalla all these years. If Howitt had had even one Aboriginal informant from the Benalla or Wangaratta area, he may have written something different. However, I have little doubt that if scholars of an earlier time had the source materials in front of them that I do today, they too would have painted a different picture: one that explains how the Aboriginal Kings of Benalla were not Taungurung, but were in fact Waywurru.


Additional note 15 February, 2021: since writing this post, I have made additional discoveries pertinent to the content offered here. This new information does not change the overall position of this post with regards Waywurru occupying at least the eastern bank of the Broken River, but it may add to the complexity of this picture. I will endeavour to write about it in the near future.

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 welcome.


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