Territory – early contact – numbers – vocabulary
The Williams River Valley seems to have run through at least two major tribal groups of the broader Hunter River Valley and coastal region; the Wonnarua of the Hunter Valley and the Worimi of the Port Stephens coast area. Within the upper Williams, Paterson and Allyn River Valleys and continuing as far as the Barrington Tops were the family groups of the Gringai. The consensus is that the Gringai were not a separate tribe but a sub-group of one of the two region’s tribes, though which one is in some doubt, with perhaps the Wonnarua being the more likely.2 A map drawn by Charles Boydell who had much contact with members of the Gringai, even has a spur of their territory stretching as far as Singleton.3 Regardless of their exact tribal relations, these various Aboriginal groups, including those as far away as the Awabakal on Lake Macquarie, seem to have had languages sufficiently related that a speaker of one could make themselves understood to the speaker of another.4
In 1845, Dr McKinlay, a Dungog based doctor, in answer to a circular sent out by a NSW parliamentary committee, reported that the ‘District of Dungog’ (which he described as ‘from Clarence Town to Underbank’), had 63 aborigines, made up of 46 ‘men and boys’, 14 women and three children. McKinlay also estimated that this was only half the number of ten years ago due to diseases which affected the women and children in particular.5 These estimates do not appear to include the Gringai of the Paterson or Allyn Valleys who can perhaps be assumed to have been of at least similar numbers. If 63 represent the number of survivors after 15 years of European settlement and a wave of introduced diseases, then the total Gringai at the time of white encroachments into their valleys was perhaps at least 300.
The numbers given by McKinlay are among the earliest recorded, while recollections from much later times provide somewhat higher figures: ‘The aboriginals were numerous, there being then three or four hundred then living in the district, but they were all practically civilised’.6 ‘At the time I speak of, Dungog might be described as a collection of 4 or 5 houses, erected on sites and along a road carved out of primeval forest that sheltered in force the aboriginal and the marsupial. Yes, many a time I have seen several hundred blacks camped at various points between Abelard and Dowling Streets, and many a time, too, have I shot possums on the Court House Hill, and what was afterwards called Barney’s Hill!’7 These reports of old-timers refer to perhaps the 1850s and 1860s and would imply larger numbers than the more careful reports of Dr McKinlay of 1845 or blanket distribution lists. It is possible these later figures are either the exaggerations of time or that they represent memories of special gatherings either before an attack or for purposes of a corroboree, which would have brought in people from outside the valleys of the Williams, Paterson and Allyn.8
Many place names remain from the Gringai, not least the name Dungog itself which is reputed to mean ‘clear hills’, though is more likely to have identified a specific hill just to the north of the settlement that was first referred to as ‘Upper William’ before being known as Dungog.9 Other Gringai names such as Wangat, Caningulla and Wallarobba appear to have been clan or family group names, or at least the names the clan or family group gave their localities.10 The Gringai word ‘wilhurgulla’, which became the name of the Hooke family estate ‘Wirragulla’, reputedly meant, ‘a place of little sticks’, came from the habit of making fires with the little sticks which dropped from the trees growing there.11 Clarence Town was for a time was known as Erringi – meaning black duck – before its shipbuilding industry led it to be renamed after a Duke of Clarence with navy connections. Old maps sometimes give a Gringai name for a creek or location later changed; such as Jerusalem Creek being the Monduk – meaning fertility. The most complete vocabulary list we have is that recorded by the young E J Hector in 1844 when living at Tillegra.
Little is known of the specific customs or favoured places of the Gringai. Charles Boydell reports seeing pademelon hunts in which boys drove the animals out of the bush and any game speared was cooked and eaten immediately ‘with great delight’.12 We know of prohibitions on the uninitiated seeing certain items under penalty of death.13 A ‘keeparra’ or initiation ground is reported is near Gresford.14 Ceremonial meetings took place either at specific times or, as with one account of a ‘karabari’ in 1845 or 1846 held by ‘the blacks of Dungog’, for special purposes such as the appearance of a comet.15 Conflicts between groups also took place, such as those in 1844 and again 1846 when ‘the Dungog and Gloucester tribes’ attacked those ‘of the Stroud and Booral tribes’.16
That so little is known of the habits and culture of the Gringai is testimony to the swiftness with which they were destroyed as a separate people. This history of first contact and disappearance of a distinct Gringai people begins with European explorations in the 1820s up the valleys of the Hunter River tributaries. Soon after this, land grants were made and convicts and overseers sent in to begin clearing land and establishing farms for sheep, cattle and agriculture. Across the ridges to the east of the Williams River, the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) was also established with much interaction occurring between the districts.
Nothing is known about the first contact between the Gringai and the Europeans who made their way up the Williams, Paterson and Allyn rivers, though when such strangers did first enter the valleys, either as timber cutters or surveyors, it would not have been a total surprise. The local Gringai would have been told via messengers long before they saw their first white men of the arrival of this new element into their world. Early signs were not good, and as quickly as 1804 it was considered necessary to send armed men with the cedar cutting parties travelling up the various rivers.17 Although, initial reports from the Australian Agricultural Company occupying land across the ridge from the Williams Valley are of friendly interaction.
Conflict – two cases – aftermath – massacres back
While little is known about this earliest period of contact, within a few short years a number of conflicts occurred. The earliest reported conflict that may have involved members of the Gringai occurred in 1827 on the Paterson River near where the ‘border’ between the Wonnarua and the Gringai may have been. A convict shepherd was speared in reprisal for killing a dog and, in return, twelve aboriginal men were reported killed on the estate of Edward Gostwyck Cory, though he denied this.18 The sceptically received account was that, under the threat of attack, the servants of Edward Cory in defending themselves left 12 men dead.19
A little further down the Paterson River, a shepherd on Mr Webber’s farm who disappeared was suspected of having been killed in revenge over a previous dispute.20 While two more shepherds were also reported killed by what were then referred to by the newcomers as ‘William’s River people’.21 By 1830, numbers on the lower Paterson River had fallen so much that many survivors from this area, with its longer period of European penetration close to the Hunter River, began ‘coming in’; that is, accepting food in return for work or for refraining from stealing.22
In 1834, the first individual member of the Gringai people that can be identified by name appears in the records. He was called Wong-ko-bi-kan, also known as Jackey. By this period, settlers and their sheep had occupied much of the narrow Williams River Valley and the Gringai found their camps within easy reach of these newcomers. According to newspaper and court accounts, the spearing of a number of sheep by some Gringai people inspired a group of shepherds to make an armed approach early one morning to a camp thought to contain the sheep killers.23
In the confusion that morning a spear was thrown and a man named John Flynn hit. Not being immediately disabled Flynn walked some 20 miles to Paterson where soon after being seen by a doctor he died. At the time of the spearing, chase was given and Wong-ko-bi-kan was apprehended as the only person who could have thrown the spear. The remarkable thing about this case is not that a fight should have broken out, or that a person was killed and another arrested for it, but that, generally, sympathy seemed to lie with Wong-ko-bi-kan.
Wong-ko-bi-kan’s trial, with the Rev Threlkeld acting as interpreter, was held in Sydney, to which he was brought in chains on a steamer.24 Newspapers report that many, including the judge, saw the actions of the shepherds in approaching the Gringai camp the way they did as provocative and Wong-ko-bi-kan’s actions as understandable. The trial evidence discusses the use of a member of another tribe to help track people, also of the quick gathering of men and arms after the ‘attack’. The admissibility of evidence by natives is discussed and something of the relations between the Gringai and shepherds are also seen.25
Despite the sympathy, Wong-ko-bi-kan was trapped within the mechanism of British justice, and the only result of the Judge’s sympathy was that instead of being hanged, he was sentenced to transportation – in this case to Van Diemen’s Land:
Jackey, an aboriginal native, convicted of the manslaughter of John Flynn, at William’s River, on the 3rd April last, to be transported out of the colony for the term of his natural life. The unhappy creature seemed totally unconscious of what was passing while he was being sentenced to perpetual exile.26
It is not known if Wong-ko-bi-kan’s fate made relations between the Gringai and the new arrivals any worse, but, at the beginning of the year after Wong-ko-bi-kan’s arrest and death, a reward was offered for ‘an Aboriginal Black named Jemmy’ for ‘many outrages’.28 Then in May the same year, not one but five shepherds were killed in a more obviously organised attack and this time no sympathy was aroused. The men were convicts assigned to a George MacKenzie with a grant on the Williams River and the attack was generally referred to as the MacKenzie murders. As before, a Gringai man was charged with murder; known to us only as Charley. This time, not only was a Gringai man sentenced to hang, but, in an exceptional move, he was ordered to be hanged in Dungog village itself as a warning to his fellow Gringai.
The circumstances surrounding the events for which Charley was accused are confusing, with a number of contradictory newspaper accounts at the time based on rumours and guesses. They begin with the news of the killing of the five men and continue with various accounts which range from reports of a general uprising of all Gringai intent on wiping out the new arrivals, to what seemed a greater fear – that bushrangers were joining with Aboriginal people to create a more formidable threat.29
All this occurred after May 1835 with Charley arrested and put on trial in the Supreme Court by August. Once again Threlkeld acts as interpreter, and it is from his account based on conversations with Charley as he escorts him to Dungog that we are able to catch a glimpse into the thoughts of one member of the Gringai people, and a little into the Gringai people’s view of these events. The newspaper and court accounts all interpret the actions of the Gringai as a form of warfare and revenge for the actions of either the men killed specifically or of European acts in general; a response that was understandable to the Europeans and in fact expected by them. Threlkeld, however, reports that:
In August last I was again subpoenaed to the Supreme Court, in consequence of outrages having been committed by the Aborigines in the vicinity of Williams’ River; when another Black, named Charley, was found guilty of murder, which he did not deny, even when arraigned, but pleaded in justification the custom of his nation, justifying himself on the ground that, a Talisman, named Mura-mai, was taken from him by the Englishman, who with others were keeping a Black Woman amongst them, was pulled to pieces by him, and shewn to the Black Woman, which, according to their superstitious notions, subjects all the parties to the punishment of death; and further, that he was deputed with others, by his tribe, to enforce the penalty, which he too faithfully performed.30
Thus Charley, the first and only man to be hanged in Dungog, was both an enforcer of one law and the victim of the enforcement of another set of laws. Charley, and his death by hanging in the spring of 1835, next to the newly built courthouse and lockup at the newly named (in the Gringai language), village of Dungog, marks the passing of the rule of Gringai law and the imposition of the newly arrived ‘British law’.31
Despite the purpose in carrying out the execution at Dungog as a demonstration to the Gringai people, Threlkeld makes no mention of their presence:
… the executioner then arrived, and we walked to the fatal drop through an escort of military, he kneeled and prayed, we ascended the gallows, he stood firmly, saying, “I am now cast away for death; …32
The trial and hanging of a single man known to us only as ‘Charley’ for what was known to be an organised attack feared by some to be a declaration of war, leads to speculation about other deaths not so well reported at the time. A number of other Gringai men were identified as involved in the killings; there are reports of others having been arrested and of at least one death at Paterson while ‘attempting to make his escape’.33 As well, two other names (Tom and George) appear on the docket of Charley’s trial but are crossed out. What happened to all these men? A story is also told (that perhaps first appeared in print in 1922), of a group of settlers from the Williams Valley who set out after the perpetrators of the killings and having caught up with a group of native people high in the Barrington’s, attacked and pushed many over a cliff.34 This story cannot now be verified, but the overall silence regarding any revenge, arrests, deaths in custody or any action other than the hanging of the lone Charley, suggests that actions similar to, if not actually those of, the cliff side massacre, may have taken place.
That many actions took place that would not have been reported was the opinion of at least one contemporary of Charley’s who wrote that the ‘natives’:
… are not sufficiently protected from the insolence and outrage of Convicts who in the service of gentleman squatters (i. e. the large settlers who have stations far in the interior for the maintenance of their superabundant flocks and herds) and out of the reach almost of a magistrate, offend and ill-treat the poor blacks with impunity.35
Despite the capture and hanging of Charley and possible actions by the settlers, troubles continue with it reported that: ‘The shepherds have so repeatedly been attacked by the blacks and forced to flee for their lives, that they now refuse to go out with their sheep. Five sheep stations were plundered by them lately, in the course of a single week.’36 Dungog Magistrate Thomas Cook in the beginning of 1836 is fearful of a rescue attempt being made on ‘Black’ prisoners being sent to Newcastle and requested two troopers from Maitland; this was granted.37 While in May 1836, Lawrence Myles, J.P., requested mounted police citing ‘intelligence that the Blacks are becoming more troublesome’.38
However by 1837, relations with the original inhabitants appear to have improved from the European settlers’ viewpoint, although still perceived as delicate. The new Dungog-based Police Magistrate Cook, for example, exercised his discretion when he felt it advisable to ignore the recently arrived McAuthy, despite a reward being posted for this Aboriginal man with the Scottish name. The magistrate felt that the removal of two other Aboriginal people, named Calkie and Carbon Paddy (presumably by arrest), had had an ‘effect’.39
By the end of 1838 this same Magistrate Cook wrote to the Colonial Secretary that ‘the conduct of all the Blacks in this neighbourhood has been quiet and praiseworthy during the last two years’. Cook wrote this as part of his ‘Return on Natives taken at blanket distribution’ for 1838. The magistrate also described how only those ‘most worthy of the boon’ were selected. This good conduct Cook feels to be due to the amended Licensing Act, Oct 1835, which he wrote had effected a good reform on ‘all classes of this anomalous community’.40
Blankets – disease – starvation – ineffectual law back
That the Police Magistrate felt he could judge the worthiness of the remaining Gringai people is perhaps a sign that the relations between the new settlers and the old residents had reached a new phase. There is mention of starvation, of epidemic diseases and the ineffectualness of the newly imposed legal system to protect those no longer allowed to protect themselves. Armed conflicts on any scale are not recorded, though violence on an individual level is. The Gringai remain outsiders to the new society which was evolving, with individual Gringai appearing rarely in the record. People with such names as Combo and Brandy come into view, with others simply referred to as ‘a native’ or perhaps ‘a half-caste’.
In the absence of armed conflict, the government attitude was generally to keep the ‘native blacks’ peaceful through minor support, protection and handouts. In the 1830s, this took the form of the NSW Colonial government distributing blankets to ‘deserving’ natives. The purpose of the blanket distribution was made plain in the circular of 1837, which requested that:
you will give the preference to such Individuals as may have distinguished themselves by any good Behaviour,–marking the Conduct of those who may have evinced a disposition to be troublesome, by omitting the bounty to them …41
Blankets were handed out through local magistrates, who were required to list the names and a few details of those receiving these blankets.
A result of the bureaucracy that inevitably accompanies any government handout is that we know the names of many Gringai people living in and around Dungog district at this time. Thus we know that in 1837 there lived in the Dungog area a young man (the return lists his probable age as 23) by the name of Mereding who was recorded as having two wives. Mereding was also known as King Bobby, and his tribal or clan designation was ‘Canninggai’. The following year Mereding also received a blanket, this time accompanied by other Canninggai men such as the older Dangoon, thought to be 51 and also called Old Bungary, and the more middle aged Tondot (36 years old) known as Jackey. Also in 1837, but from the Wallarobba clan or group, blankets were given to the 30 year old Oderdare, who had two wives and two children, though these last were recorded as dead. With Oderdare came the young men Guiwa and Muincalbitt (perhaps 18 years old) and the even younger Corang (aged 15). In 1838, from the Wangat group, we know of the 50 year old Berindrigan with his four children, and of the 17 year old Kuanga, and also the older Boomikan, who was also called Harlequin Bill.42
In 1837, Magistrate Thomas Cook recorded the total number of natives to be 144; those receiving blankets were 54, not receiving blankets 32, male children 14, females who received blankets (or a share) 30, females not receiving blankets 7, and female children 7.43 Dr McKinlay of Dungog reported that blankets were pinned across the chests with a bone peg and in March 1837, Thomas Cook describes these blankets as a ‘comfort of the naked, houseless Blacks’ ‘during the inclemency of winter’.44
That the Gringai were in increasing need of assistance was obvious by this time, though whether blankets made much difference is doubtful. The great impact of introduced diseases on the original inhabitants is well recorded in Sydney, and at each stage of the European expansion across the continent. On the Hunter River just before settlers entered the Williams, Paterson and Allyn River Valleys it was reported that ‘men and women, especially the latter, are actually rotting from the face of the earth’.45
These new diseases, and the subsequent population decline, seem to have affected women and children more than men. Syphilis also causing sterility, and the early response of killing all mixed race children both lessened the population and impeded the development of resistance to these ‘white’ diseases.46 The spread of sexually transmitted diseases, or other diseases for that matter, was made worse by the common practice of convicts taking an Aboriginal mistress. An AAC report, for example, estimated that 10% of their workforce had VD and the case of Mr Flitt’s ‘seraglio’, mentioned below, would seem to be not unusual.47 In 1847, measles were reported to have caused the deaths of some thirty children of the Gringai in a single season. In a population of only 250 or so people, this figure would have represented at least 30% of the younger generation in a single winter.
It was not only direct violence and the diseases brought by new arrivals which destroyed the local culture and population. The impact of these newcomers through their use of the land, occupying it in a new way, cutting down trees and introducing new types of animals, caused great changes in the environment and in the food supply of the Gringai. There are reports of food scarcity in 1831 on the Hunter River and 1845 on the Williams.48 Gradually deprived of food resources, with their family groups more than decimated by diseases, the remaining members of the Gringai were easy targets for the many ‘half-civilized Europeans’ who attempted to take advantage of the ‘blacks’ in a variety of ways. Blaming native robbery in order to be able to draw extra rations from the store was one common method.
Thereafter murders and deaths are frequently reported, but they take on the nature of mostly individual or, at most, small gang crimes of passion and revenge as the ‘anomalous community’ settles into a sometimes uneasy period of co-habitation between the old locals and those who quickly began to consider themselves locals. One major difficulty was fitting the newly dispossessed within the new legal system, as demonstrated in a number of cases originating in what was then the Dungog Police District.
An illustration of how Aboriginal people were not part of the legal system occurs when a man named Flash Jemmy is shot:
The Aboriginal known by the name of “Flash Jemmy,” who it is supposed murdered two children at the Paterson, was captured on Tuesday last near the William’s River by a ticket-of-leave man, in the service of Captain Livingstone. In the scuffle he endeavoured to escape, and after some struggle was shot dead. It is to be hoped that this man will get some indulgence for his brave conduct.49
The reason that the suspicion alights on this black is, that some time before the unfortunate father had attempted to take a gun from him and hinder him from shooting ducks, and it is supposed that the Brute has taken his revenge on the poor helpless children. Three blacks have been lodged in Newcastle Goal on suspicion of being concerned in the murder.50
Although there was not the shadow of a doubt, morally speaking, as to Jemmy’s guilt, it is very probable that the legal evidence (the evidence of the blacks not being admissible) would have been insufficient to procure a conviction.52
The inability of the legal system to include the Gringai is even more clearly shown in a case of 1837. Three years after Wong-ko-bi-kan had defended his camp against armed intruders and two years after Charley had attempted to enforce tribal law on those who had broken it, a number of Charley’s fellow Gringai now approached the representative of the legal system, now been imposed on them, with a complaint. The Dungog Police Magistrate Thomas Cook wrote to ‘The Hon E. Deas Thomson’, the Colonial Secretary, seeking advice in how to proceed in a ‘case of native wives being detained against their will and that of their friends’. After a ‘formal complaint by a respectable [white] person’ was made in favour of five aboriginals, Cook interviewed the five ‘blacks,’ including Fullam Derby and Pirrson, who he described as ‘most intelligent fellows’, adding that ‘Derby is a king and speaks English well’. Cook discovered that the superintendent of Mr John Lord, Mr Flitt, had detained their wives; in fact that he ‘keeps quite a seraglio’. Cook sent a note to Flitt ‘via one of the blacks,’ only to have them report back that Flitt had torn it to pieces. Cook wrote that he ‘feared ill blood and foul murder may result’, and requested ‘instructions how to proceed’.53 While the results of this case are unknown, it is apparent that Flitt’s arrest was not one of them.
Not long before the new legal system so clearly demonstrated its ineffectiveness, the Government Gazette had announce that those holding native women against their will would have their licences cancelled and that they would then be prosecuted for illegal occupation of crown land. That Mr Flitt would not have held any licences himself, and that Mr Lord would not have had his licences threatened on the basis of his overseer’s actions was perhaps the basis of Police Magistrate Thomas Cook’s rather pathetic letter of appeal to the Colonial Secretary.54 For Fullam Derby and Pirrson, fearful of the fates of Wong-ko-bi-kan and Charley, and receiving no help from Thomas Cook, what choices remained?
Fewer troopers – fear – social interaction – farm help – traditions back
By the 1840s it would seem the settlers had little to fear from organised attacks, though reference is again made to the Mackenzie killings in 1846 in speaking of some troubles that it seems were handled by Constable Patrick Conway, when ‘he fearlessly and alone entered the black camp, on a remote range, and took the guilty black fellows into custody’. Another settler relates how, around 1840 he often used members of the Gringai people to guide him whenever he needed to cross from the Williams to the Allyn River Valley: ‘I had been some three times across these ranges, but each blackfellow took me over by a different route, therefore I knew my way imperfectly’. The first time he attempt the crossing himself he became lost.55
Another incident reveals that a more condescending attitude was developing as fear of actual harm lessoned. This was a humorously told account of the capture of ‘King Darby’ in the act of pilfering a fowl.56 The fact that the new settlers now had little to fear from the Gringai is perhaps reflected in the fear the Gringai themselves had, as when Williams Valley landowner Brown recounts, that when ‘Billy’ speared a pig of his, he was ‘punished with the aid of his own tribe’.57
This fear of local punishment may explain reports of people travelling some distance, as when ‘several houses were broken into in the absence of the occupiers, in Lyndhurst Vale, and robbed of flour, clothing, tea, sugar, and other moveables’. ‘From the direction the tracks were taking when lost, it is supposed the blacks must have come from the Port Stephens district.’58
A visitor to Dungog in 1846 gives a peaceful view of a group of Gringai people:
On the skirts of the brushwood, we came upon some tribes of blacks, encamped. They are a very fine race here, being chiefly natives of Port Stephens and its neighbourhood. A princely-looking savage, almost hid in glossy curls of dark rich hair, calling himself “Boomerang Jackey,” smiled and bowed most gracefully, saying, “bacco, massa? any bacco?” Some chiefs, with shields, and badges of honour on their breasts, sat silently by the fire with some very young natives, who were going to a “wombat,” or “grand corrobbaree,” when the moon got up.59
While not fearful of direct attacks, robberies and cattle spearing was a concern, one that was strongly expressed when the withdrawal of troopers stationed at Dungog was proposed in 1848. The proposal was ‘much to be regretted, on account of the longing of our black neighbours for fresh beef. In the open day, within thirty miles of Dungog, the aborigines will drive the cattle into the mountain brushes, where they get entangled in the bush vines, when their pursuers tomahawk them at their leisure.’60 A meeting was held to petition against the removal of troopers and declared that the mounted police were needed against ‘the frequent outrages and depredations of the aborigines in the neighbourhood of Dungog, Gloucester, and the Manning’.61
The stealing of sheep and cattle was the most obvious recourse for the Gringai in a continued to attempt to survive in a world that had so radically changed around them. Efforts to adapt to this new world varied. One, when caught roasting mutton, was to be aggressive: ‘the shepherd who had the sheep in charge had come on the blacks while slaughtering them, when they threatened to kill him, until he promised he would say nothing of it’.62 Another method was a form of extortion as when Mrs Lindeman, who, whenever alone in the house at Cawarra, would put out sugar and other items for the natives, who would of course return and renew the cycle of fear, treats and return.63
The Gringai people had also early made efforts to perform tasks in return for what the new arrivals had to offer. The earliest such tasks were assisting whites in their pursuit of other whites, and convicts and bushrangers were often tracked or returned for rewards.64 Charles Boydell, a landowner on the Allyn River who always maintained a good relationship with Gringai people, tells of sending for “muskets & blacks” on discovering that one of his huts had been robbed and of setting off in pursuit with five local men acting as trackers.65
This same Charles Boydell, when attempting to grow corn on his Allyn River property in 1833, complained of losses ‘by blacks and cocatoos [sic]’, with the local Gringai leaving the corn on the outside of the field to better take the rest of the crop.66 The year before, Boydell had brought in his tobacco crop ‘with the assistance of the blacks’.67 While Boydell may have been one of the first to use Gringai people as farm help, by 1846 it was reported that a number of farmers around Paterson used local natives when they considered the price demanded by white labourers too high, though their reluctance to work for too long a period of time made them an unreliable source of labour. ‘On several farms we hear that the blacks have been employed to reap the wheat, and that they have done their work very creditably; but unfortunately their habits of industry are not of long duration, and they could not be kept long enough at work to make themselves really valuable.’68 ‘Our sable brethren – the aboriginal natives – have proved great service in getting the crops off.’ ‘They have certainly exhibited an industry, perseverance, and skill in the execution of their task which cannot be surpassed by Celt or Saxon.’ This last observer felt their harder and more persistent work was simply due to their being given adequate compensation, unlike the ‘daily supply of broken victuals’ usually given.69
Another Williams Valley landowner, John Lord testified to an Immigration Committee that: ‘I have employed them, however, in washing sheep, in which I found them quite as useful as white men; I should hardly have got through the washing last season without them …’70 This same landowner also employed Indian coolies and found that ‘… the natives’ of William’s River are upon good terms with the Coolies on Mr. Lord’s estate. The two people laugh at each other, because the Coolies work, and the other because the native wanders and has no comfort, nor good and regular food. The native tries to seduce the Coolie into the bush, and the Coolie to persuade the native to take service.’71
Using the Gringai as workers did not include social intercourse and the police were called quickly enough when: ‘On Sunday evening, a disturbance arose at the Dungog Inn, between the police and a lodger, who had taken a black woman into his apartment to drink’.72 This attitude was reinforced legally by the 1851 Vagrancy Act which prohibited white co-habitation with blacks.
Despite the reduction in numbers, the Gringai continued to maintain a traditional lifestyle in some respects at least, including regular clashes with neighbouring groups. However, such tribal rivalries continued with firearms naturally made these clashes more deadly: ‘Some few nights back a body of blacks from the Dungog and Gloucester tribes came to a camp of the Stroud and Booral tribes in the dead hour of the night, and having first fired a gun to awaken and alarm, immediately discharged a volley of musketry and spears into the camp …’73 ‘We regret to say that the aboriginal natives of this part have had a serious encounter with the natives of Port Stephens. They met in the woods near Stroud, armed with muskets, and kept up a treacherous fire, until one or more of the Stroud blacks were killed.’ Troopers were sent for from Dungog with a reference made to the ‘dread’ of soldiers inspired by the hanging of Charley in 1835.74
Accommodation – cricket – Combo – dancing – cooey back
By the middle of the century the Gringai had ceased to kill children of mixed parentage and their numbers, though now very small, were beginning to stabilise.75 Small local numbers are reported, such as a group of 90 at Paterson in 1846.76 In 1848, the ‘natives’ at Dungog village are described as neither ‘numerous’ nor ‘troublesome’ and generally found at Mrs Hook’s ‘boiling-down establishment’.77
In the second half of the century the remaining Gringai, including their mixed race children, were beginning to make further accommodations with the now well established new society. This accommodation could take many forms ranging from menial work to playing cards and cricket.78 In the 1870s a number of instances of income producing activity are recorded, such as about 20 Aboriginal people camped behind the Paterson Hotel selling honey that they had collected from bush hollows, selling at 2s. to 2s. 6d. per bucket. ‘For the last two or three weeks about twenty blackfellows have been encamped in Mr Stanbridge’s paddock, at the rear of the old Paterson Hotel, and have been chiefly occupied in getting honey from the trees in the bush, in which capacity they appear to be carrying on a very brisk trade…’ ‘During the week we noticed one blackfellow hawking about beeswax for sale, in cakes which they had themselves manufactured, and which appeared quite as good a sample as that manufactured by many of our farmers’ wives. The blacks seem quite independent, and proud of their new avocation.’79 Laundry and scrubbing work was also reported being done in Gresford by Gringai women.80 Also, in the 1870s, travellers employed local Gringai people to make a trail: ‘we sent two blacks forward who opened a marked tree line from the Williams River to the Tumally line, which leaves the road on the Williams about eleven miles above Underbank, and took us along the top of the main range dividing the Williams and Allyn Rivers’.81
But no matter what efforts Gringai people made, they were generally met with paternalism at best, as when about a dozen people, who had finished reaping, were dancing in ‘European style’ to the tune of a concertina. It was remarked that their actions were ‘equal to many such entertainments got up by the white folk’.82 Dancing was not the only thing learned by a people who by this time also used English regularly; an ability which led to complaints about drunken noise, made worse by their use of English.83
Worse than paternalism was the general treatment of the Gringai, including presumably those of mixed ancestry, as outcastes. An interesting example of what this meant in practice is seen when a locally brought up white girl was lost in the bush and refused to call for help to people she believed were aborigines. ‘Her cooey was returned, but … had imagined that the cooey she got in the first instance had been given by some black, rather to her alarm than to her gratification.’84 This girl, brought up within 10 miles of Dungog, was also brought up to fear the local Gringai even to the point of her remaining lost.
It is rare for the native people living side-by-side with Europeans to be noted as individuals, but various incidents provide us with occasional glimpses of their presence. ‘Mr Brown, a farmer on Bendolba’, is reported to have ‘sucked the wound’ of ‘a half-caste servant woman’.85 The diary entries of a young member of a wealthy landowning family are also revealing of what can perhaps be interpreted as a typical relationship. Fredrick Hooke aged 18 wrote: ‘1868, May 14th Saturday – Combo and I burning off.’ Two years later: ‘1870, March 8th Wednesday – Combo was drowned today whilst swimming the river for Warner’.86
Combo was, as reported in the local paper, ‘one of our Aboriginals’, and was taking a letter across the Williams River after heavy rains when he got into difficulties and drowned – ‘he shouted out something that could not be heard, and finally sank’.87 Combo’s body was not recovered for nearly a week, after which he was buried at ‘the Old Burying Ground’.88
Two years later another diary entry of Fredrick Hooke reads: ‘1872, Dec 15th Monday – Took a warrant out for Edwardo who bolted on Saturday with Combo the horse’. It is not clear if young Hooke saw naming his horse after the deceased Combo as a sign of respect or simply a name he remembered.
While the relationship of Hooke with Combo is unclear, it is clear that not all the new locals treated the old with contempt or indifference. At Brookfield, a well known resident was Mundiver (also well known for hating all of his own ‘race’).89 Mundiver was generally looked after by Patrick Nihil, the publican of the Alma Inn at Brookfield.90
Investigations – Protector – education – scattering – Brandy/Jonas back
In the last quarter for the 19th century there was an increasing consciousness of severe Aboriginal population decline, the attitude to which was mixed. Many were indifferent; some welcomed it as removing a problem, while a few looked on with pity and made efforts to assist the survivors. One of these last was James Boydell, born on his father Charles’ estate on the Allyn River: ‘… Mr. Boydell, of the Paterson, and one or two others, have been looking after the blacks during the winter, by distributing blankets and clothes, obtained from the Government’. There is also mention of efforts to obtain land at Port Stephens and on the Barrington where – ‘There are both young blacks and half-castes in camp, who may linger on for years’.91
The numbers of Gringai continued to decline with some 15 on the Camyr Allyn estate by the late 19th century supported by James Boydell. Boydell’s help included supporting a number of ‘helpless men and women’ on his property and even arranging on one occasion for a group to travel to Sydney to see the Sydney exhibition.92 James Boydell appear to have operated a kind of hospital: ‘… for as you know I have a hospital of my own to attend to sick blacks, &c. The Government did not send me any food as they promised. The old gin “Blind Sally” died last Sunday. The Manager of the Maloga Mission took away 15 men, women, and children, which is a great relief to me; I sincerely trust that some good may be done for the poor creatures.’93 In 1882, Daniel Matthews, who ran the Maloga Mission near Moama on the Murray River, convinced 15 men, women and children to go with him: ‘… in the interests of the Maloga mission, fifteen aborigines from Gresford were induced to join the mission’.94 Despite this, some still remained with Boydell at Camyr Allyn in the Gresford/Paterson area, though these last had probably moved to the St Clair mission at Singleton by 1911.95
With the continuing decline in numbers and the prospect of total extinction, another aspect of white/black relations became the anthropological, with many taking an interest in tribal habits and customs. Though often of a scientific and anthropological nature, this was not incompatible with a real human sympathy. Thus James Boydell compiled lists of Aboriginal words, and Dr McKinlay and others made various observations, many of which were used by Howitt.96 A W Howitt compiled a study based upon information elicited from many locations, including the Dungog area. In February 1882, for example, he sent a letter to Dr McKinlay whose reply stated that he had ‘made careful enquiries’ ‘from the Aboriginals themselves’. McKinlay also said he had difficulty eliciting information as the surviving Gringai, perhaps only 20-30 by 1882, were naturally suspicious. McKinlay claimed to have reassured them that far from being ‘injurious’, such gathering of information would ‘tend to their benefit’, though how this might be so he does not say. In any case, McKinlay passes on little, apart from a remark about it not being customary to talk with a mother-in-law and comments concerning scars about which he had little concrete to say.97 In another letter McKinlay remarks that it is ‘altogether too late in the day to acquire any reliable information’.
Around the time that Boydell is relieved to send his remaining Gringai off to a mission is also the time that a ‘protection’ model in Aboriginal relations begins to evolve. What this meant was that government intervention and control over the remaining natives increased and became more systematic.98 Around 1881, the Hon. George Thornton, M.L.C. was appointed to the ‘newly instituted office of protector of the aborigines of New South Wales’.99 This Protector undertook a census and found 8,919 natives in NSW, divided into ‘pure-breeds’ and ‘half-castes’ – many more than expected.100 This report mentions centres at Maitland, Singleton, Port Stephens and Upper Paterson.101 Some 181 of these were in the Hunter, with a number of of the ‘half-caste’ children at Dungog Public School.102 The Protector was soon replaced with the Aborigines Protection Board in 1883, which adopted a paternalistic approach targeting the aged, disabled and children. The Board ‘… disapprove of the system of issuing Government rations to able bodied aboriginals, as it tends to encourage idleness in a large degree’. ‘A supply of flour, suet, and raisins sufficient to make a pudding can be issued to the aged, young and helpless, and those unable to earn a living through bodily infirmity, for Christmas Day.’103
In 1885, the death of Nancy, ‘the last surviving black gin of the district’, occurred, and her funeral was reported to have taken place at the ‘old aboriginal burial ground near the town’.104 With only ‘two or three of the Dungog tribe’ remaining, from this point on the local accounts of the Williams and nearby valleys begin to talk of the ‘last’ representatives of the Gringai. This, however, is based upon a ‘full-blood’ vs. ‘half-caste’ division which encouraged the hiding of Aboriginality. In fact, the records of the Board of Aboriginal Protection show a number of Aboriginal people living within the Dungog valleys well into the 20th century. However, whether the decline in numbers of identifiable Aboriginal people is due to people moving away, or continual intermarriage, or both is not clear.
In 1883, 15 Aborigines are reported at Dungog, four men, two women and nine children. ‘The half-castes work the same as Europeans, and educate their children. Aborigines pull corn for farmers, cut firewood and other work such as splitting in the bush.’ Only the ‘half-caste’ children attend the Public School and they receive no medical attention – ‘When sick they must get well best way they can.’ In Gresford, the number reported is nearly 40 – ‘Getting honey and fishing, sometimes employed by the settlers.’ At Gloucester, 50 acres of Church and School land was reported as being used by some 60 people with three of the children attending Barrington Public School.105
In 1884, reference is made to a reserve for Aborigines at Barrington where rations were supplied and ploughing done to allow farming, with another reserve recommended, while at Dungog ‘Medical attendance’ was supplied.106 The next year the Board feels optimistic about education, quoting the Department of Public Instruction as preferring separate schools but having ‘no objection’ if small numbers attend the nearest Public School. Aboriginal parents themselves were encouraged to send their children with clothes and extra rations. With education the Board felt confident that Aboriginal people would take their place ‘amongst the industrial classes’. Reference is made to people being given rations and clothes at Barrington (4), Gresford (5) and Singleton (16). A number of reserves are established around NSW, but none in the Dungog district.107
Numbers fluctuate and may imply that people are moving. A possible link between the Gringai and Aboriginal people at Gloucester may mean that movement to the reserve at Barrington was possible, as well as to that at Singleton, but this is speculation only. In 1886, no one is recorded for Gresford, 5 at Barrington and 15 at Singleton.108 In 1887, 7 receive rations and clothing at Barrington at a little over £46 and 18 at Singleton.109 In 1888, the number at Barrington rises again to 8 while 17 are reported at Singleton.110 In 1889, it is reported that on the Barrington are ‘comfortable huts built of slab with galvanized iron roofs’. For the first time children – five – are mentioned on the Barrington River and an increase to 10 of adults. Three people are also mentioned in Dungog as receiving clothing; this appears to be a one-off to the value of £1.18.9. In Singleton are recorded 24 adults and 17 children who receive gunpowder and shot as well as rations and tents.111 The following year it is reported that a school has been established at the Barrington. A much more detailed census is undertaken in 1894, and in Dungog are recorded one man (half-caste) between 40 and 60 years old and 5 children. At the Barrington are now only 6 adults but 18 children, on whom is spent over £131 plus £30 in medical expenses and £45.10 by the Department of Public Instruction, with some £2 worth of clothing for the Dungog group, while 27 adults and 26 children are reported at Singleton.112
In 1903, the Barrington school is reported closed with no explanation given. This same report mentions that some Aboriginal children were not being allowed to attended Public Schools because ‘objections have been raised by a few of the parents of European children’ despite their being ‘nothing to which exception can be taken in their habits or behaviour’. Despite its weakness to ‘protect’, the Board requests an extension of power over Aboriginal people ‘in the best interests of the aboriginal inhabitants of the State’.113
In 1907, the 50 acre reserve at Barrington in the parish of Fitzroy, county of Gloucester, was revoked over the Board’s objections. Only St Clair at Singleton seems to continue within reach of the Gringai lands. In this same report there is a reference to a ‘plot of land formerly owned by an old Aboriginal named “Old Brandy”, now deceased’ that was allocated to another person.114 In that same year a handful of Aboriginal people are recorded in Dungog – one ‘half-caste’ man aged between 30 and 40, one between 40 and 60, and 2 children. Again no women are recorded.115 The next year the report is of the younger man only and two children, with one adult drawing rations at Barrington.116 While the year after, only the two children are reported and in Barrington four adults and two children receive rations.117 In 1911, in addition to the two children there is one ‘half-caste’ and one ‘full-blood’ man, both between 30 and 40 years old.118 These are the last references to Aborigines, Gringai or not, in Dungog.
In 1918, the Aboriginal Board expelled all part-aboriginal people from its reserves and town camps swelled.119 It is around this time that a number of sources report the presence of Aboriginal people within the Dungog district. But whether these are Gringai people or not is unknown. The Redman family, for example, was visited by an Aboriginal couple who stayed the night in their barn; the Redmans also report seeing a few around town.120 Aborigines were also reported staying in the Anglican Rectory grounds in 1922 who may have been part of the same migration created by government policy.121
Local historians have often declared the extinction of the Gringai, usually in the form of labelling a man named Brandy as ‘The Last of the Gringai’.122 However, groups such as the Gringai had always intermarried and their links to the Worimi on the coast and the Wonnarua on the Hunter River are clear. The impact of the white invasion and the drastic decline in numbers resulted in a mixing of peoples. Those descended from the Gringai of both black and white parentage would have gone to St Clair near Singleton at first and after to other NSW locations such as La Perouse, Kempsey and Redfern. James Wilson-Miller is one who can claim decent from the Gringai.123 Perhaps another is William Jonas. Born at Salisbury in 1889, he was a horserider, showman and member of the AIF. William died in 1947 and his grandson Bill Jonas was a director of the National Museum Canberra.124
After this point the Aboriginal history of the Williams Valley area blends with the general history of Aboriginal Australia, though perhaps with a more generous dose of family history and semi-secret stories than most. In the 1990s occurred an incident, that, to take a generous view, symbolised the last (it is hoped) of knee-jerk anti-Aboriginal attitudes within the Williams River Valley. Minor land claims caused some consternation within Dungog Shire Council, leading to fearful declarations of objection. Local residents, including those adjacent to the claims, protested at this attitude and succeeded in reversing the Council’s attitude. In the end, two claims were successfully made for two small parcels of land; one at Jerusalem Creek and another at Paterson.125
Today, Dungog High School regularly holds aboriginal awareness activities and many of the students of that school freely identify with their aboriginal ancestry, though few would be able to determine for certain it that ancestry included – though some undoubtedly would – any from the Gringai people.
1 This theme has used only sources directly related to Aboriginal people of the Williams, Paterson and Allyn Valleys rather than attempting the perhaps too common practice of extrapolating from other groups and regions. However, much useful extrapolation about Aboriginal practices in the Paterson Valley can be found in Archer, Social and environmental change as determinants of ecosystem health, Chapter 3, The Indigenous Era, pp.73-118.
9 One of the first European explorers of the land of the Gringai commented that Aboriginals had names ‘for every inequality of the surface of the land, each water hole and bend in the streams have their distinctive name … each variety of timber is named; peculiarly formed trees are also noted’. See, Les Dalton, ‘Surveyor George Boyle White’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, December 1, 2008.
10 Special bundles: Aborigines 1833-44: Papers dealing with the issue of blankets, and including returns of the native population in the various districts, Return, May 1837 and May 1838 – Upper Williams, Thalaba, Dungog.
29 Miller, Koori: A Will to Win, p.52; The Australian, 22/5/1835, p.2; The Colonist, 11/6/1835, p.4; The Sydney Herald, 1/6/1835, p.2; The Sydney Herald, 11/6/1835, p.2; R v Charley: 1835 – Macquarie University, Original Documents on Aborigines and Law, 1797-1840: http://www.law.mq.edu.au/research/colonial_case_law/nsw/ other_ features/correspondence/documents/document_3/ (accessed 17/2/2012).
31 ‘It was deemed necessary, for the tranquility of those disturbed Districts, that Charley should be executed at a place called Dungog, nigh to the scene of violence …’ Threlkeld, “Mission to the Aborigines, Annual Report 1835,” Sydney Gazette, 16/7/1836, p.2.
42 Special bundles: Aborigines 1833-44: Papers dealing with the issue of blankets, and including returns of the native population in the various districts, Return, May 1837 and May 1838 – Upper Williams, Thalaba, Dungog.
43 Return, 1837, Thomas Cook, JP. Special bundles: Aborigines 1833-44: Papers dealing with the issue of blankets, and including returns of the native population in the various districts. (Assuming this to be for the Williams River Valley above Clarence Town only, then these figures compare well with those of Dr McKinlay’s of 1845.)
95 Miller, Koori: A Will to Win, p.66 & Report of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, 1889, Appendix A, Census in Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Council, 1890, pp.4-6 & Sydney Morning Herald, 11/9/1882, p.4 – ‘Upper Paterson’