Early Settlement

Passages to the North West Plains by Michael O'Rourke.
Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18



Incorporating an extended discussion of the armed conflict between Aborigines, settlers and police in the Hunter Valley, 1Email:825-26.

mjor (at) velocitynet (dot) com.au
Canberra, Australia
December 2009

Introduction (Below)
Aboriginal Alliance Networks 4
Oxley’s Liverpool Plains 9
Overland to the Hunter River 18
To Mudgee and the Liverpool Plains 21
Colonisation of the Upper Hunter Valley 24
Into the Liverpool Plains 29
Occupation of the Upper Hunter 34
Conflict: October 1825 43
Conflict: May-June 1826 46
Conflict: July-August 1826 48
Conflict: September-October 1826 55
Sequels 58

… they may rather be likened to a lake, interspersed with islands clothed with wood; or in other words they form one great vast plain, in which are insulated woody spots … [from a hill] we could see, even to the horizon, immense plains of the greatest verdure without a tree upon them. … I have never seen aught like them, and can only compare them to the boundless savannahs or pampas of America,

    - W H Breton 1833: 104, 106, describing the south-east quadrant of the Liverpool Plains.

The first colonists were told that the Commeroy [Gamil’raay] would come down from the North and sweep them away ...

     - William Ridley 1873: 291.

Much has been said of our dispossessing the blacks of their land, but this did not inflame their minds against Europeans, [as] generally speaking they were glad of settlers residing amongst them, for the sake of obtaining bread, tea, sugar, rum, tobacco and clothing, which were procurable, in exchange for game, going on messages, for postage departments in the bush, and various other employments for which they were admirably adapted.

     - L E Threlkeld.

... the Governor [Ralph Darling] is afraid the people in England will laugh at him for declaring war against the blacks.

      - Robert Scott, 1826.


This paper brings together the doings of Aborigines, colonial explorers (who often used Aboriginal guides), the colonial landholders, and convict workers.
    It also brings together river catchments. For the local historians, quite unlike the first colonists, often seem hemmed in by dividing ranges. I almost ignore both the Liverpool Range and the Dividing Range proper so as to be able to range across the Mudgee region, into the north-west plains, and up through the Hunter basin. But in doing so I describe both the approach to, and the crossing over of, the key mountain passes: Pandoras Pass in the west and the Murrurundi Pass [Nowlands Gap] in the east.

    Among other things, I explain that much of the Liverpool Plains was naturally treeless and that most of the rest was open woodland. The extensive wheat farming that began at the end of the 19th Century did not, in this part [repeat: in this part] of New South Wales (NSW), require massive forests to be cleared. Such forest (thick scrub) as there was could usually be worked around. There was some tree-clearing but it was not massive.

    I also examine why so few Aborigines seem to have lived on the rich Liverpool Plains; and whether the clashes between Aborigines and colonists in the middle and upper Hunter Valley in 1825-26 really constituted a “general rising” by the Aborigines.
    The examination here of the Hunter River troubles is a more extensive and detailed than the short account in John Connor’s Australian Frontier Wars (2002). I have ventured to correct several mistakes of his. I also show that the term ‘war’ is rather overblown. I hasten to add that Frontier Wars overall is a very clear, comprehensive, useful and accurate account. It is especially pertinent as a reminder that, as well as civilians, the military and police were active on the frontier before 1830.
     The secondary literature on the process of exploration is fairly strong, and I have relied mainly on it. In a couple of cases, however, I have gone to the primary sources. First, the fine details of Cunningham’s 1825 trip down Coxs Greek almost to Boggabri are published here for the first time, taken from his manuscript journal. (I felt obliged to look closely this episode, as his party were the first to visit the Tambar Springs district, where I had the privilege to be raised [1951-68]. Cf Catullus LXIII: patria o mei creatrix, patria o mea genetrix, ego quam miser relinquens ...) Second, the ‘Hunter Valley War’ of 1825-26, which I first examined in the 1990s before Mr Connor’s book appeared. The primary sources are easily consulted, or most of them, having been printed in the great reference text Australian Historical Records (“HRA”).

Previous |  Content |  Next

Michael O'Rourke has kindly given us permission to reproduce this literary work in web form on this site.

Thank You!


Support local history


1. In his Australian Papers, ed. Gunson 1974: 57.

2. Scott, letter to his sister, 22 September 1826, quoted in Milliss 1992: 60. The Governor had actually told London that the Hunter Valley Aborigines were 'a few naked Savages who, however treacherous, would not face a Corporal's Guard' (Darling to Hay, 11 September, HRA xii: 575).

3. The modern practice is not to use apostrophes in place-names.

4. NB: I do not deny that many trees were removed. If one compares a satellite map, eg Google Map, of the region, one can easily see large cleared areas that on Lang’s map (2008) show as woodland. Cf Lunt et al. 2006: 9: “we suggest that [only] 1–3 billion large trees have been cleared from the Murray–Darling Basin, rather than the 6.3 billion large trees suggested by Walker et al. (1993)”.

Would like to be a sponsor on this site?

Contact our administrator now!


Support local history