Passages to the North West Plains by Michael O'Rourke.
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PASSAGES TO THE NORTH-WEST PLAINS P.4
Oxley’s Liverpool Plains
The first white men to reach the Liverpool Plains were the 16-man exploring party led by the colony’s surveyor-general John Oxley in 1818. Nearly all walked; while they had eight horses, most of them were pack horses.
Travelling NNW from Bathurst, they followed the Macquarie River past Dubbo and Warren until it disappeared into “an ocean of reeds” (the Macquarie marshes). Blocked in that direction, Oxley's party turned north-east on 6 July to discover the Castlereagh River. There they turned due east, that being the shortest route to the coast.
Having passed north of the Warrumbungle Ranges, Oxley had his first glimpse, probably from the top of a tree, of the great expanse of the Liverpool Plains (the name he chose) on 24 August. This was just to the west of the present-day Oxley Highway north-east of Coonabarabran. His “lofty chain of forest hills” included today’s Mt Talbareeya and Mt Nombi.
It should be noted here that in the early 1800s, odd as we may find it, the term “forest” meant open woodland, and a “plain” meant any area, whether flat or not, that was totally or mostly devoid of trees. Thus “forest hills” meant ‘grassy hills with some trees’, and not that they were necessarily dense. We will italicise some of the words in Oxley’s account, to underline that the region was and is dominated by grassland and woodland, with true forest in the modern sense limited to some hilly points and the main ranges.
The party camped on 25 August near today’s Garrawilla Spring, south-west of Mullaley. The view from a nearby hill the next day revealed “hills, dales and plains of the richest description … bounded to the east by fine hills, beyond which were seen elevated mountains” [the latter probably Melville Range on the other side of the Liverpool Plains, near Tamworth]. They were still on the western side of Coxs Creek north of Mt Nombi. As we know from other sources, they had reached the western edge of a great stretch of naturally treeless country that extends on both side of Coxs Creek south of Mullaley:
In this great valley [Garrawilla Creek] were numerous low hills and plains, thinly studded with timber, and watered by the stream down the banks of which we had travelled. From its eastern side these low hills gradually rise to a loftier elevation but were still thinly timbered and covered with grass. To the ESE and south-east [meaning the view towards Goran Lake], clear plains extended to the foot of very lofty hills at a medium distance of from 25 to 40 miles [around 50 km]. … from their vast extent, they may as a whole be properly denominated plains, yet their surfaces were slightly broken into gentle eminences with occasional clumps and lines of timber” (26 August).
There were signs of a recent small flood or fresh in one of the lesser creeks that ran into Garrawilla Creek, and there was much wildlife: “These valleys and hills abound with kangaroos, and on the plains numbers of emus were seen. We seemed to be once more on the land of plenty”. This region was a “beautiful and fertile country” compared to the scrubby country (“miserable harassing deserts”) that lay behind them and through which they had struggled for six weeks. The word “deserts” of course simply meant dry wasteland, not sand. Oxley and his men saw the Plains at their best: after recent good rain and light flooding and in the cooler half of the year.
In this district the soils vary with slope position, from relatively light textured and shallow on rubble to heavy brown to black clays on flats and valley floors. The open woodland and extensive grasslands feature slender rat’s tail grass (Sporobolus elongatus) with early spring grass (Eriochloa psuedo-acrotricha) on rubble slopes, and spear grasses (Austrostipa sp.) and Bothriochloa sp. at lower levels on heavier soils.
There were also Aborigines present: “Three native fires were seen in Lushington’s Valley [Garrawilla Creek] but the whole of the country [west of Cox Creek] appears to be very thinly inhabited; a few wandering families making up the total of its population”.
Beginning with Oxley himself, it has puzzled everyone that the Aboriginal population of so fertile a region should appear so sparse. Setting aside the three smokes seen west of Garrawilla, not a single Aborigine was met or seen, and there was no smoke from any camp fires, in the eight days that his party took to cross the 90+ kilometres of the Liverpool Plains from near Mullaley to Tamworth.
We need not doubt that there were bands living and hunting on the Liverpool Plains. This is certain from contemporary and later references. For example, in 1825, Cunningham found a hamlet-like group of huts, and he surprised a small band, on the lower part of Coxs Creek. And Aborigines are mentioned in the reminiscences of the first settlers to occupy the Warrah, Quipolly and Quirindi districts in 1826-29. William Nowland was “given no peace” by the Aborigines for there first three years he was in the Warrah district (1826/27-28/29). In 1829 MacDonald and Single's men occupied a run on the eastern side of the Mooki River calling it Cooipooli ['Quipolly': ?guya+baa+li: fish+domain/many+source/diminutive: where there are many fish], and John 'Jock' Allen went soon thereafter to occupy a run later called ‘Conadilly’ [guna+dhi+li: ?shit+meat-totem-kin+ablative/source: place of ancestral shit] on the left or western bank of the Mooki near Caroona (Walhallow), immediately west of Quirindi. The Kamilaroi were regarded as still “troublesome”, as Allan Wood remarks, so MacDonald and Single's men and Allen built their huts “close together”. And Lieutenant Steele of the mounted piece mentioned ‘the Mocai on Liverpool Plains blacks’, i.e. the Aborigines of the Mooki River, in a dispatch in 1833 (after the smallpox pandemic). There were “100” Aborigines living at Quirindi as late as 1844.
The great smallpox pandemic of 1830-32 can be cited to explain the paucity of meetings with Aborigines after about 1830 (see the list of early encounters in the Appendix to this paper). Judy Campbell (2002) has argued that smallpox swept away at least a third (probably more than that) of the whole native population of inland NSW. I will repeat the point for emphasis: at least a whole third, perhaps half, perished in the early 1830s.
In the case of the south-west section of the Plains, around Premer and Tambar Springs, Allan Cunningham imagined (I think wrongly) that all or part of the reason for a sparse population was the Bathurst-Mudgee pogroms of 1824-25. He supposed (see later in this paper) that the posses of soldiers and settlers scouring the region would have gone north over (through) the Liverpool Range. But there is no direct evidence for this hypothesis. Indeed, such evidence as we do have counts against it.
The “sweeps” around Mudgee in 1824 were carried by four distinct parties of armed white men accompanied by Aboriginal guides. The party that went north in the direction of the Liverpool Plains on 17 September 1824 was led by Major James Morisset. It consisted of an army officer (Morisset), two or three mounted civilians, one or two Aboriginal guides and (marching on foot:) about 10 infantrymen (“Red Coats”) from the 40th Regiment. (Morisset himself rode of course.) They travelled for ten days, i.e. five days out and five days back. Now trained foot-soldiers can march for about around 20 km a day. Thus if they travelled in a straight line, without any ‘sideways’ sweeps, they could gone for some 100 km. That would have taken them barely as far as Pandora’s Pass. The only reasonable conclusion is that they scoured only on the Mudgee side and did not go into the Liverpool Plains. None of the four parties killed any Aborigines and indeed only one party even saw an Aborigine. (It was the perceived uselessness of infantry that led the colonial authorities to give the soldiers horses: this was the origin of the Mounted Police of NSW.)
The following month, October 1824, as will be related below, some “150” Aborigines, possibly all men, attacked Henry Dangar’s exploring party near the top of the Liverpool Range, west of Murrurundi. They wounded one of the party with a separ. Quite possibly, although in Kamilaroi country, they were Wiradjuri, hiding from the wrath of the Whiteman.
The explanations sketched above cannot be applied to 1818. Thus we must consider other possibilities. Basically there are two: (1) that the Aborigines hid themselves and watched Oxley’s men pass by; and/or (2) that, for some economic or social reason, the presumably dense population of the plains was not residing there when Oxley’s party passed though in August, in the cooler half of the year.
That the Aborigines hid themselves is possible, even likely. We see this happening around Boggabri when a later surveyor-general, Thomas Mitchell, travelled through that area in the summer of 1831-32 (details in O’Rourke 1995). But in that case the Aborigines were long since familiar with the Whiteman and had good reason to be wary. That was not so in 1818.
It is by no means certain that the Aborigines were hiding and watching. As we will see later in this paper, Allan Cunningham’s party in May 1825 unwittingly surprised a group of some 15 Gamilaraay people on Cox’s Creek upstream from Boggabri. If Aborigines were always watchful, how could this happen? We must deduce that they were not always watchful.
There is limited information about seasonal patterns of movement in the Murray-Darling basin. We do know, however, that the major watercourses formed the centre-lines of local territories. On the slopes and ‘nearer’ plains—the eastern third of the basin—each community’s land covered a median of some 4-5,000 sq km. This may be envisaged as 60 km of river or creek-line with a hinterland extending for 30 km on either side of the watercourse. More specifically, using the oral traditions built into the Ewing Papers [O’Rourke 2005], which deal with the wider Gunnedah region, we can deduce that a communal territory was perhaps as small as 50 by 50 kilometres ( = 2,500 square kilometres) and was not usually larger than 85 by 85 kilometres ( = 7,225 square kilometres). The territory of the ‘Gunnedah people’—to call them by the name of the main river camping point in their country—was possibly around 5,500 sq km, and probably took in some of Coxs Creek (i.e. beyond Mullaley) and the lower Mooki River (possibly to Breeza)
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18. See Crampton 2008 for carefully researched biographical details of all members of the expedition. Party of 16 men: Crampton pp. 15-16 and 55. Horses: p.54.
19. See the summary in Rolls 1981: 3 ff.
20. From a tree: as deduced by John Whitehead (2004). Whitehead has painstakingly traced, mapped and photographed Oxley’s route in exquisite detail. We recommend his book very highly.
21. This usage derived from England where unenclosed woodland was called ‘forest land’ from the Latin foris, “outside”. See for example: (i.) Brayshaw’s discussion 1986: 15, citing Breton 1833: 58. Breton noted that thickly wooded land, impenetrable brush, was called “scrub” (1833: 130). (ii.) Mitchell, 1839 I, 71-72, emphasis added: “A 'forest' means, in New South Wales, an open wood with grass. The common 'brush' or 'scrub' consists of trees and saplings, where little grass is to be found." (as a footnote to 8 January 1832: commenting on the vegetation south of the middle Gwydir River, SE of Moree). (iii.) “Forest land is such as abounds with grass – the grass is the determining character and not the trees”: Governor King, quoted in Rolls 1981: 36. (iv) Lang, 1852: 93 refers to our scrub or forest as “thick brush”, to be distinguished from “forest land”, through which a traveller can ride at a rapid trot or canter in any direction. (v.) Atkinson 1826: 14.
Today, the technical definition of “woodland” is where the crowns of trees cover from 10% to 47% of the ground area: Walker, J. & Hopkins, M.S. (1990): Vegetation. Australian soil and land survey field handbook (ed. by R.C. McDonald, R.F. Isbell, J.G. Speight, J. Walker and M.S. Hopkins), pp. 44–67. Inkata Press.
22.Before European settlement, grassy box woodlands covered millions of hectares between southern Queensland and northern Victoria, above all on the inland slopes. Suzanne Prober’s writing may be consulted on this. There are only remnants where the under-strorey has survived unmodified, e.g. at sites at Currabubula and Wallabadah.
The woodlands were made up of a number of different eucalypt species, including Yellow Box (Eucalyptus melliodora), Grey Box (Eucalyptus microcarpa), and White Box (Eucalyptus alba), with an understorey of Kangaroo Grass, Snow Grass, Wallaby Grasses and abundant wild flowers such as Yam Daisies and Chocolate Lilies.
The reader is also referred to Lunt et al. 2006. for a fascinating discussion of whether there is more or less tree cover today than at time of settlement. Regional variations in pre-settlement canopy cover are discussed by Fensham & Holman, 1998.
23. This is essentially the result of the type of soil, or at least soil type is the key factor. When the terrain is flat and the soils fine-textured, water is not retained below grass-root level. But periodic droughts are also important, along with deep cracking of the soil. Trees commonly do not grow on ‘vertosols’ or cracking clays. More technically, ‘vertosols’ are ‘clay soils with shrink/swell properties that display strong cracks when dry and have slickensides and/or lenticular structural aggregates at depth’ (see details in Lang 2008: 411-13). Garrawilla: I have noted but not consulted this paper: Bean, J.M. & Whalley, R.D.B. (2002): Native grasslands on non-arable slopes of the Garrawillie Creek sub-catchment, western Liverpool Plains, New SouthWales, Rangeland Journal, 23, 119-147.
24. Oxley 1820. His published journal contains an entry for every day; we shall therefore not cite the pages tediously at every turn, but simply mention the date and the locality. Treeless: see the excellent discussion, and map, in Lang 2008.
25. Namoi CMA 2009.
26. Milliss 1992: 76 (Nowland). Telfer ed. Millis pp. 56, 58-59; also Wood 1972: 228. See further: Bingle, Reminiscences of Bygone Days (cited by Wood 1972: 223-225); also Government Gazette 19.9.1848 (p 1240); Nowland 1861; and Mahaffey 1982: 104 ff. Steele: Letters 2.5, 17.7, 29.7 and 4.10. 1833 to the Colonial Secretary from Williams, Darley and Steele, State Records of NSW, file 4/2199.1, Letters Naval and Military.
27. Campbell 1983, 1985 and 2002.
Clarke said "one in six" (only 17%) died in the Namoi Valley (quoted by Mair, in Campbell 2002: 140). As Campbell argues, this was probably a conservative figure. She proposes that overall about half the entire Aboriginal population died directly or indirectly from smallpox in the half-century to 1840, and in some regions up to 60%. This was the compound effect of several epidemics and included the indirect effects, i.e. people starving when they were rendered too weak to hunt and gather (Campbell 2002: 150, 222-24).
Early NSW was in no way unique. As Butlin 1982: 22 notes, smallpox caused ‘kill rates’ of 50 to 60 percent of the population across large areas in North America. On smallpox in southern Africa and more generally throughout the Americas, see Johnson 1991: 277; also S Aronson & L Newman, Smallpox in the Americas, 1492-1815: Contagion and Controversy (Providence, Rhode Island, 2002).
28. Morisset’s party: Connor 2002: 59. Marching rates: 12-15 miles [19-24 km] per day for British infantry, Palestine and Western Front, in WW1: D Winter, Death’s Men, London 1978: 70-74; also army manual for Palestine: Lt Col Gunter, The Officer’s Field Note and Sketch Book, London 1915.
29. O’Rourke Lands 1997: 139-41, citing the primary sources such as Mayne and Ridley etc etc; and O’Rourke Sung for Generations 2005: 272. Map at 2005: 14. For comparison, Keen 2004: 113 posits an average of only about 2,000 sq km [45 x 45 km] for the six or seven “countries” making up the lands of the Yuwaaliyaay (Narran River: NW of Walgett).