Passages to the North West Plains by Michael O'Rourke.
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PASSAGES TO THE NORTH-WEST PLAINS P.9
The British pegged out nearly the whole of the Upper Hunter River in the space of one brief year. In the words of the local historian Allan Wood, “within a year of Henry Dangar's first venture into this valley [1824-25], except for one disputed tract, all river frontage lands as far as 'Segenhoe' [near Aberdeen] and all the lower bottoms of branching vales to the same distance, had either been granted, sold, reserved for sale or [offered in] conditional free grant to individuals or reserved for the Corporation or Management of [future] Churches and Schools. ... There was a scramble for all the river lands from present Muswellbrook to the confluence of Hunter's and Page's Rivers [south of Murrurundi], and claims in the area above Aberdeen were not sorted out until July 1825.”
For our purposes, however, the process of land grants, on which Allan Wood concentrates, is less relevant than the dates that the grantees sent their men to occupy the country. We shall therefore trace the establishment of the first farms and stations in that first year, October 1824 - October 1825, before the Kamilaroi (Gamil’raay) killed their first Englishman.
The 'Coomery Roy' of John Howe's Aboriginal guides - the area upstream from Patricks Plains - was occupied in late 1824 or early 1825. There, once more, an explorer was to find settlers located further out than he may have expected. The botanist Allan Cunningham (no relation to Peter) was proceeding up the Hunter on a second trip to the Goulburn River in April 1825. He and his men were still short of the Goulburn junction when they came upon a line of blazed trees that led to the farm of George Blaxland. This was the estate later named 'Wollun Hills', then 'the most distant land possessed and occupied [by colonists] on Hunter's River'. Blaxland's men had sited their huts just a little east of where, in the same month, Ogilvie would choose his land. See map below.
Above: The Hunter River form Denman (left) to Jerrys Plains (right). Note Peter Cunningham’s farm at the Goulburn-Hunter junction (far left) and Blaxland’s ‘Wollen’ [Wollum Hills] at the junction of Doyles Creek (centre).
Accompanied by his three assigned servants, Allan Cunningham continued through the Goulburn Valley to Pandoras Pass, which he had visited two years before. A map based on his manuscript, can be found in Lee's book Early Explorers (1925). 'We have met with no natives (he wrote, while on the lower Goulburn), altho' their recent marks on the trees and fired country show they have traversed the forest [woodland] a few days past' (16 April 1825).
“In all our journey we have seen no natives, [but] their late marks on the trees are proof of their existence in and having passed thro the forests of the neighbourhood, and it is more than probable they have seen us and have studiously avoided us” (25 April).
The Merriwa region as Cunningham would have seen it was described thus in the early 1830s by the young gentleman tourist W H Breton: “Many hundreds of acres have not a single tree upon them, and thousands more are so thinly sprinkled with timber, that there is not the slightest occasion for the axe”.
Into the Liverpool Plains
Cunningham's party pushed on past present-day Merriwa and Cassilis, and from 29 May to 1 June rested at Lawson’s outstation “Talabraga” [modern spelling Talbragar]. They then crossed through Pandoras Pass and entered the Liverpool Plains. Their first camp on the plains was 'about seven miles' [11 km] out from Pandoras Pass, near present-day Bundella.
On 4 May 1825 the expedition encountered Oxley's 'Bowen's Rivulet', the modern Coxs Creek, which 'meandered along the western edge of the plain' in the direction present-day Premer.
As we know from later records, this stretch of Coxs Creek and Bundella Creek, from Bundella past Premer almost to Tambar Springs, was one great expanse of naturally treeless plain (but with thick woodland to the west of Premer). In 1825 the recent heavy rain had rendered many parts boggy, and their progress slow. There was no smoke from any Aboriginal fires to be seen, but the foot-tracks of the blackfellows ('feet impressions of natives in the plains') indicated that a band had passed westwards 'many days' previously.
Cunningham set a course NNW in the direction of Premer and Tambar Springs on 5 May, evidently following generally the course of the left bank of Coxs Creek. Heavy rain began to fall again and for two days they made little progress, being further delayed by the injuries borne by some of the men from earlier accidents. Having passed Premer (as it now is), they camped somewhere near Tambar Springs on 8 May.
Cunningham was surprised at the 'totally unpeopled state of the tract we have hitherto traversed'. This must not be read too literally; he meant only that no smoke or Aboriginal tracks had been seen since about Bundella:
We have seen no natives, altho' we have observed their marks, some of recent date, on the trees - but no smokes have been noticed until this morning (8 May 1825).
This fact of a very thinly populated country is probably to be explained by considering the --- [illegible] results to the Aborigines of last year's scouring of the country by the settlers and soldiers between Mudgee and these parts, the effects of which have probably been --- [?removed] far --- [illegible] around, and it is vet likely any few natives that exist in these regions have seen us and our horses from the hills [? perhaps today’s Weaners Retreat, east of Tambar Springs on the right side of Coxs Creek] and have studiously avoided us altogether.
Travelling forward on 9 May, the botanist and his party soon saw the 'striking feature' of Mullaley Mountain (590 metres) lying ahead (a 'detached round mountain'), and they set their direction towards it. The area north of Tambar Springs is described as 'alluvial wooded land'. As we know from later records, the woodland extended as far as the halfway point between Tambar Springs and Mullaley, where it again opened onto treeless plain. Some of the trees had been barked, either for huts or canoes, about three months earlier. He reports eight distinct grasses, among which Danthonia gigantea (giant oatgrass, resembling wheat in the ear) was the most striking.
The lesser creeks running into Coxs Creek were flooded and the main watercourse was too deep and rapid to be forded so they continued along its left or western bank until at length they entered Oxley's 'Lushington Valley', which is our Garrawilla Valley. A further detached rocky hill was seen, probably the modern Mt Baloola (270 metres), as they approached Mullaley Mountain ('all alone on the plains') on 11 May. Far to the WSW, which is to say: looking back broadly along the line of the present-day Oxley Highway from Gunnedah to Coonabarabran, they could see Oxley's 'Arbuthnot Ranges' (the Warrumbungles) about 80 km distant.
Having reached and climbed Mullaley Mountain, Cunningham proceeded into what he called 'Camden Valley', the basin of Oxley's 'Yorke Rivulet', which is our Coxs Creek below its junction with Garrawilla Creek. He remarked, not knowing he was about to find a village-like group of huts, that the region was apparently wholly uninhabited or perhaps rarely visited. This meant only that no tracks or Aboriginal fires had been seen, perhaps because the local people had not yet returned to the floodplains from higher ground after the recent great flood.
The present-day Kerringle State Forest, on the western side of Coxs Creek and west from Emerald Hill, lies about midway between Mullaley and Boggabri. There was open woodland along the left or western side of Coxs Creek, while on the eastern side there was a treeless plain. In the woodland on Kerringle’s eastern outskirts, somewhere near the present ‘Ghoolendaadi’ station, and no doubt within walking distance of the Creek, 'many trees had been barked by the Aborigines to construct their huts, which were strewed thro' the forest [woodland] to the number of 14 in no [?] order or [?] village-like disposition'. This statement, partly illegible, seems to suggest that the 14 huts ('these conical habitations') were not grouped together but widely distributed. If not literally a village, then the settlement was certainly semi-permanent, for some of the huts were large enough to accommodate a family of six, as Cunningham supposed, no doubt constructed as shelter against the rain.
As it appears, the larger huts had a square bark-floor base ('irregular square form') with 'forked stakes' supporting a conical bark roof. Originally built four to six months before, in high summer, they had been abandoned for some time, perhaps several weeks, as new grass had already grown up through the bark floors from the soil beneath. Signs of wading could be seen in the deep mire surrounding the huts, perhaps implying that the Aborigines had left the area only when forced out by the rising floodwaters. Some blackfellows were still in the area, or were perhaps ready to return to the low-lying land, for a thick column of smoke was seen rising from a ridge some 20 km ahead, probably from the hills near modern Boggabri.
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64. Wood 1972: 72-73. Perry's First Frontier (1963: 68) has a map of Hunter Valley land grants to 1825. Many grants, however, remained unoccupied for months or even years.
65. Allan Cunningham, quoted by Wood 1972; also Peter Cunningham 1827, i: 157 (1966: 82). Peter Cunningham's book, written in London immediately after the 'Hunter War' (described later in the text), gives an excellently vivid picture of conditions on the frontier.
66. As explained earlier, what we now call woodland - open country with a few trees - was commonly called 'forest' in the early 19th century (as for example in Howe's 1819 diary and Mitchell 1839).
67. Cunningham in Lee 1925: 540 f and quoted in Brayshaw 1986: 54. See also McMinn 1970: 67 ff; Lansdowne Press 1971, ii: 522 ff.
68. W H Breton 1833: 96, emphasis added.
69. Journal, State Records of NSW, Reel 6035; SZ22 pp.28-35.
70. Cunningham, Journal, 3-4 May 1825 (AO Reel 6035, SZ17). Cited hereafter simply by the date of the journal entry (AC = Allan Cunningham). Brief summary in McMinn 1070: 67. Treeless: Lang 2008. Folowing the left bank: Cuniahams had-dwan app in redpcyed in Ida Lee’s book.
71. AC made two estimates of the latitude: 31o 22' 03" S (= south-east of Tambar Springs: perhaps where the upper tributaries of Coxs Creek – the Bomera, Coxs and Bundella Creeks - converge) and 31o 21' 40" S (= very near Tambar Springs itself).
72. The smoke rose at a distance of “about 40” miles [65 km] to the north-east, i.e. from approximately the area of modern Gunnedah [actually 55 km away].
73. AC, Journal, 8 May. 'Scouring' = the Bathurst-Mudgee ‘War’ of 1824.
74. 9-11 May.
75. 14 May. Latitude 30o 49' 54" = about 18 kilometres from Mullaley and 10 kilometres from Boggabri.