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A General History

Pathfinders book

Pathfinders, A history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW, written by Dr Michael Bennett and published by NewSouth, is now available from all good bookstores. Click on the link below to order your copy.


Early History

Since the beginning of the colony, government agencies, explorers, surveyors and members of the general public called upon the tracking abilities of Aboriginal men and women.  First Fleet officers and early land-owners sometimes made use of Aboriginal men to track and capture escaped convicts.  Alexander Berry, for example, relied on an Aboriginal man known as Broughton (or Toodwick) for this purpose and gave him a brass breastplate with the title of “Constable”.

Later, surveyors made use of numerous Aboriginal guides during expeditions into the interior.  Sir Thomas Mitchell’s expeditions provide several examples.  John Piper of the Bathurst district accompanied Mitchell on his tour of Australia Felix in 1836 as guide and interpreter.  Yuranigh, also of the Bathurst district, accompanied Mitchell on his expedition into tropical north Australia in 1845-1846.  A noted favourite of Mitchell, particularly after John Piper left the party early on, Yuranigh proved his value many times, including on 5 January 1846 in the vicinity of the Bogan River when he tracked three young cows which had gone missing overnight.  When Yuranigh died in the 1850s, his grave near Molong was customarily marked with five carved trees.  Mitchell organised for a headstone to be added, creating a unique memorial that can still be seen today.[ref]NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service  1999.  Yuranighs Aboriginal Grave Historic Site: plan of management.  NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Hurstville.[/ref]

There were innumerable occasions in the early colonial period when Aboriginal people were informally called upon to utilise their tracking skills.  In April 1834, Dan Sullivan, the mailman on the Campbelltown to Wollongong route, went missing.  Several “blacks” were dispatched to locate him, but the unfortunate mailman had drowned while crossing a creek and his body was found after two days.[ref]Australian 11 April 1834[/ref]  At Kiama in 1852, Tommy Noggera was asked to track a black mare which had escaped from a paddock.  Tommy, who had already broken the horse for its owner, took several days to find it and bring it back[ref]Organ, Michael  1990.  Illawarra and South Coast Aborigines 1770-1850.  Aboriginal Education Unit, University of Wollongong, Wollongong: 302.[/ref].

Various colonial police forces made use of Aboriginal trackers.  The Border Police, which operated beyond the limits of location between 1839 and 1846, often had two or three trackers attached to each patrol.  The Mounted Police, which operated in the settled areas, often had trackers assigned to them as well.[ref]Skinner, L.E. 1975.  Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-1859.  University of Queensland Press, St Lucia: 24-25.[/ref]  A tracker was used in the pursuit of Wilson and his band of notorious bushrangers in the vicinity of Yulgilbar near Grafton in May 1846.  The chase ended when Wilson was shot dead.[ref]Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 30 May 1846.[/ref]

Understandably, the force with the greatest concentration of tracking skill was the Native Police.  Consisting of white officers and Aboriginal troopers, the first corps was formed at Port Phillip in 1837, with subsequent corps formed in 1838 and 1842.[ref]Fels, Marie Hansen  1988.  Good Men and True: The Aboriginal Police of the Port Phillip District 1837-1853.  Melbourne University Press, Melbourne; Richards, Jonathon 2008.  The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police.  University of Queensland Press, Brisbane.[/ref]  A separate Native Police operated in northern NSW from 1849 and their operation continued after Queensland was declared a separate colony in 1859.  Their primary role was the subjugation of Aboriginal tribes who resisted the expanding colonial frontier and their work at times was swift and brutal.  In January 1856 for example, at least 11 Aboriginal people were shot near the Fitzroy River after five residents of Mount Larcom Station (including an Aboriginal boy) were murdered.[ref]Skinner, L.E. 1975.  Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-1859.  University of Queensland Press, St Lucia: 209-210.[/ref] It was a tragic and devastating period in Australian history.

Reformation of the Police Service

As Haydon notes, the NSW government reformed the police service in 1862.  Previously, control of the police was decentralised to local authorities.  The gold field riots at Lambing Flat in 1861 prompted the Cowper administration to devise the Police Regulation Act of 1862, which “put all the forces under the authority of an Inspector General”.[ref]Golder, Hilary 2005.  Politics, Patronage and Public Works: The Administration of New South Wales, Volume 1 1842-1900.  UNSW Press, Sydney.  She gives an account of why control of the police service was dispersed to local authorities before 1862.[/ref]   A new hierarchy was created, placing superintendents above inspectors, sub-inspectors, sergeants and constables.  Trackers were not mentioned in the new Act, but their rank, obvious from their lower pay, was below that of constables.  They were mentioned, however, in the first Police Rule Book as belonging to a separate division within the police, together with the General, Detective and Water Police divisions.[ref]The Police History Book August 1987: 41.[/ref]  A driving force in the creation of the new division was Superintendent Martin Brennan who in the previous year had relied on two trackers to find several lost children near Binalong after a search by 200 townsfolk had proved fruitless.[ref]Hoban, L.E. 1991.  “The Aboriginal Police Tracker”.  NSW Police News, September 1991.[/ref]

Improved record keeping was a feature of the new police service.  A salary register was established in Sydney recording the name of each officer, his rank and rate of monthly pay.  A separate page was kept for trackers.  Until 1882, the locality where each tracker worked was not recorded; only the region of their employment was written down.  For the most part, only the first name of each tracker was entered into the register, making it difficult to identify and trace individuals.  This practice continued until 1916, although the frequency of surnames increased.[ref]It is likely that the practice continued past 1916 – later records are not publicly available.[/ref]  After 1916, individual service records were kept, detailing the length and location of employment, promotions and sick leave taken.

Duties and Skills

As numerous historical accounts suggest, traditional Aboriginal society in NSW was not wholly destroyed by the process of colonisation.  Social and economic structures adapted to the dominant white society and many traditional skills found new outlets.[ref]See Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in NSW, 1770-1972 by Heather Goodall, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1996.[/ref]  Tracking skills, still essential for hunting, and knowledge of the landscape (told partly in Dreaming stories) were kept alive within communities and passed from one generation to the next.  Tracker Alex Riley learned his craft from older Aboriginal residents at Nymagee, as did Robert Robinson at Bulgandramine.[ref]Undated article by Steve Hodder, published in the Dubbo Liberal 2003 (Dubbo and District Library, tracker file).[/ref]  William Robinson of the Grafton district followed his father into tracking at 18 and remained in the job for 47 years.  Underplaying his ability, Robinson said he relied on “commonsense and a sharp eye” to get the job done.[ref]Koori Mail 16 December 1992: 1; Koori Mail 2 November 1994: 2.[/ref]  Cassidy Samuels of Singleton directly linked tracking to the hunting skills he learned from the “old folks” when growing up.  Cassidy spent three years working for the police at Brewarrina and when he was not on duty he spent his time hunting echidnas and pigs.  Echidnas, or porcupines as he called them, were particularly difficult to track because their prints looked the same when viewed from opposite directions.  He tracked them “by looking at how the bush has been disturbed”, more or less picking up subtle changes imperceptible to the untrained eye.  He applied the same technique when tracking people: “Sometimes you loose the track and then you look around till you pick it up again.  If you can’t see the footprints you look for sticks that have been moved and tell which way he’s going by the direction they have rolled…  A man’s tracks will tell you the condition he’s in.  If he’s carrying something he’s got a strong walk.  If he’s weak or leg-weary he drags his feet.”  He adapted the same principles to tracking motor cars, noting that you could tell the direction in which a vehicle was travelling by examining the direction of the settled dust.[ref]New Dawn October 1973: 15.[/ref]

Extensive kinship networks, a characteristic of Aboriginal life to this day, helped promote the survival of tracking skills.[ref]See McDonald, Gaynor 2001. “Does ‘culture’ have ‘history’? Thinking about continuity and change in central New South Wales.” Aboriginal History 25.[/ref]  There is clear documentary evidence that trackers interacted from time to time and it is tempting to think that they sometimes shared stories and techniques.  Harry Nean tracked at Yetman for three months early in 1890.  When he died at Moree from tuberculosis in November 1938, Robert St George, another well-known tracker from north-west NSW, informed the authorities about details of Nean’s life.[ref]Police Salary Register 1890 SRNSW 11/16355 Reel 1970; DC of Harry Nean 1938/024202[/ref]  The personal facts which he reported suggest a close relationship between the two.  Other trackers were related by marriage and descent.  Tracker John Murray was living at Eugowra when he married Polly Goologong at Forbes in April 1883.  Polly’s father was also a tracker and after John Murray died, Polly married Billy Binigay, a tracker from the Murrumbidgee who was 24 years her junior.[ref]MC of John Murray and Polly Goologong 1883/004595; MC of Billy Binigay and Polly Murray 1918/011513.[/ref]

Aside from traditional bush skills, trackers needed to be familiar with domesticated animals which formed the basis of the pastoral industry.  In the aftermath of the gold rush in the early 1850s, many Aboriginal men and women gained employment on pastoral stations to replace the white workers who had gone to the gold fields.  They soon became proficient at a variety of duties including shepherding and droving sheep and cattle (although some had skills gained from stealing animals from pastoralists in earlier decades).  Good horsemanship became an essential skill as much of the work was done from horseback.  Some Aboriginal men also became renowned horse-breakers.  Working in the pastoral industry gave Aboriginal people familiarity with the marks made by domesticated animals as they moved.  This knowledge, combined with traditional bush skills, made trackers an invaluable part of the police force, particularly in western areas.

The other duty that trackers are probably best remembered for is locating lost people in the bush.  Hundreds would have perished, particularly in the parched western areas, if it were not for the efforts of trackers.  Robert Jennings was returning to Walgett with an empty dray in February 1882 when he camped overnight on Euroka run.  Early the next morning he went to look for his horse, but was overcome by the sun and collapsed.  Jackey Bundah was dispatched from Walgett with a constable to look for the lost man.  Picking up the trail at the empty dray, Bundah followed the tracks for over 25km before finding Jennings slumped on the ground, but still alive.[ref]Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 12 February 1881.[/ref]

Searches were not always successful; sometimes trackers were called in too late to find the missing people alive.  The tracker at Moree followed the footsteps of a missing woman to the bank of the Big River in July 1883; her remains were found soon after and it was thought that she had slipped into the water and drowned.[ref]Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 14 July 1883.[/ref]  James Boney of Walcha once spent 17 weeks looking for a trace of a lost boy.[ref]The Walcha Witness 6 December 1902: 2.[/ref]  At Booka Booka Station near Brewarrina, Norman Walford picked up the trail of a missing man at Christmas time in 1957.  An exhausting three day search ended with the discovery of the man’s remains.[ref]Dubbo Liberal 4 January 1982.[/ref] In some of these cases, trackers were required to help with the recovery of the body.  Jimmy McDonald was once asked to collect the remains of a man and take them back on a horse to the Mudgee station where he was based.[ref]Interview with Malcolm McDonald, Toronto, 19 April 2012.[/ref]

Distribution of Trackers

Trackers were mainly employed in the prime agricultural and pastoral central and north-western areas of NSW.  It is not surprising, therefore, that many stories refer to the pursuit of sheep, cattle and horse thieves and their herds of ill-gotten booty.  Tracker Jack of Merriwa and Tracker Jimmy of Wollar recovered two stolen draught mares in September 1883.  Despite light rain which faded the tracks and a path which took them over stony country, Jimmy and Jack followed the signs to a gorge where they found the stolen horses impounded behind a bush fence of scrub saplings.[ref]Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser 13 September 1883: 7[/ref]  Tracker Jack of Coonamble captured a man in October 1897 for “fraudulently defacing the earmarks of one sheep”. [ref]NSW Police Gazette 27 October 1897: 371[/ref] The effort and skill of Tracker Fogarty of Moree led Senior-sergeant Pountney and Constable Somervill to arrest James Reed in March 1896 for stealing 33 bullocks from Merriwa Station.[ref]NSW Police Gazette 25 March 1896: 118[/ref]  Harry Pickalla tracked a stolen bull from Terry Hie Hie Station (about 50km south-west of Moree).  The trail led to Richard Rodger Jurd and Edward George Crawford who were arrested for the offence.[ref]NSW Police Gazette 23 February 1898: 70[/ref]

The salary registers indicate that trackers were rarely employed in coastal NSW, particularly in the south and mid-north where the coastal strip was narrow and pastoralism and agriculture were less intensive.[ref]The exception was the northern rivers district around Grafton where the coastal strip was wider and at Kempsey.[/ref]  These areas were not without substantial Aboriginal populations and any man wishing to track had to travel far to find work.  Harry Pickalla was from the south coast of NSW and moved to the Moree district to track.  He may have met Mungo Park from Chatsworth Island on the lower Clarence River who also tracked at Moree for five years in the mid-1890s, and later at Pallamallawa and Meroe.

Only a small number of trackers were employed in metropolitan Sydney.  A developed, urban environment was not conducive for trackers to use their skills.  One of Isaac Grovenor’s important roles during his many years at the Redfern Depot was to break in and look after police horses.  He does not seem to have tracked in the suburbs of Sydney.  Trackers were in demand, however, in the undeveloped and sometimes agricultural areas of western Sydney.  At the turn of the century, Jack Redtank from a property to the south of Cobar worked as a tracker at Parramatta and successfully tracker several offenders wanted for burglary.[ref]See Cumberland Argus 9 September 1900.[/ref]

 Living Places

Trackers lived in a variety of places during their employment, ideally close by so they could be called upon in an emergency.  Some lived in the police stables and others had a small tracker’s hut out the back of the station.  The police paddock was another common living place; some tracker’s built a hut and others camped.  There were also examples of trackers living on the local Aboriginal reserve or station.  In the 20th century, some trackers had a house in town, although this was rare.  Some trackers lived with family and other community members.  This was particularly the case when the tracker had a traditional connection to the country where he worked.  Others, particularly those from interstate, lived alone.

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A General History

Pathfinders book Pathfinders, A history of Aboriginal trackers in NSW, written by Dr Michael Bennett and published by NewSouth, is now available from all good bookstores. Click on the link below to order your copy. https://www.abbeys.com.au/book/pathfinders-a-history-of-aboriginal-trackers-in-nsw.do Early History Since the beginning of the colony, government agencies, explorers, surveyors and members of the general public called upon the tracking...

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