Tag Archives: Frontier Wars

The (lost) road to Sheep Station Creek

THERE MUST BE a hundred or more Sheep Station Creeks in Australia. The one I know is in Kamilaroi Country, and I recently went back to find it because I’m working on a novel about a town that disappeared.

My exploration was a reminder of just how quickly such a thing can happen.

As a kid I regularly traversed the black soil lands west of Delungra, and I recall being told that Dufty’s Lane, on which our farm ‘Paxton’ stood, once ran between the Bingara Road and another place deeper in these blue hills, decades before we moved in.

That destination was Sheep Station Creek, a generous watercourse that often flooded, according to the oral history, cutting off residents of the village with the same name once too often.

Their solution was to head up into our valley along Dufty’s Lane, which runs straight to the Bingara Road crossing creeks close enough to their source to let most of the water get away. From there, it’s a short run into Delungra where there was a railway station, school and post office.

Armed with a map and memories of landmarks (there’s no phone signal out there) I headed west from Delungra to Kaloona. Here, I turned south onto Reserve Creek Road where Gragin Peak sits distinctly almost directly to the north.

After slowly and subtly dropping into a valley, a crusty signpost pointing to Sheep Station Creek greeted me not far south of where Reserve Creek flows into it. The water was flowing beautifully, creating wide, shaded pools as it winds through the district. With plenty of properties along the way, it seems the perfect place to put down roots; but there’s little sign this was once a place with a name.

‘This little spot’

It seems the closest Sheep Station Creek ever got to being recognised was in century-old reports. One, published in The Inverell Times three weeks after the Australian Imperial Forces’ landing at Gallipoli in 1915, called the region “this little spot” in “the corners of Inverell, Warialda and Bingara districts”.

The write up reads as though it was penned by a local, speaking of a rifle club and tennis meets; and thousands of sheep, cattle and horses agisted in the valley during a “recent dry spell”.

The annual minutes of the local “F&S Club” branch were reported, mentioning the arrival of the telephone service, a rise in rates, the plan for a local polling booth, and various road repairs.

“The Shire Council has effected an agreement with St Clair Bros, in regard to the road through their properly, which, though not final, puts residents, on a more satisfactory footing,” the report reads.

The St Clairs were Percival and Harold, second joint owners of Paxton. A 1916 report in the Tamworth Daily Observer mentions the success the brothers were having in the cultivation of various grains on Paxton, with a particular focus on Sudan Grass, a highly nutritious fodder sorghum they were selling as seed. Harold was also doing well out of breeding horses for the track.

The writer of that report didn’t mention Dufty’s Lane by name. They called it “the Road to Sheep Station Creek”.

It certainly sounded like a place that was burgeoning, so what happened?

A changed world

The day I passed though. the weather-beaten pointer to Sheep Station Creek was hidden in the shadow of a signpost to a place with a more notorious name.

I followed it and soon ended up at the old Myall Creek Hall, where, with my siblings and friends, we once played on the swings and performed on the raked wooden stage at Christmas. I’d arrived at this place by another route in 2015 for the annual memorial of the Myall Creek Massacre.

A local volunteer was mowing the lawns, so I got to have a slow look inside.

In the dusty light, I noticed an honour roll, which likely goes some way to explaining the disappearance of Sheep Station Creek. Two of the four St Clair brothers – Harold and Christoper – appear on it. After enlisting late in a war that no-one knew would end soon (a similar board at Delungra was embossed “1914-191_‘), Harold returned but his younger brother did not.

The weekly papers of the New England region are filled with the lists of the war dead and wounded across these years. Harold St Clair’s bushman’s skills were exploited in Palestine, not the racetrack. He returned to a changed world in 1919.

If the residents of Sheep Station Creek – just getting a foothold on their lands in 1916 – were impacted at the same rate of loss as the rest of the New England community, is it any wonder the hopes in those branch minutes were blown away like sorghum seeds no-one was around to harvest?

Out of place

I continued on the Myall Creek Massacre memorial site, taking the short walk to remind myself of the story of the Wirrayaraay women, children and old men whose lives ended so brutally at the hands of colonial settlers in 1838.

The Wirrayarray’s custodianship of Myall Creek was forever interrupted by this episode of Australia’s Frontier Wars. It’s not clear what the residents of Sheep Station Creek knew or understood of the massacre, although I was told about it as a child while playing at the Myall Creek Hall in the 1970s.

War stories tend to get handed down the generations. The loss of large parts of some generations due to conflict is something all cultures have in common. Hopefully we can remember all the fallen on the one honour board before long, by including the Frontier Wars in our ceremonies.

Despite my hunt along every rut, track and open gate, the road down to Sheep Station Creek from Dufty’s Lane appears to be long gone.

Perhaps Sheep Station Creek survives in other memories and family stories? These remote hills and valleys are filled with place names that exist only on maps, or remnant signposts standing by old roads to nowhere, travelled by dreamers like me who are drawn by legends and century-old meeting news clippings.

In that sense, the fictitious town that disappears in the manuscript I’m currently reworking is hardly out of place. It’s just another bend in another creek somewhere.

A Myall in my shoes

A Writer on Australia’s Frontier Wars.

IT has taken me a lifetime to get back to Myall Creek, a typical watercourse that traverses a remote country road like thousands of others in NSW’s New England district.

Here, between the towns of Delungra and Bingara, a corrugated iron hall by a long-disused pair of tennis courts has been a place of dances, Christmas parties, cricket meets and a century of community gatherings.

As kids, me, my siblings and school friends played on iron swings that were already old by the time we clambered over them, while our parents enjoyed social tennis.

On the sidelines between one of those matches, my mother parked herself next to me on the swing in her tennis whites and told me a story. 

LIFE SWINGS The tennis courts at Myall Creek Hall (Photo: Michael Burge).

She gestured along the creek that snaked its way close to the shed, across a field dotted with pepper and willow trees, and whispered how, long ago, white settlers had driven Aboriginal people over the edge of the gully to their deaths.

The injustice in her tone got my attention, but also her reticence to tell me publicly. In all the years since, I have wondered if she’d been told about this crime, casually, over a lemon barley water on the other side of the court, when some long-term local updated this city girl on the region’s history.

Mum got essential details wrong at that first telling, but what she told me remains one of the most indelible events in Australia’s Frontier Wars – the Myall Creek Massacre.

Life took my family away from the New England region less than two years later. Over the decades, we drove across Myall Creek many times travelling to family events, never stopping.

“Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.”

But the story of the massacre stayed with me, cropping up in school projects and writing efforts. Eventually, I did some research at Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and read for myself the newspaper accounts of the Myall Creek Massacre trials, replete with the often quoted, eye-popping racist responses from readers incensed at the white perpetrators being bought to justice.

The day I return with some of my family for the annual June Long Weekend Myall Creek Memorial, the paddocks around the hall are full of cars. 

I find my way back to the tennis courts, now covered by grass. The swings are still there. I spy the bridge over the creek, and the same gully my mother gestured to almost forty years ago.

By the time the crowd has moved up to the memorial site itself, it’s as though we cannot help but stand in racial groups. There is a hesitation about mingling. We don’t know anyone else. They don’t know us. We’ve all returned to Kamilaroi country because we remember.

Two Aboriginal men, helped by their kids, light a fire for a smoking ceremony. The sound of boomerangs being clapped together calls Aboriginal dancers into action. Smoke rises, wrapping around us, bringing us together.

WELCOME TO COUNTRY Smoking ceremony at the start of the Myall Creek Memorial (Photo: Michael Burge).

The air is heavy with a scent that wakes us into joining the respectful queue that forms at the head of the track leading into the memorial, and hands reach up to draw the white paint across our foreheads.

Now, the dead are ready to have us remember them.

The Myall Creek memorial is a short walk through scrubland typical of the region, with its basalt soils – chocolate-brown and ochre red – and the knee-deep sea of sandy coloured grass, lapping between stands of trees.

It’s also granite country. Small boulders lie everywhere, like markers, and as we walk, school students, some of them Aboriginal, read the plaques set into the stones while we progress.

Each tells part of the story of the killing of 28 unarmed Aboriginal women, children and old men in June, 1838. Most were felled by swords after being chained together, one chapter of the long conflict between European settlers and Aboriginal people.

The track leads us to the massacre site, a massive boulder set on the edge of a high place overlooking the remnant of the old Myall Creek Station.

In the distance, cattle feed and call. This was the land granted to squatter Henry Dangar, whose patch was eventually subdivided to create the nearby farm my parents worked in the late 1960s and 70s.

The familiarity of the farm noises comforts me, but when guest speaker Professor John Maynard speaks of the Aboriginal contribution to the wars Australia fought on foreign soil, his voice carries protest at the way Aboriginal history has been whitewashed. It’s a much-needed jolt of reality.

At the ceremony’s end, the next generation is encouraged never to forget the crime. Watching white and Aboriginal kids led by their elders, I am struck by what it must be like to not know about the Myall Creek Massacre.

Plenty of other massacres happened across Australia during the Frontier Wars – in other places, many more Aboriginal people were killed than at Myall Creek, in a variety of ways, from poisoning to shooting. Myall Creek stands out only because it was the first crime after which the bulk of the European killers were brought to justice.

Did the oral histories run deep amongst the white farmers because our ancestors were hanged for their crimes?

MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).
MYALL LEGENDS Elders and dignitaries at the memorial site (Photo: Michael Burge).

When American writer Bill Bryson came in search of the massacre site in the late 1990s, he found nothing.

By 2000, the place had been identified and marked. Occasional vandalism since has not dulled the growing spirit of reconciliation which will never be stymied by faceless racism. Now, a fundraising effort is behind a planned onsite education centre.

During the thoughtful walk back to the car, cautious divisions start falling away. We walk as one group. One people.

On the way to visit our old farm, we pause at a high point along the road where another farmhouse became derelict long ago. Very soon, other cars arrive, bearing various descendants of the other families who farmed down the same lane. They were all at the massacre memorial too.

Although we are all different ages, live across two states and our lives have followed varied pathways, one thing unites this group of relative strangers meeting on a tract of the Kamilaroi nation on this particular day – every one of us has always known about the Myall Creek Massacre.

This strong oral history has been handed down through generations and does not come with judgement, shame, or pity for white killers.

It comes with an unforgettable knowledge of what injustice really means in this country, and the desire to pass that message on.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.