One day at dawn in early 1839, Frederick Taylor and a number of other armed white men rode on horseback into a sleeping camp of Aboriginal people near present-day Terang in Victoria’s western district. Most of the people encamped on the banks of Mount Emu Creek were of the Tarnbeere gundidj clan, members of the Djargurd wurrung language group.
The settlers killed about 35 of the roughly 50 people in the camp, and threw the bodies into the water.
After the massacre, a survivor by the name of Karn had begun to pull the bodies of his friends and relatives from the water when the white men returned, gave him a blanket and took him, with his wife and child, to the homestead. The camping place was called Puuroyuup, but the site has been known since that time as Murdering Gully.
Frederick Taylor ran one of the largest sheep stations in Victoria, which was then the Port Phillip district of New South Wales. The station boasted 7,000 sheep and nearly two dozen European employees, and had been established only a few months before the massacre. Under the squatting system, pastoralists did not own the land, only the livestock. For the privilege of using what the British considered Crown land, settlers paid a nominal rent and fees to the government.
Over generations, Aboriginal people had created the verdant grasslands of Victoria’s western district through the deliberate use of fire. The grasslands were attractive to pastoralists like Taylor, especially those near permanent water, such as Mount Emu Creek. The name of the clan that was almost destroyed by Taylor, Tarnbeere, means “ever-flowing”. They were the people of the ever-flowing water.
Records compiled by the historian and geographer Ian D Clark reveal that the massacre was a deliberate dawn attack on sleeping people.
Tarnbeere gundidj man Wangegamon, one of the few survivors of the massacre, later told the local assistant protector of Aborigines that the white men had approached the camp on horseback in an extended line and begun firing. When describing the creek, he said the “water was much stained with blood”.
Wangegamon saw his wife and son murdered. He remained in the area for two days, presumably grieving his loss. He reported to the assistant protector that the attackers had returned to the site with other local settlers, who seemed shocked. They asked Taylor why he had killed so many women and children. But they helped him burn the bodies, and later they returned with a sack and took away the bones that remained.
Aboriginal survivor testimony is rare in early-19th century cases of frontier massacre. Wangegamon’s statement to the assistant protector reveals that settlers who were not necessarily participants in the killing would help destroy evidence that could be used against a fellow free settler.
The treatment of the survivor Karn and his family seems odd to modern eyes. Why would the attackers murder most of his extended family, but then offer him blankets and shelter? Pastoralism and traditional Aboriginal land-use could not coexist but Aboriginal people as individuals were not a threat to wool-based prosperity. The settlers had destroyed the clan in order to remove the obstacle to pastoralism posed by traditional-living Aboriginal people. As a result, Karn and his family presented no threat to the settlers.
In the aftermath of the killings, Frederick Taylor fled Port Phillip for British India. Taylor was possibly spooked by the news of the trials and subsequent hangings of seven white men for their role in the Myall Creek massacre in December 1838.
He needn’t have worried. The under-resourced assistant protector arrived to investigate the case in December 1839. Government authorities had refused to supply him with provisions or a bullock dray, so he was forced to stay with the very squatters whose conduct he was supposed to examine. The statements he and local Wesleyan missionaries took from survivors such as Wangegemon are invaluable to historians. However, at the time, such statements were not admissible in court as evidence. New South Wales had decided that Aboriginal people did not believe in a god or an afterlife, so they could not take an oath, and therefore could not provide sworn testimony.
When Taylor reappeared in Port Phillip a few years later, the Crown lands commissioner attempted to prevent him from acquiring a squatting license. Taylor protested that he had no prior convictions, but superintendent Charles La Trobe, the de facto governor, upheld the commissioner’s decision. But Taylor became a joint licence-holder with another squatter and remained in Gippsland for more than a decade. He was never convicted of anything.
The sheep station was taken up by a newly arrived Highland Scot named Niel Black early in 1840. Black had heard that squatters needed to kill Aboriginal people to take up grazing land, but did not want to engage in violence himself.
“The blacks have been very troublesome on it and I believe they have been very cruelly dealt with,” Taylor wrote. “The poor creatures are now terror stricken and will be easily managed.”
He noted in his journal that this was the main reason he had chosen this sheep run.
Black went on to become one of the most successful squatters in Victoria’s western district. He too engaged in acts of violence to maintain his position on the land, although nothing as shocking as his predecessor. He recorded in his journal firing over the heads of Aboriginal men to frighten them off, and riding at a gallop into a group of terrified women and children. He also destroyed a hut, leaving behind gunpowder wrapped in paper to show that it had been “done by whites”.
Black’s homestead, Glenormiston, was an announcement of his arrival in colonial high society. The impressive building exists today as an agricultural college, a practical monument to the prosperity that settlers achieved in the plains west of Melbourne.
But it remains a silent symbol of another story, one of a sudden, planned attack at dawn, the murder of men, women and children, and the unwillingness of authorities to punish perpetrators.
Dr Thomas Rogers is a historian in the military history section of the Australian War Memorial, where he conducts research into colonial Australian history, the Boer war and the first world war.