Massacre by Moonlight
Marshall soon found that in becoming Commandant of the
Native Police he had won himself an unenviable position. Facts
brought out in the Walker inquiry had added strength to the
arguments of a group of squatters who were opposed to the
Native Police from the start.
These were mainly men who had treated the aborigines as
fairly as possible in the circumstances, and who, in return,
had been left unmolested while their neighbours’ stock was
slaughtered. One squatter on the Maranoa had made a treaty
with the local Aborigines, engaging the tribesmen to do his
shepherding in return for meat and stores, and promising
mutual aid against the ferocious Jiman tribes over the hills
to the north-east. Both sides kept this treaty for years.
Thomas Archer and his brothers John and David, who took
up Gracemere station on the Fitzroy River near the present
site of Rockhampton, in 1855, also managed to keep on fairly
good terms with the Aborigines though it was said that the
main thing that made this possible was a ship’s swivel-gun
mounted on a stump at the front of the station’s homestead in
order to command the approaches to it.
There were others who claimed that the blacks had been
beaten, and sought a lifting of the levies that were made to
maintain the Native Police. The Government in Sydney was in a
mood to agree. The northern areas were soon to become part of
a separate colony, and the southern legislators saw no reason
to waste money on them.
The Native Police force was reduced in strength from
one hundred and thirty-six to seventy-two men. Marshall
resigned in disgust. To save expense and trouble, the
disbanded troopers, instead of being sent back to the southern
districts where they had been recruited, were released on the
spot. The immediate result was a crop of murders and brutal
assaults of a type far worse than any that had been attributed
to Aborigines before. In most cases the tribesmen who
committed them were led by former police boys.
Frederick Walker, seeing a chance to profit by the
situation, organised a private army of his own from disbanded
troopers, and hired out his services to squatters who needed
them. Whether he quelled more trouble than he stirred up is
doubtful, but his discipline at this stage was certainly lax,
and many of the brutal acts for which Native Police and
squatters were blamed during this period, were probably
committed by Walker’s men.
Growing discontent with the Native Police led to a
Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry, and in May 1857, E. V.
Morisset was appointed to take charge of a re-organised force.
He promptly clashed with Walker who, he said, was deliberately
making things difficult for the force he himself had once
commanded. The Government ordered Walker to disband his army
and leave the job of controlling the Aborigines to the
officially recognised Native Police.
Morisset’s men had hardly time to shake down before
they were called on to deal with the worst massacre by
Aborigines in the history of the Colony.
The Dawson River valley, to the north-east of the
Maranoa, was good country, well watered, and teeming with
native game. The Aborigines, whose hunting ground it was- the
Jimans- were a virile, warlike race, feared by their
neighbours and not used to being pushed away from good hunting
grounds by invaders like Andrew Scott, a Scottish migrant who
took up land on the Dawson in 1853, near the site of the
present town of Taroom, named it Hornet Bank, and stocked it
with sheep. The Jimans promptly speared his shepherd to death
and drove off fourteen hundred sheep.
Scott called in the Native Police, rode out with them,
and surprised the raiders in the middle of a mutton feast.
They rescued most of the sheep and “dispersed” the Jimans with
After that, Scott marked a ring of trees at a good
distance from the homestead and warned the Jimans that any of
them found inside the ring would be shot.
In March 1854, Scott leased the run to a former Darling
Downs settler named John Fraser, showed him the marked tree
line, and advised him to keep the Jimans at their distance.
Fraser, whose knowledge of the Aborigines came from the
comparatively easy-going Gooneeburras, did not take the
warning very seriously.
Before the year was out Fraser died of pneumonia,
leaving his widow Martha, aged forty-three, and family of five
sons and four daughters, and the children’s European tutor, to
carry on the run. One of their most trusted station-hands was
a partly-civilised Aboriginal named Boney, who had worked on a
number of stations before.
The Frasers treated the Jimans kindly and believed that
they were on friendly terms with them. They did not know that
living with the tribe were two former Native Police boys who
had been released in the district and were looking for
They found it on the night of 26 October 1857 while the
Fraser’s eldest son, William, was away bringing the bullock
drays up from Ipswich with stores and other things for the
station, including a dress in which his eldest sister planned
shortly to be married to a squatter from the Wide Bay
district. No one at the station expected trouble that moonlit
night, and the dog, which might have given a warning, had
already been clubbed to death by Boney.
Towards dawn, the Jimans, led by the two former police
boys, silently closed in on the homestead. When close enough,
they rushed it. The elder Fraser boy, John, twenty-three, and
the tutor, Henry Neagle, twenty-seven, slept in a skillion off
the veranda. Both were brained with nulla-nullas before they
could jump from their beds.
The noise woke Sylvester, generally called West Fraser,
a boy of fourteen, who, with his brothers, David, sixteen, and
James, nearly seven, had their bunks in the store. Yelling a
warning to the others, Wet grabbed a gun, but at the same
moment the door carshed in and a pack of painted warriors
pressed into the room. West was felled by a blow from a
nulla-nulla across the side of his head. It stunned him and
rolled him across the bunk so that he fell down between it and
the wall where he could not be seen.
The other two boys were felled with nulla-nullas and as
they lay on the floor, were battered beyond recognition.
Mrs. Fraser, awakened by the din, and trying to quieten
the screaming girls, had barricaded the door of the bedroom
where they all slept. The half-conscious boy, West, could hear
the attackers hammering on it, but it was of heavy, hewn
timber and they could not break it down. At last, during a
lull in the noise, West heard a voice that he recognised as
Boney’s, saying, “Suppose you come out, Missus; this feller no
The next thing West remembered was hearing his mother
and sisters taking the barricade away from the door. As the
women came into the open they were seized by the yelling
horde. The girls were thrown to the ground and immediately
became the centre of a yelling, wildly jostling mob. Mrs.
Fraser’s frantic eyes were glimpsed, amid the sea of hostile,
painted features, one familiar face- Boney’s. “Save us, Boney!
Save us!” she screamed. Boney made no move to interfere.
“Never mind Missus,” he said. “Soon you be dead,” and even as
he spoke, Mrs. Fraser herself was thrown to the ground.
Tired at last of their sport with the half-dead women,
the Jimans clubbed them to death. Not satisfied even then, and
egged on by the former police boys, they fell on the bodies
with their tomahawks. The eldest girl, Elizabeth- the one who
was getting ready for her wedding- was nineteen years of age.
The others were Mary, eleven, Jane, nine, and Charlotte,
By now it was nearly daybreak and the Jimans retired to
wait in ambush by the woolshed about half a mile from the
homestead for two shepherds who were camped there. They
speared the men as they came out in the open. They plundered
the homestead for food, rounded up a flock of sheep, and
scattered leaving the bodies where they lay. West Fraser, the
boy of fourteen, found them when he crawled from behind his
News of the massacre spread like a blaze. All the
squatters on the Dawson turned out, Native Police were called
from neighbouring districts, and in a tense, silent fury the
punitive party rode out. All the Jimans of the Upper Dawson
River had a distinctive, boomerang-shaped tribal marking on
their chests. No man with that marking was going to be elft
On the second day out the trackers picked up the trail
of their quarry and they followed it until nearly sunset when,
from a high ridge, they sighted smoke rising from a patch of
scrub. It being too late to attack that night, the pursuers
retreated about a mile to the nearest billabong, hobbled their
horses and made camp.
They were up at the crack of dawn and, after a
breakfast of tea, damper, and salt beef, were advancing again
to the ridge where the trackers had been left to keep watch.
The Jimans would come out of the scrub to hunt, and it was in
the open, where the horses would have room to maneuver, that
the pursuers wanted to catch them.
At last came the signal that the quarry was out in the
open. Quietly the horsemen moved up to cut off their retreat
to the scrub. But the Jimans had left their women to keep
watch, and soon their high-pitched warning cries rang out
across the valley. The horsemen spurred their mounts to a
gallop and charged down the slope, firing as they came. But
the Jimans beat them to the scrub and slipped away among the
trees faster than the horses could follow.
The camp was found- well hidden in the undergrowth- and
in it, loot which included Bibles and prayer books with names
of members of the Fraser family written in them, and also
women’s dresses, hats and work-boxes and a quantity of
blankets. In addition, there were hundreds of spears and other
weapons, possum rugs, stone tomahawks, and all the usual
equipment of an Aboriginal camp.
A few personal belongings were kept for return to
surviving members of the Fraser family, and everything else
was burnt. The tomahawks were collected into three or four
dilly bags and thrown far out into the nearest waterhole.
For more than six weeks the pursuit went on. One large
group of Jimans was surrounded by Native Police, mustered like
a mob of cattle, and its members shot down from horseback.
Others, who were caught alive, were handcuffed around a big
bottle tree, shot, and left there to rot.
Mr. Pearce-Seroccold, owner of Cockatoo station, wrote
in his diary of the fate of another group:
dozen blacks were taken into the open country and shot. They
were complete savages and never wore any clothes and were so
much alike that no evidence could be procured to enable them
to be tried by our laws. These men were allowed to run and
they were shot at about thirty or forty yards distance.”
It was generally believed at the time that William
Fraser received immunity from the Government for twelve months
to avenge the deaths of members of his family. One day in
Toowoomba, he saw a black woman wearing a dress that had
belonged to his mother. He drew his revolver and shot her
dead. No action was taken against him. He later became a
Native Police officer and was stationed on the Dawson where he
made his name such a terror among the tribes that the mere
rumour that he was in some particular area was enough to send
every Aboriginal out of sight until he was gone.
West Fraser, either from the head injuries he had
received or from shock, periodically went out of his mind.
During these attacks the Aborigines were terrified of him,
even though, unlike his brother William, he was quite
Though few Aborigines remained on the Dawson with the
Jiman boomerang across their chests, the black war continued
with increased ruthlessness. On the Nogoa River in the latter
part of 1861 a squatter missed some sheep, and, assuming that
they had been taken by Aborigines, collected his men,
surrounded a nearby native camp, and shot every man, woman,
and child in sight. On his way back to the homestead he found
the missing sheep grazing in a clump of timber.
Soon after this, early in October 1861, squatter
Horatio Wills arrived from Victoria with a party of
twenty-five persons, put his 10,000 sheep out to pasture, and
began building the first huts for his new homestead,
Wills’ experience of Aborigines was gained from
southern tribes, and he apparently believed that as long as he
treated the northerners reasonably well, they would let him
have their land without unpleasantness. As the local tribesmen
clustered about his workmen, those of whom who had picked up a
smattering of English asked question about everything they
saw, and Wills explained that he could not interfere with
them, but they were not to come into his camp.
But the ban came too late. The Aborigines had already
seen among the freshly loaded stores riches and plunder beyond
their dreams. They hung around and refused to leave. Wills
told them they must “Yan” (go away). Some of the old men had
turned to go and the rest seemed about to follow, when one of
the women stopped stubbornly in her tracks. “What for yan?”
she asked. Wills was at a loss for an answer and he allowed
them to remain.
During the morning of 17 October, about a fortnight
after the Wills parties’ arrival, about sixty Aborigines came
into the camp but left before dinner-time, apparently on the
best of terms with everybody. They were, as it turned out,
simply scouting out the land. Exactly what happened next is
unknown. None who saw it lived to tell the tale.
The day was hot, and after dinner, John Moore, one of
the hands, went to his hut for a sleep but finding it too
stuffy came outside and found himself a cool patch of shade in
the nearby scrub. He fell asleep and was wakened by a great
shouting from the main camp. Raising himself cautiously to
peer through the bushes, he saw Aborigines running about
everywhere. He saw one of them push Mrs. Baker, the overseer’s
wife, to the ground, heard her scream “murder!” and then the
thud of a nulla-nulla descending on her skull. During the
whole time he heard only one shot fired.
Unarmed as he was, there was nothing Moore could do to
help, and he was still crouching in his hiding place when a
flock of sheep whose shepherd had been killed came milling
past him, heading towards the nearby creek. Crawling on his
hands and knees, Moore mixed in with the sheep until he was
hidden from the homestead by the high creek banks.
There was a horse there too, tossing his head and
snorting with terror, but Moore made no attempt to approach
him. Even if he could have caught and mounted the animal,
doing so would have made him the target for a dozen spears
before he had ridden more than a few yards. Instead, he
stumbled up the creek bed until clear of the camp and then ran
for his life, arriving exhausted at Rainworth station, more
than thirty miles to the south, about eleven o’clock on the
It was shearing time, so Mr. Gregson, the owner of
Rainworth, had no trouble in mustering a posse of nine
shearers, but by the time they reached Cullen-la-Ringo it was
dark and they could do nothing. Daylight found them in the
midst of a shambles. Ten bodies were stretched out grotesquely
on the ground among the huts and tents.
Wills’ body lay about three yards in front of his tent,
a revolver by his left hand, a double-barreled gun near his
left. One shot had been fired from the revolver. The gun was
Some of the slain women still had sewing in their
hands, and the children, their skulls smashed by the blows of
nulla-nullas, were lying near their mothers.
The cook, who shared the hut which Moore had left in
search of a cool spot, lay dead near his fire. One of the
bullock drivers who had been dragging up logs to build sheep
pens, lay dead beside his yoked tea, his bullock whip still in
his hand. A man who had been helping him lay a few yards away.
Mr. Baker (the overseer), his son, and another man were
found dead a mile and a half away where they had been building
a yard for the ewes and lambs. They had apparently fought for
their lives with tent poles. All their bodies were terribly
mutilated. All the shepherds except two, Edward Kenny and
Patrick Mahoney, were found dead near their sheep.
Kenny said he had returned with his flock to the head
camp about sundown, and that Patrick who had returned earlier,
told him what he had found. Kenny had caught the horse that
Moore had left alone, and had ridden it to Rainworth. None of
the men at Cullen-la-Ringo had been armed at the time of the
Gregson and his party buried the bodies, mustered all
the sheep they could find and made a quick examination of the
camp. Packing cases had been smashed open, and their contents-
blankets, clothing, axes, knives, tools, pistols, bullets and
even books- had been carried away.
Those killed in the Cullen-la-Ringo attack were: Mr. H.
S. Wills, owner of the station; Baker, the overseer, and his
wife and four children, the youngest of whom was aged seven
months’ Patrick Manion and his wife and two children; and
seven other men. Mr. T. W. Wills, the owner’s son, and James
Baker, a son of the overseer, and another man were absent
collecting stores at the time and escaped.
Gregson and his party rode after the raiders that same
day. Tracking them was easy because they had kept throwing
away part of the loot they carried. About dusk, some
twenty-five miles out from the homestead, the raider’s camp
was sighted, in light scrub near the foot of steep hills. The
pursuers halted for the night, to plan their attack.
Just before dawn, leaving their horses tethered, the
ten men began to creep up on the native camp on foot. There
was not a sign of movement in it. As soon as the party were
within effective firing range, they set up a great yell. Black
painted bodies erupted and ran in every direction. The place
seemed to be alive with them; two or three hundred, Gregson
estimated. Taken completely by surprise, they made no attempt
to fight back, but made a bee-line for the high, rocky ground
into which it would have been suicide for the small party to
have attempted to follow them.
In the camp were found plunder from the station and
large quantities of native weapons which were made into a heap
and burnt. While the party was doing this, a shower of stones
rained down on them from above, and, looking up, they saw that
the Aborigines, slipping from the cover of one rock to
another, were spreading out into a wide crescent and slowly
descending the slope as though to surround them. There was
nothing left but to retreat to the horses. The painted
warriors followed, keeping their crescent formation and edging
steadily closer. Only when they saw the man who had been left
with the horses bringing them up, did they once again retreat.
Meanwhile, Mr. P. F. Macdonald of Yaamba station had
organised another party, and the native police had been sent
for. The combined party picked up the tracks and about 26
October came upon their quarry and shot a large number,
including one who vainly protested, “Me no kill white fellow.”
Some stolen firearms and other property were recovered from
the camp, and also a large supply of spears and nulla-nullas.
Many Aborigines who escaped their pursuers on this
occasion perished of hunger because of having lost their
weapons and being constantly on the move.