The History of the First Nations People in the Dungog Shire

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Brandy of the Gringai

Bluegums is situated on the traditional lands of the Gringai people, part of the Worimi and Wonnarua Nations, who have lived in this area for at least 40,000 years. The Dungog Shire is believed to have overlapped with at least two major tribal groups of the broader Hunter River Valley and coastal region: the Wonnarua of the Hunter Valley and the Worimi of the Port Stephens coast area.

Within the Williams, Paterson, and Allyn River Valleys, extending to the Barrington Tops, were the family groups of the Gringai. The consensus is that the Gringai were not a separate tribe but a sub-group of one of these two major tribes, with the Wonnarua being the more likely affiliation.

The information provided below is sourced from the internet, and I have included links to the sources. The Hunter Three Rivers link is a particularly good resource.  I would be very happy to receive any additions or corrections.

Early European Exploration and Settlement

As with most Australian history records, there is little local documentation prior to the arrival of Europeans in the Barrington Tops/Hunter Valley.  Key milestones in early European activity include:

  • 1801: First explorations of the Hunter, Williams, and Paterson Rivers.
  • 1804: Arrival of convict timber cutters.
  • 1812: Establishment of small holdings.

Once Europeans had taken ownership of the land, it became clear that significant profits could be made from logging. Timber was transported by river from Clarence Town. Other industries that developed in the area included tobacco farming, wineries, citrus orchards, and cattle farming. Notably, there was once a gold mine located where Chichester Dam now stands, a few minutes from our cabins.

Land Acquisition and Appropriation

Until 1825, the Hunter Valley remained inaccessible to free settlement, primarily due to its proximity to the penal colony at Newcastle. After this, the Williams Valley opened up for settlement, offering land grants based on the settlers’ means, skills, and their willingness to accept assigned convicts. These grants ranged from 329 to 2,560 acres, with larger plots of up to 9,600 acres available for outright purchase.

In the early years of the colony, Governor Macquarie favoured a policy allowing ex-convicts to transition into free settlers. However, this policy fell out of favour after his departure in 1821. Many of the initial settlers were wealthy individuals, ex-military personnel, or government officials who could leverage their influence to secure land grants. The majority of these settlers hailed from Britain, particularly Scotland. Additionally, a settlement of Germans in the Paterson Valley was established to aid in the production of grapes and wines.

Impact on the Indigenous Population

The arrival of Europeans had a profound and devastating impact on the local Aboriginal population. Many indigenous people were murdered as they defended their lands, while others succumbed to a range of diseases introduced by the newcomers. Their land was stolen from them, new types of animals were introduced and trees were cut down, changing the food supply for the Gringai. The hanging of a Gringai man at Dungog in 1835 marked an understandable period of conflict.

All of this resulted in a significant decline in the Shire’s indigenous population, forever altering its demographic landscape. Historical records indicate that at the time of European arrival, the indigenous population in the Shire was relatively large, organized into local groups or “uccas,” with villages spaced approximately 8 kilometres apart, each comprising around 8 or 9 families. Each “Urra” occupied a designated amount of land.

Although the NSW Aboriginal Board of Protection was established in 1883, by then, it was too late for the indigenous population of the Dungog Shire, as the vast majority had already been displaced or absolutely decimated by the impacts of colonisation.

Nancy, Possibly the Last of the Gringai

In the Dungog Shire Heritage Study, there is a record of Nancy, possibly the last of the Gringai:

“In 1885, the death of Nancy, ‘the last surviving black gin of the district’, occurred, and her funeral was reported to have taken place at the ‘old aboriginal burial ground near the town’. With only ‘two or three of the Dungog tribe’ remaining, from this point on the local accounts of the Dungog Shire area begin to talk of the ‘last’ representatives of the Gringai. This, however, is based upon a ‘full-blood’ vs. ‘half-caste’ division which encouraged the hiding of Aboriginality. In fact, the records of the Board of Aboriginal Protection show a number of Aboriginal people living within the Dungog valleys well into the 20th century. However, whether the decline in numbers of identifiable Aboriginal people is due to people moving away, or continual intermarriage, or both is not clear.”

The landscape and demographics of the area have undergone significant changes since the arrival of Europeans. While there is ample documentation of events following European settlement, information about the pre-colonial history is more limited. This is likely due to the rapid and devastating impact of European colonization on the Gringai.

Below, you’ll find links to various sources providing historical accounts from European perspectives. The information on this page is compiled from these online sources and local accounts. I welcome any corrections or additional insights:

Local Stories and Memorials

Dave Sands

dave sands

As you drive from Dungog to our cabins, you will pass a memorial with boomerangs for seats and an image of Dave Sands in action, created by 2022 Archibald Prize winner Blak Douglas. Sands was training for a world title fight when he tragically died in a truck accident in 1952 at this spot. He is being honoured by his community at the place where he died.

Brandy of the Gringai

brandy

“In about 1829 to 1830, an Aboriginal camp on the Williams River at Tillegra was visited by pioneer settlers James Dowling and Walter Windeyer. There, Mr. Windeyer christened a newborn baby Brandy. The Gringai people in the valley at that time were estimated to number perhaps 300.

Pressures of European settlement brought disease, conflict, and a breakdown of connection to kin and country into Aboriginal communities in the Dungog area. Brandy survived by working in the settler community with skills in a diversity of employment.

A photographer recorded Brandy’s portrait in about 1900. The original image hangs in Dungog museum. A few years later, Brandy made his way to join some of his community gathered at St Clair near Singleton. There he died in 1905 and was buried in what is now an unmarked grave”.

This portrait has been painted from Brandy’s photograph by Bandon Grove resident Bruce Read in 2002. It is placed in the Bandon Grove School of Arts hall in respect for this man who lived among us and in recognition of the Gringai people, of their custodianship over countless generations on the land on which we of the Williams and Chichester valleys now live.”

Other Snippets of Interesting local Information

  • When you stay at Bluegums Cabins, one of the walks we recommend nearby is Jerusalem Creek. Some old maps give a Gringai name for a creek or location later changed; and Jerusalem Creek was known as Monduk, meaning fertility. This ties in with local information about sacred spaces in the area which gives you reason to reflect on past times as you explore these beautiful places.
  • The local area “Wangat” is a Koori name, meaning ‘place where whispers are heard’.
  • The local area ‘Dusodie’ is an aboriginal word meaning ‘place that is hard to find’.

If you have any further information, corrections or additional sources to share, I’d be glad to incorporate them into this

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