Ideas for the Project:
An 1826 book by the then CEO of the Australian Agricultural Company allows modern residents and visitors to gain a new insight into what the country along the Bucketts Way to Gloucester looked like when it was being used and protected by its indigenous owners. Robert Dawson was the Chief Agent of the AA Company from 1825 to 1829. He was a farmer and in 1826, he along with 6 aboriginal men and three convicts travelled from Karuah to Gloucester along a route that roughly parallels the modern Bucketts Way.
I have briefly summarised the journey that took two weeks in November 1826 but the entire transcript is available on line.
Dawson describes the landscape and vegetation in an informed manner with help from his aboriginal friends.
His superb descriptions of the countryside along the Bucketts way allows us to compare the country then and now in a unique way.
I hope that one of the major outcomes from the project will be to allow modern residents and visitors to form a comparison between pre-colonial country in this area and what is here now. This will form an almost unique insight for indigenous and non-indigenous people.
The plan is for modern photographers, artists and writers to attempt to record the country that Dawson described then as it is now using excerpts from Dawson’s work The Present State of Australia. This will produce a unique comparison of how things were and how they are now.
Participants will be encouraged to search for landscapes that resemble those mentioned by Dawson and to describe them through their preferred media as a comparison.
- Link Aboriginal pre-settlement country with current using Dawson’s descriptions and current pictures and descriptions … emphasise the uniqueness
- Publicise the Bucketts Way countryside
- Give photographers, artists and writers an important set of tasks
- Draw the attention of the public to Midcoast Council’s unique heritage
- Raise environmental issues for all.
In November 1826, Robert Dawson, Chief Agent of the AA Company led a group consisting of 6 Aborginal men and 3 convicts together with 5 horses and a couple of dogs from the Australian Agricultural Company headquarters at Tahlee on Port Stephens to the area around present day Gloucester and back, taking fourteen days for the round trip.
Dawson documented the trip in detail.
A SUMMARY OF DAWSON’S ACCOUNT (Pages 100 to 222)
The trip took place in 1826 from the 10th to the 22nd November. It went from just north of Karuah to Gloucester and back.
What I’m doing here is very presumptuous. I’m rephrasing parts of another person’s book. The person was Robert Dawson who was Chief Agent of the newly formed Australian Agricultural Company in the 1820s and the book is The Present State of Australia; a Description of the Country, Its Advantages and Prospects, with Reference to Emigration; and a Particular Account of the Manners, Customs and Condition of Its Aboriginal Inhabitants.
The title itself gives something of a clue as to why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’d like modern readers to read this book, but the multiplicity of Dawson’s motives in writing it can make it hard work unless you’re really motivated to get into it.
Dawson sets out to describe specific parts of Australia for a predominantly English population back in England. He’s a farmer and, in part he’s writing for farmers, but he’s also defending himself against his employers who have sacked him and he’s defending the indigenous people who he believes have been badly treated by the incoming Europeans. In addition, he is just fascinated by his exploration of a new land and its flora, fauna, geology and climate. He becomes enthralled by his Aboriginal associates and he takes pains to express his feelings towards them.
Dawson also intends to tell a story that will capture his audience, so he can tend to be pretty dramatic. In doing so, he uses pre-Victorian writing techniques that can make it difficult for a modern reader to handle.
I’m going to try to stick to simply tracing the route Dawson and his party took on a trip to from Port Stephens to the Gloucester area and back in November 1826. I’m ignoring a whole lot of important issues to get to the point where someone who knows the area might recognise the places he is describing. I’m also simplifying some of his writing structures to make the text more available to a modern audience.
PORT STEPHENS TO GLOUCESTER AND BACK 1826
Below, I’ve taken on Dawson’s role and (I hope) some of his intentions:
I decided to look at more distant parts of the country before the Company decided on the boundaries of their grant north of Port Stephens. As soon as the indigenous people at the Station heard, many wanted to come. I could only take five or six though, so I decided on: Wickie, M’Quarie, Wool (old) Bill, Maty (little) Bill and Jemmy Bungaree.
I also took three convict servants who helped the aboriginal group lead five pack horses carrying equipment and supplies. We were armed with two rifles, two double-barrelled fowling-pieces, and a musket, and I had two pistols. We also had two kangaroo dogs.
10th November 1826
About the middle of the day 10th November 1826, I sent the pack horses upriver about sixteen miles (26 kilometres) from the Port. I was rowed up and reached there about nightfall.
The natives as I will call the Aboriginal men, gathered firewood, set a fire and brought water. They also helped the convicts pitch my tent.
We had tea and the natives squatted around the fire smoking their pipes and enjoying their tea.
We didn’t have many utensils, just: a tea kettle, a large saucepan, a frying pan, several tin pannikins for tea and drinking cups, a spoon or two, some knives and forks and few napkins. Our provisions consisted of salt pork, flour, biscuits, tea and sugar with some ground Indian corn for the natives. My bed clothes were simply a pair of blankets. My bedding was composed of long grass pulled by the natives and spread upon the ground and my pillow was a small valise in which I carried my night clothes and a change of linen. I slept very comfortably in a small tent. The three convicts rolled themselves up into their blankets to sleep between my tent and the fire. The natives had their own blankets and slept around the fire opposite to the convicts.
The arms were placed against the pole inside my tent and strapped to it by my shot-belt, while the horses were tethered and grazed within sight of the camp.
11th November 1826
I woke to hear the natives talking around the fire about the number of kangaroos they were likely to see on their journey and how they would enjoy using the firearms. At about nine o’clock we set out.
The three convicts and two natives each led a pack horse. Wool Bill wheeled the perambulator (a device for measuring the distance covered); Maty Bill led the dogs and Jemmy Bungaree, with his rifle went with me in the lead to watch out for game.
Each of the natives also had a gun. They had said that they would only come on the trip if they had a gun because they were afraid of meeting antagonistic tribes. They were often in conflict with other groups over hunting grounds, theft of wives or similar. Our natives were excited about the journey, but also afraid of travelling into the territories of strange or “myall” people.
We travelled for about four miles (6.5 kilometres) through rather poor but grassy country, alternating between low hills and flats near the banks of the Karuah River. The ground was in general heavily timbered, and as usual, without underwood. After crossing a deep, and in some places a dry channel, which in rainy seasons would be called a river, the soil began to improve. The country gradually became less heavily timbered, and the views more extensive. This is what I had expected from what I had seen: The poorest soils carried more than three times the number of trees than the best soils and the trees are much taller. This is almost the reverse of what happens in England.
As we approached a small river, the country suddenly became very picturesque. There were low undulating hills with scattered trees. It was a beautiful spot. The soil is exceedingly rich, if not extensive and it is watered by two small rivers that form a junction in this little valley and then join the navigable Karuah River.
We had only travelled about seven miles (11 kilometres) this day and camped for the night on the banks of the Karuah near this little valley.
12th November 1826
For the first two miles (3 kilometres), the country was truly beautiful. It was thinly studded with single trees that looked as if they had been planted for ornament. The most prevalent trees here and in all the best forest soils are called apple trees because they resemble apple trees at home. Unlike most Australian trees, they are shady with bright green foliage and are scattered beautifully over hill and dale. The districts where they are found are different to other parts of the country that I found to be in general thickly timbered, gloomy and often uninteresting. This area looked like a gentleman’s park and grounds.
The scenery was varied. To our left, the banks of the river alternated between steep rocky sides and low meadows. Sometimes the river was fringed with patches of brush with vines creeping and spreading on the branches and to the tops of the trees forming a mass of impenetrable dark green. This contrasted with the brightly coloured green hills, the other plants and the blue tints of the mountains in the distance. All of this reminded me of home and more heavily inhabited areas.
As we passed through the long grass that often reached the horses’ knees, we could see where herds of kangaroos had slept and on crossing the river on our left, we were soon in the middle of them. We were in a large meadow called a “blady” grass flat, near the river where a small kangaroo the natives called a wallaby was found. Their colour is darker than that of the forest kangaroo and they seat themselves in the grass like a hare or a rabbit. They were continually jumping up in the distance.
The natives set chase with their dogs and soon caught some. However, I hurried on to continue the journey.
We reached the river and stopped for a break. After this, we continued over less interesting country. The valley became more restricted and more thickly wooded and the soil less fertile, but it still seemed to be of good quality. This kind of country continued for several miles, and after crossing a range of high rocky hills we descended rather suddenly into a beautiful little valley, watered by the river on our left, and surrounded on every other side by high, open grassy hills.
That night, I pitched my tent near a pool of water at the junction of two small brooks that ran through the centre of the valley. A running stream during summer is a rarity in New South Wales. Even the most considerable rivers are sometimes dry and then a small running stream appears which spreads itself in a thin sheet over the bed of the river, succeeded by a deep pool. This spot was very pretty with gradual and easy slopes with single trees studded on their tops and luxuriant woods on the sides. They looked as if they had been cultivated.
By this time the natives had moved beyond their own country and were becoming nervous. Our day’s journey had been about ten miles (16 kilometres).
The valley in which we had been encamped was, shut in by hills, on three sides, intersected by the river at the bottom, (having the shape of a horseshoe.) On approaching the stream, and turning around the hill on the right, we saw a small glen of thinly timbered land, about three quarters of a mile in breadth. The country was open, and gently undulating as far as we could see, with chains of high hills on both sides, heavily timbered to their summits.
It was at this point that we met the “myall” natives whom I asked where they thought the river’s source was. (Read the full account for a detailed description of this momentous event.) They pointed north east and described with their fingers its various bends. This information ultimately proved to be correct.
After leaving these natives, we passed over a fine grassy forest country. It consisted of low hills with high ranges on our right. The river was on our left behind a thickly timbered flat of inferior soil.
The range on our right gradually closed in on what looked to be impenetrable brush and vines on our left. So, we had the choice of climbing the steep side of the range or cutting our way through the brush. Firstly, we tried the steep range, but it was impossible with rocks, loose stones and deep ravines. We retreated and cut our way through the brush with difficulty. These places are generally thickly timbered with very large trees, called the blue gum, flooded gum, and cedar. In the intermediate spaces a species of vine grows, from the size of a man’s finger to the thickness of his arm, which spreads in every direction from the ground to the tops of the highest trees, from which they hang nearly to the earth in festoons. They catch hold of horses and riders. The natives went ahead to clear the path with axes and tomahawks. We struggled about a mile through this brush where we met the river again. It ran around the bush on the left.
We came out on a thickly timbered blady grass flat from which several large kangaroos started up. The natives let the dogs loose and in the process of the chase, a group of myall natives was spotted.
We proceeded on our journey. On our right were thickly timbered, high and poor stony hills. On our left, on the opposite side of the river, the country was rich and thinly timbered. A low and fertile flat or meadow skirted the river there. At the end of the flat an immense herd of kangaroos was feeding on a gentle slope, covered with grass. We travelled about two miles further, over less fertile and more thickly timbered country. It felt confined and somewhat gloomy, after the beautiful country we had passed through. Finally coming to a thinly timbered and rich flat on the banks of the river, we halted for the night, after a journey of eleven hours.
I explored the country around with Wool Bill on horseback, climbing several hills and finding some open areas.
We were less than half a mile from our camp when we met with a thick, impenetrable bush on our left, and were driven, as we had been the preceding day, up the side of a stony range on our right. Our path was intersected by deep gullies and thick vines, so we descended, to try to make a second attempt to get through the bush below but with no success. So, we tried to climb the range again. Eventually we almost reached the top (about five hundred feet above the river) While the party waited, Wool Bill and I climbed down on foot and crossed the river. We came out on a small rich flat, with moderate lightly timbered and grassy hills behind. In the centre of this flat was a small lagoon, or pool, with waterlilies spread over its surface. Wool Bill discovered fish in it. He stayed long enough to have swim in it, then we returned to our party at the top of the hill and continued. However, it soon became too steep and rocky for us to go on without endangering our heavily loaded packhorses.
So, we descended till we arrived at the foot of the range. However, we couldn’t get any further because of the loose and broken rocks and the vines that were impenetrable. In fact, it was difficult to move in any direction.
Now I decided to cross the river, and I sent two natives to find a possible crossing. This time our natives, had difficulty finding a spot, but they finally succeeded. When we crossed the river, we found ourselves in clear country, and we proceeded over several low hills, covered with the most luxuriant grass. The ranges on our left, similar to those on the other side of the river, were close by and as we seemed to be enclosed by ranges of high hills on all sides, it was pretty evident that we were fast approaching the source of the river.
All the hills or mountains were heavily timbered to the tops. Everywhere was covered with grass depending on the soils. Where there were soils composed of black vegetable mould, the trees were dense and thickly branched.
We descended onto a small flat, and soon met the ranges on our left so we had to re-cross the river. Because this would slow us down and the hills on the other side looked lower and more inviting, I crossed over on my own and climbed the hills to explore. At this point, I almost became lost, but went back to the river and found my party.
We now closely followed the river. As we approached its source the valley gradually became narrower and hills higher, sometimes closing right to the stream and forcing us to detour.
Finally, we found ourselves in a pretty valley, that intersected the one that we had been following. Here we encamped near several pools of water, in a line down the valley.
I decided to pitch my tent in a little valley with plenty of grass and water for the horses.
The scenery was very beautiful and varied between rocky mountains on the one side and grassy slopes and hills on the other. After the camp had been set up, Wickie and I set off to look at the country around the camp.
We climbed a range to the south, where we could see an opening over our camp to the north, bounded on the east and west by very high ranges, which were wooded to their summits. The valley appeared to be five or six miles wide and extended northward as far as we could see. I decided to head in this direction on the next day.
I also noticed that the ridge on which we were standing appeared to divide the waters on each side of us, so we descended and followed down till we came to a valley which gradually opened as we went on. The watercourse through this valley was deep and dry, and it looked as if the country below was more open and fertile than usual. The hills were low and undulating, the soil exceedingly rich, and covered with the most luxuriant grass. The timber stood (as usual in such soils) as if planted by hand. There was a variety of beautiful shrubs growing along the side of the water course. At the foot of one hill and at the edge of the brook, we found a native encampment, consisting of eight or ten ” gunyers.”
Our natives didn’t want to go any further. They were afraid of meeting the “myall” blacks. I told them that they were free to go home but wouldn’t get the gifts they had been promised and would not be welcome at the Port Stephens settlement. The natives eventually agreed to accompany me further. We soon crossed the river which we had been following for the last three days and went on in search of the valley we had seen from the range. The country here was made up of fairly high hills, and narrow valleys that we crossed easily. This country seemed to be the head of the valley we had seen before. Steep, high ranges ran from south to north on both sides. After about four miles more, it became less fertile and less interesting and the timber became denser.
We crossed several very deep and wide streams, or rather channels. They were from ten to fifteen yards wide and were perfectly dry perhaps for intervals of a quarter of a mile, then pools of still but pure water. The banks of most of them were steep. At other places though they were nearly flat, and overgrown by vines, intermixed with small trees. These places sometimes extended half a mile and were frequently a hundred yards or more in width. Small rich alluvial flats or meadows, lightly timbered, invariably lined these streams beside the brushes.
Our natives heard sound of “bush blacks” hunting and we soon we found an encampment belonging to the natives whom we had just heard on top of a small rise.
The country was less fertile for several miles after we left the native encampment. Tall ugly gumtrees were everywhere and a type of weed spread over the ground. Large numbers of locusts made a deafening noise all day.
The country gradually fell until we reached a broad flat. The few trees there were white gums. They have tall smooth trunks, forty or fifty feet high, and sometimes much higher.
There was a sizeable stream along the edge of the flat. When the natives managed to kill a “wool man” (very large kangaroo) we decided to camp by this stream for the night.
The stream turned out to consist of still pools of water joined by a small running stream which made its way in a clear thin sheet over a pebbly bottom.
“The banks on both sides for a quarter of a mile consisted of some of the richest alluvial soil I ever saw : it was overgrown with grass in some places three feet high ; the soil was heaped up into high banks on both margins of the river, and sloped gradually from it into the flats, beyond which it was less fertile, producing both herbage and timber of a different description. This, as well as other appearances, showed the existence of extensive floods ; and exhibited a perfect specimen of the gradual formation of soils by the action of water at particular periods and situations, in contradistinction to those which are formed by decayed vegetables, or the decomposition of rocks on the spot.” (Page 189)
The next day, Wool Bill and I went exploring before breakfast and the flat continued as far as we could see. The stream seemed to continue down to where it would probably join with others. The whole area was teeming with kangaroos. I had never seen such numerous flocks before. I rode to a small rise on the west side of the valley where I could see the course the stream took where it was flanked by casuarinas and mimosas. The valley was five or six miles wide and seemed wider towards the north. It probably contains a vast quantity of fine land. About three miles up the course of the stream we found patches of some of the richest land imaginable.
We headed off in the usual order of march down the valley, keeping the river on the east, or right of us. The further we travelled, the more extensive and valuable the lowlands became and after about four miles, we saw in front of us several high and barren mountains, which appeared to stretch across the vale and to bound it on the north. They were about six or seven miles from us and looked very different from anything I had seen in Australia, so I decided to head for them, then to follow them towards the east. This would take me in the direction of the coastline, and we could return by following the stream we were now on.
So we proceeded over a very pleasant country, consisting of low hills with narrow and pretty valleys intervening, of a middling quality of soil, clothed with timber, and sufficiently open to render the travelling agreeable; but still not permitting the eye to range much beyond the opposite hill or waving ground. It was with some impatience that I approached the high and rocky peaks which were elevated above the forest, like monuments in the wilderness, and which formed so remarkable a picture in this part of the colony. The country as we advanced became gradually more even and fertile, till at length we came upon a beautiful and rich flat of considerable extent, studded with the finest and most umbrageous apple-trees I had yet seen. From this level ground rose abruptly an almost naked range of sand-stone mountains, extending from west to east, and which commenced near the spot at which we had approached them. Several peaks towered high above the range, like the turrets of a fortified place, and on their tops grew a few stunted evergreens, giving to the whole the appearance of ivy-clad ruins. I perceived by the masses of dark foliage and shrubs extending in a line at the foot of the range, that it was washed by a stream of no ordinary size for this colony ; and at the place where I examined it I found a considerable volume of water rolling over a ledge of rocks
which extended across the river. The loud murmuring of a rapid and refreshing stream in such a climate, and in a country where running waters are not common, seemed for the moment, in the midst of such romantic scenery, like a species of enchantment. There appeared to be every variety of beauty here which nature could present to the eye upon so limited a scale. (Page 198)
I pitched camp beside the stream even though it was just one o’clock because it was so pleasant. We explored four or five miles upriver and found some meadows of about 20 to 30 acres even though the valley was becoming narrower. From here the country became steeper and more rugged. However, there were still patches of open and quite fertile country to be found.
Back at camp, Ed., the convict cook had found a spring of clear water.
Next morning, we moved down the open valley with the river on our left. As it narrowed and widened, we could keep track of the river by the dense casuarinas, mimosas and vines. Then the meadow widened, and we were on a fine level track with hardly any timber on it. There were many emus and kangaroos.
In the centre of this fine flat was a small lake, or lagoon, very much resembling a piece of ornamental water in a park. It was very deep and clear.
The view of the surrounding scenery from this spot was very pleasing. The high and romantically-shaped range already described appeared from this position to curve a little ; and from the boundary of the open country down the vale on the opposite side to the range, gentle slopes and hills rose from the verge of the plain, and the single trees with which they were ornamented gradually increased in number, while the ground was clothed with a carpet of rich green verdure beneath them……. At length we arrived at the end of this very interesting reach of country, and saw on our right the stream which we had left on the preceding day; and which I saw must unite itself a little further down with that on our left, and by which we had been travelling through the day. As soon as we came to the junction of the streams we crossed over on our left and encamped on the banks of their united waters. (Page 205)
Before dinner, Wool Bill and I wandered down the side of the river about half a mile, when I was suddenly surprised by the appearance of another river intersecting the vale from the sand-stone range on my left. I approached it with eager curiosity, and found a noble and rapid stream, containing at least three times as much water as the former one. The wide breaches which the force and rapidity of a swollen stream had made in its sides, the deep, but then dry furrows on its banks, occasioned by the overflowing of its waters and the immense pieces of broken rock, as well as the rounded pebbles of no ordinary size which lay scattered in the bed of its channel, strongly evidenced the existence of extensive floods. The quantity of water made it apparent that it must either take its rise at a considerable distance, or that the country through which it shaped its course must be more extensively mountainous than any I had hitherto seen. I felt quite impatient to trace it up, and to learn something of the unknown country through which it flowed.
I didn’t have time to follow these streams further, however. Nevertheless, I decided to stay another day and then head for home.
It was in this area that the convict cook Edwards found a coal seam and brought back a large lump of coal which we burned. Our party spent the day fishing and generally exploring the area.
Because it seemed that the streams that ran due east from where the three streams joined must flow into the sea between Port Stephens and Port Macquarie, I decided to follow it eastwards. It has more water in it than any other river I had seen.
Early in the morning, with Edwards and two natives I crossed to the south side of the
River. We travelled several miles into forested and easily accessible country and again met the river winding its course among the hills. I tried to follow it, but it was too overgrown in places. We did find some small rich meadows though. From a hill, I could see the river winding through various types of country.
Everywhere I looked I could see clouds of smoke the grass fires lit by the natives.
I reckoned that so many watercourses running towards the sea must form rich country downstream.
I decided to head back to camp in a direct line on the opposite side of the river. We crossed the river which ran from the north side of the sand-stone range and returned to camp.
We left our camp at the junction of the rivers.
The country on our left, as we proceeded, was bounded by a mountainous range, and the
stream which we were following up, made its way through flats or natural meadows, uninterrupted by hills of any kind, excepting a few low and thickly wooded slopes on
the outer margin of the flats on our right. A considerable portion of the land on both sides of the river was good, and some of it of the very best description such as would support and fatten the best cattle. (Page 211)
After proceeding about thirteen miles (21 kilometres), we arrived at the spot on the banks of the river where we had encamped on the 16th November, and where I again pitched my tent.
We proceeded towards home for several miles on the same line by which we had travelled on the 15th. We returned home by the valley to the south-east, in which were some very rich undulations between two high ranges, watered by a small river that ran through its centre. We saw here abundant traces of the wild natives: the smoke from their fires and from the grass, which was burning in various directions amongst the hills, frequently ascended in thick clouds at a distance on all sides of us.
We encamped this evening in a pleasant country.
The natives showed the most unbounded joy at the sight of their native hills, which had been seen just before we crossed a high ridge which lay in our path. This was of itself a sufficient indication that they usually confine themselves to a very narrow space of country, and to their own society.
On the following morning, the 22nd of Nov., we retraced our steps to the place where we had encamped the first night, on the banks of a navigable river, where we were met by our boats, which had been rowed up by natives in company with one white man, according to an appointment made on the day of our departure.
In the meantime, go on line and Google this book: The Present State of Australia; a description of the country, its advantages and prospects, with particular reference to emigration: and a particular account of the manners, customs and condition of its aboriginal inhabitants.
Try: Robert Dawson The Present State of Australia on Google Books. Pages 100 to 222 give an outline of the trip.