Before Camden: Settlement and Conflict

This section may contain the names and images of deceased people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when reading this section. 

The early 1800s saw an increase in contact between the Aboriginal people of the Cowpasture area and the Europeans. Agricultural development of the area aggravated the deteriorating relations between these two groups. Governor Hunter, King, and  Bligh were all opposed to land grants within the Cowpasture area, wishing instead to preserve it. However, Macarthur and Davidson pressured Earl Camden, Secretary for War and the Colonies in London, to provide large land grants in 1805.

Aboriginal people defended their access to traditional lands. Initially, these were the acts of a handful of individuals against an administration that was set up to remove them from the land. Conflict increased from 1814 onward, when Governor Macquarie gave more land to the settlers and responded with extreme violence against any Aboriginal people who took actions against Europeans.

Despite pleads with settlers, Governor Macquarie was unable to stop the violence that would lead to the Frontiers War.

Despite pleads with settlers, Governor Macquarie was unable to stop the violence that would lead to the Frontier War.

As more land was being developed for agriculture, the single greatest reason for conflict between the Aboriginal people and the Europeans emerged. It is explained by Bruce Elder in ‘Blood on the Wattle’ (2003). The pattern of the Aboriginal people’s relationship with the land was clearly one of foraging. They used what the land offered. When European agriculture was introduced they approached the produce, the livestock, vegetables, and maize, with the same understanding. They approached this food as a communal source rather than restricted to the ownership of the landowner. The fences erected also alienated the Aboriginal people from their traditional hunting areas and sacred sites, and a prolonged flood brought the Gundungurra people to the area, placing even greater pressures on what was a traditional hunting ground.

The farmers saw the foraging by Aboriginal people as theft and responded with force. The retaliation was often severe, with both sides engaging in tit-for-tat killings. Governor Macquarie recognised that many of the killings by Aboriginal people were reciprocal for not only having their clansman killed, but also for sexual violation against women. Macquarie encouraged farmers to allow the Aboriginal people to take some crops and livestock as a small price to ensure peace.

Unfortunately his moderate approach was not followed by those in the area, with killings becoming more regular. With increasing pressure from white settlers, Macquarie relented, and on 9 April 1816 Macquaire issued orders to three detachments of the 46th Regiment to seek out ‘Hostile Natives’ and take others they encountered as ‘Prisoners of War’. The conflict had escalated into a war, now known as the Frontier War. This may seem a strong indictment, but as Michael Organ reveals, it was the British, such as Macquarie and his men, who viewed and fought it as a war (Organ, 1990).

In most cases the Aboriginal people were able to escape due to their great knowledge of the land, although about 30 indigenous people had been killed by May 1816. The local culmination of this period was the Appin Massacre, on April 17, 1816, where 14 Tharawal people, mainly women and children, were killed. Those of the original inhabitants that were not killed were scattered into the mountains to the west and south. The lands were now available for colonial agriculture.

There were some who supported the Aboriginal people even during the darkest period. The most vocal supporter was the explorer Charles Throsby. Throsby wrote to numerous officials and local administrators in defence of the Aboriginal people, revealing the brutal treatment of the settlers against the Indigenous owners and pointing out the exaggerations of the crimes claimed to be committed against the settlers. Unfortunately his pleas had little success (Organ, 1990).

Life after the massacre. Some Aboriginal residence adopted European practices, such as 'Nellie' liked to dress in European clothes.

Some Aboriginal people who stayed in the area adopted European practices, such as ‘Nellie’ liked to dress in European clothes.

As a result of conflict and reduction in accessible lands, most Aboriginal people scattered out of the region. Some stayed mixing work on settler’s properties with a traditional lifestyle.  Thomas Hassall, an Anglican Clergyman and owner of the property ‘Denbigh’, supported the Aboriginal people who came to him. He was something at odds with other landowners and his father-in-law Samuel Marsden, who viewed Aboriginal people with contempt. Hassell hosted the Aboriginal people who occasionally worked on his property in exchange for food. His son, James Hassall, also recalled witnessing a corroboree on the property attended by around 200 Aboriginal people (Hassell, 1902), the vast majority of which would most likely have been from other areas.

By 1858, the magistrate in Campbelltown stated that the last of the Aboriginal people in that area had died from natural causes and the magistrate in Picton mentioned that only 67 of the original population remained. Those that survived to the beginning of the twentieth century were placed on reserves such as La Perouse, on the north shores of Botany Bay that was established in 1878.

Recent NAIDOC Week celebrations in Camden.

Recent NAIDOC Week celebrations in Camden.

The number of Aboriginal people in the area has increased considerably since 1970, with the 2011 Census indicating 1118 people identifying as Aboriginal in the Camden LGA. A keen interest in the culture has also begun to thrive. A person of particular impact is Frances ‘Aunty Fran’ Bodkin, a Tharawal Elder who was named as one of the 100 most influential Aboriginal women in the last 100 years by the National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Women’s Alliance (Armstrong, 2011). She has been particularly active in recent years with workshops to inform residents of the first people of the area. In 2011, the Mygunyah Camden Aboriginal Residents Group was formed, the aim of the group being to raise the profile and awareness of Aboriginal people and culture in the Camden area.


Kerrie, Armstrong. (23.3.2011) Honour a Surpise for Aunty Fran. Camden Narellan Advertiser.

Elder, Bruce. (2003) Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W. : New

Holland. Hassell, James Samuel. (1902). In old Australia : records and reminiscences from 1794. Brisbane: R.S. Hews & Co.

n.a. (2010). The Appin Massacre of 1816.

Organ, Michael, ed. (1990). A documentary history of the Illawarra & South Coast Aborigines 1770-1850 : including a chronological bibliography 1770-1990. Wollongong:Aboriginal Education Unit, University of Wollongong.

Before Camden: The Macarthur Region’s Aboriginal Heritage

This section may contain the names and images of deceased people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when reading this section. 

Dating Aboriginal history is difficult, particularly as it deals with tens-of-thousands of years. Estimates vary from 40,000 to as much as 75,000 years of Aboriginal habitation on the continent. Trying to establish figures for a single area, such as the Camden area, is even more difficult.

What is known is that the area was not home to a single language group. This is evidenced by the different names for the region, it being called Baragil (or Baragal) in one language, and Benkennie, meaning the dry land, in another. The region was the intersection of three language groups: the Dharug, the Tharawal, and the Gundungurra. The regions these groups occupied were vast.

The Dharug inhabited as far east as Sydney Harbour to Penrith and the Blue Mountains in the west, and south towards the Macarthur region. They were known as the ‘Climbers of Trees’ due to their hunting technique that involved hollowing out toeholds allowing them to catch possums, birds and collect eggs.

The Tharawal occupied from Botany Bay to Jervis Bay in the south, and westward to Camden. The Tharawal were also divided into two groups. One was the ‘Salt Water People’ who were along the coast from Botany Bay to Jervis Bay. The other, the “Sweet (or Fresh) Water People’, lived inland towards Camden.

The Gundungurra could be found from Windsor in the north across to Lithgow and south towards Goulburn, with what is now the town of Camden being within their territory. The Gundungurra group were known as the ‘Mountain People’.

Corroboree around a camp fire by Joesph Lycett (ca.1817). Used with permission from the National Library of Australia.

Corroboree around a camp fire by Joesph Lycett (ca.1817). National Library of Australia, an2962715.

Language groups consisted from a few hundred to several thousand people. These were spread across clans or bands of around 200 people that controlled a particular region. For example, the Dharug group had two clans in the Macarthur region, the Mundingong people of Narellan and the Cubbitch Barta who used a distinct dialect called Gur Gur. These clans comprised what were called hearth or foraging groups, made up of one or two families.

Family groups roamed throughout the various regions and sharing of food and resources was an accepted custom. This made it possible for them to travel without fear of starvation. Inter-tribal conflicts are debated, with some claiming that tribes were hostile to their immediate neighbours but friendly to those further afield. There are others who believe that conflicts tended to be based on individual confrontations, rather than being continuous, deep seated animosities (Organ, 1990).

Baragil was a meeting and hunting ground. One resident tells of numerous sites that had importance, such as Crocodile Creek as it was once called, which is now part of the Stonequarry area in Wollondilly. It was a meeting place between the Dharug and Tharawal people. The interaction between the tribes was not only in terms of goods but also to arrange marriages. Thirlmere Lakes was the meeting place between the Tharawal and the Gundungurra people.  One of the impacts that European settlement had was taking the land that was the traditional meeting place between the Tharawal and the Dharug people, resulting in the the Tharawal trading more with the Dharug people (Learning from the Past, 2007).

Contact between the Aboriginal people of the area and Europeans was gradual. The first traces of the Europeans were supplies, livestock and disease. European goods were traded amongst the Tharawal people of coastal and inland areas. In particular, glass and iron was traded between the Gweagal clan of the Tharawal people who lived on the southern shores of Botany Bay who traded with their inland kin. This clan witnessed the arrival of the First Fleet of 1770 and the 1778 arrival.

Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos by Joesph Lycett (ca.1817). Used with permission by the National library of Australia.

Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos by Joesph Lycett (ca.1817). National library of Australia, an2962715.

The Tharawal people also witnessed the cattle that escaped from the Sydney camp and wandered into the “Cowpastures“. This is evidenced by the paintings that clearly depict the hoofed animals with horns removed in sandstone shelters along the Georges River, with one even being called Bull Cave, located near Campbelltown. The cattle, when discovered by the Europeans, gained a reputation for being quite aggressive. The Tharawal people also observed this aggressive behaviour. According to Governor King, the Tharawal people would climb trees and wait for the animals to pass rather than engage or hunt them. It is also very likely that the cattle caused the direct contact between the Tharawal and the European settlers to increase, as it was on the search for the cattle that led the settlers further inland (Liston, 1988).

Contact between the Aboriginal people of what had become known as the Cowpastures and the European settlers became more regular in the early 1800s. Many comments reveal a degree of admiration of the Aboriginal people. An often quoted remark by Lieutenant Collins describes them as “short, stocky, strong and superbly built” (Wrigley, 2008.). Governor Macquarie too expressed respect for the Aboriginal people of the area, recording during his 1810 tour of the area, a visit of around 15 Aboriginal people who “honoured us (Macqaurie and his companions) with their company and attendance during our stay” (Atkinson, 2008). Macquarie and his party also witnessed the hunting of a goanna and a performance of a corroboree, an event in which Aboriginal people interact with the Dreamtime through music, dance and costume (Mylrea, 2002).

You can read about the next stage of Aboriginal history here.


Atkinson, Alan. (2008). Camden: Farm and Village Life in Early New South Wales.

Liston, Carol. (1988). Campbelltown: The Bicentennial History. North Syd. : Allen & Unwin.

Lycett, John. (ca. 1817). Corroboree around a camp fire. National Library of Australia, an2962715.

Lycett, John. (ca. 1817) Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos. National library of Australia, an2962715.

Mylrea. P.J. (2002). Camden District: A History to the 1840s.

n.a. (14.9.2007). Learning from the Past. The District Reporter.

Wrigley, John. (21.3.2008). The First Australians. The District Reporter.