Talmalmo – historical beginnings

TALMALMO, of Upper Murray country.

Talmalmo is a mountain-locked valley in Upper Murray country.  Its beginnings occur within the colonial context of the early decades of the nineteenth century, when there was a movement for inland settlement and a search for country suitable for grazing. Once a route south from Sydney across the Blue Mountains had been achieved by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813, the idea of (or desire for) pastoral settlement away from the administrative centre was gaining in reality. And reports of inland exploration continued to add to a general fervour for land. Attention was being drawn to the value of the country, which, according to explorer Charles Sturt, was ‘yielding support to an industrious and moral population’.  A way was being made open. The country could be traversed. There were a great number of applications made for grazing country now. Hungry for land, men could set out, make a go of it, graze Crown lands. That was the enthusiasm. An enthusiasm for ‘new’ country.

Image: Elders Real Estate

In the late spring of 1824 Hamilton Hume and William Hovell journeyed just north of the mountainous and densely forested country that lay to the west of the Great Dividing Range and which today forms the Woomargama National Park; and the land on the other, southern, side of the mountains and forest — the land which squeezes down tightly into a horseshoe bend in a river, a river that was for a brief few years called the Hume but then named the Murray in 1830 by Sturt— this is the land that became Talmalmo, land first taken up (or stolen) by settlers in 1838 (other areas of land in the Upper Murray region had already been settled a few years earlier).

Image: Feral Walker

Talmalmo began as a run, or open land used for pasture and the raising of stock. It was a small run compared with others in the region, particularly those on the opposite — what would become the Victorian — side of the river, where land was more suitably expansive for an entrepreneurial kind of grazing. In its first few decades Talmalmo changed many hands. And in the years that followed people came, had brief stints at living off the land, and left. Settlers had gone there with high hopes, looking for an agrarian bounty. Land-hungry pastoralists were out to make money from meat, wool and grain and wanted to establish impressive homesteads. But the country was not fit for large-scale ventures. It was too rough and mountainous (the roads were almost impassable in a big wheat-bearing dray) and the river flats were too poor for sizeable grazing. Only self-sustaining ventures would be viable. Hardly was there a profit to be had. For the ambitious, for the greedy (of whom there were many), disillusionment quickly set in.

The cost of all this pioneering is too easily forgotten today.

By the 1860s Indigenous Australians of the river valley were all but gone, or being forgotten. Talmalmo was on the northern side of the river. Tribes were confined, mostly, to their respective sides, as A. W. Howitt noted in The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (1904). So those who utilised this particular tract of country belonged not to the southern Jaitmatang but to the large Riverine clan whose language root was Wiradjuri. The last Indigenous Australians of Talmalmo and surrounding runs most likely died on Bringenbrong Station, which was owned by John Francois Huon Mitchell. Mitchell owned at least three stations on the Upper Murray: Khancoban, Bringenbrong and Towong, all upriver from Talmalmo. His life on the Murray began when he was eleven. As a child he frolicked with the local Aborigines and picked up on their language. In 1906 he produced a dictionary of ‘Woradgery Tongue’, a compilation of words and phrases related to birds and fishes, weapons and timber, and also to tribal ceremonies and customs. Looking back on the early days of his life spent on the Murray he wrote:

It may be noted as significant considering the popular notion nowadays of the utter worthlessness of the blacks, that the whole of our old pioneers, the men who had come into personal contact with them when the country was almost still in its primeval state, spoke with more or less affection of the native race — more than one of the white boys of the early days learnt the language of this tribe and spent many days of their time hunting and fishing with them, and obtaining a knowledge of their tribal habits, etc. — they had great influence over the blacks and so suffered but little from their raids.

So that’s J. F. H. Mitchell. But then downriver from Talmalmo, at Cumberoona, there’s John Jobbins. Cumberoona was a principal camping ground for the First Peoples in the Upper Murray. Jobbins set up station there in 1836. He intimidated the Aborigines off their land. And he was out to make an example of his self-proclaimed authority. It was reported that he had used a cutlass to hack a Wiradjuri man to death after catching him trying to milk a cow. Moreover, in the same year, upriver a few miles and on the southern side, another settlement was being made.  Here two settlers were killed by Aborigines. Jobbins retaliated. Settlers banded together under him. And as a mob they killed anyone with black skin they could get a shot at: men, women, and children. More than twelve or thirteen people were murdered. In a series of articles written for The Border Morning Mail in 1936, C. A. Smithwick noted that the Cumberoona Aborigines ‘composed a song or poem about Jobbins which they introduced into their corroborees’. Smithwick calls this poem or song, a ‘hymn of hate’, and notes,

The late J. F. H. Mitchell could repeat the whole of this song and also a translation that he made of it; he said a good many of the words had no equivalent meaning in English, being “blackfellow curses”. One line went something like this: “Nein-mudder, Bel-mudder, Jobbin, Jobbin merijole”. Mitchell said the meaning of the first two words was quite unprintable, and the balance signified that Jobbins was a wicked rascal.

Forced from their land, the First Peoples of Cumberoona moved far downriver, to a site adjacent to Albury, which was managed more compassionately by Mitchell (though many here would die from diseases such as whooping cough, measles and small pox). For every Mitchell there’s a Jobbins.

Mitchell’s brother-in-law was Elliot Heriot. He came to the land on the western side of Talmalmo (what would become known as Dora Dora) in 1837. He was engaged there as an overseer, gaining ‘colonial experience’. At Dora Dora it was said that Heriot had ‘considerable experience of the ways of the blacks’.  He had befriended a chief, and he was supposedly tipped off by this chief about an attack on his men, none of whom were killed or injured, but seven or eight Aborigines were.  Heriot refused to join the fight against the local indigenous population. He did not ride with Jobbin’s mob and took no part in the massacre. The Aborigines of Dora Dora had made use of the land at Talmalmo. There were lagoons which contained the delicacies of catfish and mud turtles. C. A. Smithwick — who lived most of his life at Talmalmo station, his father having purchased land there as both run and freehold in 1868 — writes that,

Talmalmo was undoubtedly a much used central camping ground for the natives before the advent of the whites, for there was no place along the river that showed more visible traces of their habitation. Dozens of gum trees round the lagoons had had canoes stripped from their trunks and before the land was cleared of timber by burning off, almost every hollow tree carried the marks of a row of toe holes, made with tomahawks while in pursuit of opossums or bird eggs.

This is not the case today. Smithwick refers back to the 1870s. In the late 1850s, his father Robert Smithwick had observed of the Aborigines that they were not seen anywhere ‘between Albury and Ournie; higher up the river there were a few living at the different stations, where they were used as horse and cow boys.’ ‘Whatever cause, death had been busy with them’, wrote Charles Sturt of the First Peoples in the 1840s.

And I could not but contemplate the remnant of these unfortunate people without a feeling of Melancholy. The hand of destiny had fallen upon their retreats; and the silence of their forests had been invaded. A new era was dawning and a fearful change was coming for them. Whether for good or for evil God only knows. 

Forget God.  It’s the study of history and literature and the work of historians and writers who bring light into the darkness of Australian ignorance.

– ash heddle