Aboriginal history of Strathfield district

The Indigenous traditional custodians of the area currently administered by Strathfield Council are the Wangal people of the Darug Tribe.  The Wangal Clan’s country was known as Wanne.  The country originally extended from the suburbs of Birchgrove and Balmain in the east, to Silverwater and Auburn in the west with a northern boundary at the Parramatta River.  The Wangal clan’s neighbours were the Cadigal to the east, the Wategora to the west, the Wallumedegal to the north and the Bediagal to the south. All these clans of the Darug tribe spoke the coastal or Eora dialect of the Darug language. The Darug tribe’s inland clans known as the ‘woods tribes’ spoke a different dialect.

It is not known how long the Wangal people lived around the Strathfield district but there is evidence that the Darug tribe lived in the Sydney area for at least 10,000 years.

The earliest recorded contact with Aborigines near Strathfield took place at Breakfast Point, Mortlake, on the southern bank of the Parramatta River. This encounter on the 5th February 1788 was noted in the diary of Lieutenant William Bradley RN thus:

‘At daylight having a guard of marines proceeded to the upper part of the harbour again, passed several natives in the caves as we went up and on the shore near the place we left beads and some other things, who followed us along the rocks calling to us. We landed to cook our breakfast on the opposite shore to them. We made signs for them to come over and waved green boughs. Soon after seven of them came over in two canoes and landed near our boats. They left their spears in the canoes and came to us. We tied beads etc. about them and left them our fire to dress mussels which they went about as soon as we put off’.

It is unlikely that the Strathfield district was a place of permanent camping for the Wangal people, as Strathfield does not contain rock shelters or overhangs suitable for camping. Rather the plentiful eucalypt trees, native grasses and access to the Cooks and Parramatta Rivers made Strathfield a likely place for gathering or hunting food by the Wangal people, a costal clan of the Darug tribe.  As an important source of food, Strathfield may have been an integral part of the Wangal clan’s territory.

The most famous Wangal warrior was Bennelong who became the only member of the Wangal tribe to travel overseas to England in 1792. He returned three years later to tell his people of what he saw there.  It is likely that Bennelong travelled through the Strathfield district many times with the Wangal tribe.

In 1793, the European settlement of the Strathfield district commenced, with the first grants to ‘free settlers’ such as Edward Powell and Thomas Rose around the current suburb of Homebush (then part of “Liberty Plains”). Other land grants were made in the early 1800s though building settlement remained sparse until the 1860s.  There was evidence of hostility between the early settlers and the Aborigines with C A Henderson (1923) recording:

‘During the early part of the nineteenth century the blacks were hostile about this neighbourhood, as was shown by Thomas Rose, a grandson of that Thomas Rose who had a grant of land between the Redmire grant and where the railway now is.  Rose told Henderson that his grandmother was speared by a black-fellow in front of her dwelling.  Fortunately the spear struck her stay-busk, which no doubt spared her life’.

Lieutenant-Governor Grose sent out small groups of armed soldiers to drive away the Aborigines from the vicinity of farms and there is evidence that violence was used against the Aborigines but there is no records of how many Aborigines were killed during this period.

In 1804, Governor King reported to the British Government that:

 “the natives in the settlements (between Parramatta and Sydney) had been very quiet and in a great measure domesticated”.

The last recorded sighting of an Aboriginal corroboree along the banks of the Parramatta River occurred in January 1805.

By the late 1800s, many Aborigines had died out from European introduced diseases (such as Smallpox) or after numerous skirmishes and major confrontations with British Settlers.  By the 1860s in the Strathfield region, large estates of land were being subdivided for residential development involving mass land clearing to build homes, roads and railways.  Land clearing removes the habitats of native animals and would have eliminated available food sources for the Wangal people. Deprived of their food supply, the Wangal people were increasingly separated from their indigenous lands.

Any visible relics of indigenous occupation such as open campsites, axe grinding grooves and scarred trees are likely to have been removed as the Strathfield district was developed for residential housing.

To date, there are no known relics of the Aboriginal occupation of the Strathfield district nor have any burial sites been discovered, though there is always the possibility of an Aboriginal site being uncovered by excavation for building development or road works.  C A Henderson, son of early settler Thomas Henderson of ‘Seven Oaks Farm’, recorded in the Royal Australian Historical Society’s Journal and proceedings Volume VIII supplement 1923, titled ‘Sydney to Homebush’ 1855:

‘On the Redmire Estate was a leaning tree with native bear tracks upon it. It stood about one hundred yards from the present Strathfield Council Chambers’.

This tree can not be found and is a reference to the Aboriginal Scarred Tree bearing markings of koala tracks. It may have been of ceremonial significance as trees bearing designs were used as burial markers.

References

Fox & Associates (1986), Strathfield Heritage Study, Strathfield Council

Henderson, C A (1923), Recollections of C A Henderson Sydney to Homebush 1855,  Royal

Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings Vol.8 1923 (supplement), pp 354-59

Turbet, P (1989) The Aborigines of the Sydney district before 1788. Rev. ed. East Roseville, N.S.W: Kangaroo Press