Aboriginal people lived in the region before the arrival of Europeans, and many of the natural features of the land hold cultural significance for these people. The earliest recorded visitors to the Gulf country were the Macassan trepangers (Southeast Asian maritime voyagers).
The famous ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills in their expedition of 1860-61 succeeded in reaching the estuary of the Finders River on the Gulf of Carpentaria. However, overland exploration began in 1845 when Ludwig Leichhardt traversed the Gulf, naming many rivers including the Calvert and the Robinson. Augustus Gregory also traversed the Gulf country in 1856.
In 1846, Captain John Lort Stokes described parts of the region as the “Plains of Promise”, alluding to possible pastoral potential, a perception reinforced by William Landsborough in 1861-62 when he followed the Finders River upstream to what is now the town of Richmond. “Richmond Downs” was the first cattle run taken up in 1862 by Bundock and Hays from the Richmond River district of New South Wales. Soon afterwards, pastoralism began in the Cloncurry-Hughenden region with sheep grazing in 1864.
Burketown was established on the Albert River in 1865, and quickly became the official point of pastoral expansion to the west. Normanton was founded in 1867 and prospered through gold mining and the establishment of a railway line in the late 1800s. Copper discoveries at Einasleigh in 1864 led to the opening of the Georgetown-Croydon area; gold rushes in the Etheridge, Palmer and Croydon fields in 1870, 1873 and 1885 facilitated the region’s settlement. The Woolgar goldfields north of Richmond were important up to the 1880s. Richmond was surveyed in 1882 and the railway from Charters Towers reached Richmond in 1904. The line was extended to Julia Creek in 1908.
Nearer the Gulf, silver and lead leases were pegged on Lawn Hill station in 1887, and in 1897 extensive mining began in the Burketown region; the Burketown Mineral Field was declared in 1899 in an attempt to promote development in the area. A tramway from the Mineral Field to a port on the Albert River at Burketown was often proposed by never achieved. Production on the Burketown field subsequently peaked three times: at the turn of the 19th century, from 1914 to 1927, and from 1948 to 1970. Each of these attempts at mining was largely defeated by the cost and difficulty of transporting ore to port facilities.
Ernest Henry discovered copper in 1867 in the Cloncurry region and the later discovery of gold brought a rush to the region. The Cloncurry mineral field was connected to Townsville by rail in 1910. The railway was extended to Mount Isa in 1930 after the establishment of Mount Isa Mines in 1924 and the discovery there of lead-silver ore by John Campbell Miles a year earlier. Mount Isa was excised from Cloncurry Shire in 1963 after a shift in focus of mining, and hence population.
Throughout the Gulf region, new pastoral properties encompassed traditional Aboriginal country, increasing conflict between pastoralists and Aborigines. The colonists’ attitudes towards Aborigines gradually changed and a policy of ‘friendly’ approaches to Aboriginal people was subsequently pursued, as was the supply of goods to them.
A Presbyterian mission was established on Mornington Island at Gununa in 1914, while in 1931 Christian Brethren missions for Aboriginal children were established initially at Burketown, and 2-3 years later at Dumaji, now spelt Doomadgee, west of Bayley point. The Doomadgee site was deemed unsuitable for population expansion and so the mission moved to its present site on the Nicholson River in 1936 and the old Doomadgee mission was abandoned. Doomadgee was a mission settlement until 1983, after which it became a Deed of Grant in Trust area, and the Doomadgee Aboriginal Community Council was established and operated until June 2004 when the first municipal elections were held.
When mining lapsed in the early 1900s, pastoralism became the region’s dominant economic activity. Some Aboriginal groups were virtually wiped out, while others were moved on to stations for work. Camps for Aboriginal people were established on the outskirts of Normanton, and the first Aboriginal reserve gazetted in 1935. These still existed in Normanton at least until 1976.
Aboriginal tribes in the Cloncurry region at the time of white contact were believed to be inter alia Pitta Pitta, Mitakoodi and Kalkadoon. The region underwent a process of violence similar to the northern part of the Gulf/North-West and existed in “a state of open warfare”, particularly the Kalkadoon people against pastoralists and the Native Mounted Police.
* If you can identify any of the photos please contact Southern Gulf NRM