Mapping Frontier Conflict in South-East Queensland – OLD
Dr Ray Kerkhove, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2016/2017

Settlement (invasion) and settler tactics

The pattern of post-Convict Settlement 

Frontier conflict was, for the most part, invasion by default. Settlers took up land already occupied by Aboriginal people and were supposed to make some allowance for Indigenous use of those areas, but few had any idea of how to come to mutually satisfactory arrangements for their intrusion.

European landholdings cost Aboriginal groups dearly. Thus the settlers’ presence was rarely welcome.  Very often, European modes of land use resulted in devastating loss of Aboriginal food resources, pollution and degradation of water sources and grasslands, reduced access to important areas, and vandalism of sacred sites and burial grounds.

Only some settlers were aware of this. Fear, ignorance of Aboriginal culture and lifestyles, or the struggle of trying to grow crops or run livestock in ‘wild’ country worked against the pursuit of peaceful arrangements.


Figure 1: typical first settler’s camp

Pastoral settlement of south-east Queensland largely expanded from the northern rivers of NSW – from the McIntryre into the Darling Downs then down into the Lockyer or otherwise across the Scenic Rim. However, there was also a move up the Brisbane River and west of Ipswich.

Generally, newcomers arrived in groups of several or a dozen people with a dray (bullock wagon) of goods. They came mustering a herd or flock of hundreds to thousands of sheep or cattle.  At a suitable location by permanent freshwater, the settlers would establish their headquarters (a hut, tent or upturned dray) and build a pen – up to an acre in size – to keep their livestock at night. The areas they occupied were at least 10 square kilometres each. These were called “runs” as the settlers freely ‘ran’ livestock across the entire unfenced area.

Communication with other settlers relied on continued traffic of drays coming and going with supplies and produce. For this reason, dray routes and dray camps were important. Most settlers established themselves roughly 10 miles apart so that they could – if needed – visit each other.


Figure 2: first settler with ‘headquarters’ of tents and huts

Usually the owner of the land did not live on the run but appointed an overseer who resided at the head station (a set of huts). As livestock had to be rotated around the area for grazing, most runs had a few ‘outstations.’ These consisted of a livestock pen and a couple of huts, manned by one to three shepherds or stockmen.


Figure 3: cattle pen and hut at a typical Darling Downs run

4Figure 4: typical early hut. Note the isolated position, and armed squatter with dog.

Settlers and their defenses

cavatry carbine

Cavalry carbine of the 1850s

For the most part, settlers relied on their own resources to defend the runs they established.  Most of the fighting in resistance wars was conducted by groups of squatters – near-neighbours – and the servants or workers of these runs. These would form parties of 10 to 40.  Most persons living on the frontier were heavily armed and some also had supplies and ‘safes’ of gunpowder, guns and rifles. Muskets were the main weapon until replaced by carbines. Many settlers also used ‘attack dogs.’


Figure 16: a tightly shut settler’s hut

On the edge of the frontier, many huts were built with hatches rather than windows to enable the whole building to be shut tight. Some huts had loopholes for shooting and peepholes for surveillance. For further defense, areas around homes were often broadly cleared, and the hut was built at a vantage point with a ring fence. Some early huts also had watchtowers and warning (bell) towers.


Figure 17: one of several peep holes in an 1870s Ipswich homestead.

However, most fighting occurred at or near outstations. Thus the humble sentry box of the night watchman was often the scene of conflict.


Sentry box at an outstation. Here the shepherd-on-watch kept vigil over his sheep in case of dingo or Aboriginal attack, whilst the one or two other shepherds slept.


Figure 14: Shepherd on alert at a sentry box

Policing, military and para-military bodies


Figure 5: main uniform of 1840s soldiers

It was largely between the 1823 and 1849 that armed forces were used against Aboriginal fighters in Queensland.  There was only a very small number of soldiers available . Being largely foot soldiers, they were mainly used for psychological effect, though there were several military expeditions, and soldiers were utilised in combination with other forces.

Mounted (border) police, under the control of Lands Commissioners (Simpson, Rolleston) were similarly few in number – from 6 to 12 usually – and were spread very thinly across the region. Like the soldiers, their main purpose was to give squatters and their families a sense of security, or otherwise extra fire power when needed.


Figure 8: Native Police corp


Figure 7: a mounted policeman (border police)

The Native Police corps was a para-military body established in 1848. It consisted of native (Aboriginal) troopers under white officers. Initially these forces were small (again roughly a dozen men) but by the 1850s-1860s they were the main force dealing with Aboriginal resistance and numbered 150-200.

Town police

Town police did not have their own horses and only operated inside towns, but were sometimes employed to cajole Aborigines to leave the town precincts, or to arrest Aborigines within town confines.

Settler tactics


Figure 10: free-ranging cattle, which were – with riders – sometimes used to frighten away Aboriginal parties

Some settlers used horsemen and herds to intimidate and drive off Aboriginal groups, or engaged in pre-emptive strikes against Aboriginal camps. Boundary riders – staff on horseback – regularly patrolled each run to check on the welfare of the herd. In many cases they also dispersed or attacked any Aborigines they saw troubling the herds.


Figure 9: boundary riders ‘dispersing’ Aboriginal warriors – a Queensland sketch

Often, when an Aboriginal group killed a white man or inflicted a great deal of damage on herds or crops, certain settlers would send messages around the adjoining runs and form a punitive expedition. If the threat was serious enough, or they were unable to make sufficient progress, they would also call in police and soldiers.


Figure 11: the Rufus River massacre (Victoria). This much-used illustration shows the usual mode of settler attack: an ambush on horseback with support from one or two police. As Aboriginal warriors fought back as best they could, these were described as ‘battles.’

The most common action by squatters was the preemptive or punitive ‘dawn raid’ on a camp – an ambush that escalated into a battle as the camp occupants fought back. These raids might be simply a display of gunfire and horse skills aimed to terrify the occupants, or targeted to arrest a particular individual, but they could include the massacre of all residents. Surprise attacks (dispersals) of large Aboriginal gatherings served a similar purpose. Pitched battles between punitive parties and Aboriginal warriors were rarer but did occur.


Figure 12: 1850s illustration of a night attack from Frederic Cooper’s ‘Wild Adventures in NSW’


Figure 13: Illustration titled “the avengers” showing a typical dawn raid on a camp. However, the number of assailants were more usually 10-15.