Act government Genealogy Project Our Kin Our Country August 2012 Report Foreword European settlement in the 19th century had a devastating effect on Aboriginal cultures and populations

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ACT Government Genealogy Project

Our Kin Our Country

August 2012 Report


European settlement in the 19th century had a devastating effect on Aboriginal cultures and populations. Moreover, subsequent government policies carried out in the 20th century — of separating Aboriginal people onto missions and reserves, prohibiting their culture and language, and removing their children — continue to affect families, generations and communities in regrettable ways.

The ACT Government is committed to assisting Aboriginal people overcome this legacy of dislocation and disadvantage.

We recognise that research into the family lines of Aboriginal people connected to this region will not only fill a gap in the history and habitation of the region, but, more significantly, will be valuable and affirming for Aboriginal people and their families, supporting them to better understand their own heritage.

Positive effects for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been observed following the recovery of cultural identity. Genealogical information builds the capacity of Aboriginal people to be able to tangibly identify and recover lost family connections and tell their stories.

When the ACT Government first initiated this project, it did not foresee the far-reaching scope and support it would garner from members of our region’s Aboriginal community, and indeed the wider community.

From the beginning, it has been about giving a context, as well as a tangible record, to the descendants of the families who first inhabited this region as their home.

Recognising and respecting the importance of their contribution and significance to the land on which we all now live is a priority of the ACT Government, and indeed the current and future generations of Aboriginal families connected to the region.

The genealogy project is an opportunity for the national capital to lead in an Aboriginal cultural revival in the spirit of reconciliation and to build Aboriginal leadership in the Territory.

This overview report provides a snapshot of what has been achieved so far, and what is still to come.

Dr Chris Bourke MLA
Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs

August 2012 


The ACT Government’s Our Kin, Our Country genealogy project has been made possible by the generosity and willingness of many Aboriginal families from Canberra, Queanbeyan, Yass, Cowra, Bega, Sydney, Gundagai, Tumut and Cooma.

We are grateful to the many family representatives who generously gave their time, sharing unique and precious family histories and perspectives, and reviewing genealogical material as it developed.

Their participation has contributed significantly to the major documentation of past and present Aboriginal cultural history in the region, creating a valuable resource for future generations.

A special thanks is due to Lyn Marlow who conducted and shared her extensive research in the NSW Government archives.

We are also thankful to the many experts and institutions that provided assistance including, but not limited to:

Ardeth Pemberton Family History Assistance

ACT Heritage Unit

United Ngunnawal Elders Council (UNEC)

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS)

State Library of NSW, Mitchell Wing

St Augustine’s Catholic Church, Yass

National Library of Australia

Libraries ACT.


Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the data and information contained in this report. In the gathering of that information, several sources were consulted and facts double-checked. However, due to the sensitive and historical nature of the subject matter, and also the lack in some instances of detailed recordkeeping over the past 200 years, the ACT Government and its contractors cannot be held accountable if there are discrepancies.

Executive summary

This is a report on the outcomes and findings of the ACT Government’s Our Kin, Our Country genealogy project, the scope of which was to research and compile genealogies for Aboriginal people claiming connection to the ACT and surrounding region.

The main aim of the project was to strengthen those protective factors identified as needed for social and emotional wellbeing in Aboriginal communities. These factors include connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry, family, and community. Research indicates that connection to land and kinship networks promote Aboriginal people’s sense of wellbeing.

The comprehensive dislocation of Aboriginal populations, following European settlement, has led to a high proportion of Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in urban settings, who do not know their traditional origins. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) records show a high number of Aboriginal families in the ACT affected by the Stolen Generation era.

The ACT Government recognises the traumatic impacts of colonisation on the population and social structures of Aboriginal communities in the 19th century through to the draconian ‘welfare’ policies of the 20th century. The government is committed to a holistic approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing and has sought through this project a way to enable Aboriginal families local to the region to ‘reconnect’.

Terms of reference for the research were set as follows:

research and compile genealogies of families with association to the ACT and surrounding region irrespective of the traditional identity or no traditional identity

research and identify the likely cultural area, and spatial location and organisation of the Aboriginal populations that occupied what is now the ACT and surrounding region at the time of European settlement.

In addition, a key principle was that the project’s processes and outcomes should contribute to Aboriginal people’s wellbeing as broadly as possible, involving Aboriginal people in those processes and outcomes.

To compile the genealogies, professional family historians were engaged to research the genealogies and store them in a genealogical database. The first interviews with families were conducted in late 2010. Since that time, dozens of meetings and interviews with 29 family representatives have been conducted, thousands of source documents collected, detailed family history books created, and the archives have been scoured to find evidence of the original inhabitants of the region.

Despite the sensitive and sometimes confronting nature of the project, many Aboriginal people from Canberra and regional areas such as Cooma and Cowra participated. And the feedback as this project has unfolded over the past two years has been extremely positive from both the Aboriginal community, and the wider community.

As at August 2012, the project research has generated the following outcomes:

a fully annotated genealogical database covering more than 5000 individuals, European and Aboriginal, from the early 19th century to the present day for what appears to be a highly networked regional population.

a collection of more than 2000 primary and secondary source records which were used to document the life events in the database

creation of 29 detailed family history books, which range in size from 200 to 1500 pages of charts and associated source material made up of transcripts or copies of birth, death, marriage, baptismal, convict and other records.

for the 29 family representatives and their families, the source material validated over 120 key ancestors and associated lines of descent to present day families.

including families that may be descended from Eden–Monaro and Tumut–Brungle territory has generated a picture of a definite regional Aboriginal population that has adapted and survived the initial European occupation.

The main population finding from the genealogical data is unmistakable: a surprisingly resilient regional population maintained through a distinct web of family networks in the immediate region surrounding the ACT. This has been the case across Australia. Whatever the original tribal and other group affiliations, what emerges repeatedly across the continent, surviving and adapting to the vicissitudes of settlement, population decline and dispersal, and official policies of segregation, child removal and assimilation, are Aboriginal communities which are based profoundly on strong kinship networks despite the disruption and trauma of colonisation.

For Aboriginal people in the region this finding is important as it confirms their place as a unique and important part of the Australian story.

Finding ancestors and discovering the links to other families has been an enormously affirming experience for the participants. Now, participants of the project are educating others in the community about family connections, who in turn are extending their knowledge about their family lines. These discoveries of kin will continue to grow and along with this knowledge, a strengthening of cultural identity.

In recent decades, many Aboriginal people have migrated to the territory from surrounding NSW. It is estimated that a significant proportion of the ACT Aboriginal population may be descended from the original inhabitants of the region under study for this project. It is anticipated that a number of family group connections will continue to be authenticated through the project for these people.

Developing the family history books as a collaboration between the Aboriginal families who participated in the project and the ACT Government has helped families have confidence in the project. The family history books have proved to be powerful tools for connecting families with families, and building knowledge in the regional population. The books are a particularly important resource for community Elders, creating a legacy to pass on to the younger generation. This will contribute to building pride in Aboriginal identity, providing closure for families who have lost connection. In short, the family history books will continue to increase understanding in the community about the role Aboriginal families have played in the region far better than summary genealogical material included in a report.

The genealogical material in the database with the significant collection of source material now stands as an important cultural history resource for both the Aboriginal and wider community, increasing depth of understanding of the past, redressing the losses of the last 200 years.

This resource represents an exciting opportunity for continued research into regional family networks and lines of descent. Initial analysis of the data suggests that of the 5000 individuals documented in the database, there are hundreds of individuals, mostly Aboriginal and some non-Aboriginal, who could be considered as key ancestors for this region. The collection of thousands of primary and secondary source records provides a rich archive of biographical material for these ancestors and their descendants.

The benefit of this project to Aboriginal people, the participants and the regional communities will be ongoing as more of their stories are told and gaps in knowledge about family kinship lines are breached. For families who have been disrupted by past policies of removing Aboriginal children from their families, this kind of information has been, and will prove to be, invaluable. The telling of stories will continue to strengthen cultural identity, critical to community wellbeing and the countering of past destructive policies and practices.

For all of us, a better understanding of our shared past will contribute to the process of reconciliation.


In recent decades, the Australian nation has undergone a radical transformation in its approach to its democratic responsibilities to respect the right of everyone to ‘have a fair go’ and to be respected for their cultural and racial backgrounds and the contributions they make.

The demise of the White Australia Policy, the increasing Aboriginal activism for land rights and equality, and the emergence of a new school of history have allowed the Aboriginal side of the Australian story to be told and national government policy to change accordingly.

The ACT, with the seat of Commonwealth Government, has been the scene for much of this change, from the establishment of the tent embassy in 1972, the historic Mabo and Wik decisions to the National Apology for the Stolen Generations.

In recent decades, many Aboriginal people have come to the ACT to pursue jobs in the growing Commonwealth public service and also to pursue careers as academics and activists. Many have also come because the ACT and Queanbeyan are regional centres of employment, health and education services.

The ACT, with a growing Aboriginal population, stands in a unique position to take the lead in Aboriginal cultural revival in partnership with the community to recover the Aboriginal heritage of the region and build Aboriginal leadership in the Territory.

Project background

Work began on this significant project when the ACT Government allocated $100,000 funding in the 2010 ACT Budget to ‘research and compile genealogies for each of the acknowledged Aboriginal clans who are based in the ACT’.

This project sought to honour the diverse and complex histories of Aboriginal people throughout the region since the establishment of British sovereignty and assist families to verify their historical and cultural associations to the region by uncovering genealogical links to the past and between contemporary families.

A further aim was to reflect the way in which traditional Aboriginal social structures have not disappeared but have adapted since contact and been transformed into distinctly recognisable groupings.

Needs and issues to be addressed through the project were grouped as follows:

Inter- and intra-familial disputes about the processes, findings and limitations of previous genealogical research into some of the Aboriginal family networks of the region. Previous genealogical research, limited to some family lines, has created inequities between those families who have access to authenticated historical and genealogical knowledge and those who do not. Previous genealogical research is discussed in Chapter 2.

Disputes about what would have been the traditional language or other group affiliations of Aboriginal populations in the region. In particular, since the ACT Government’s 2002 recognition of the ACT as Ngunnawal territory there has been disagreement in the community about whether or not this identification is an appropriate or adequate description of the territory’s original Aboriginal population. This decision has caused concern because there are some historical accounts that indicate that other languages such as Ngarigu and Walgalu may also have been spoken in the Canberra region. In addition, one group formerly identifying as Ngunnawal now wish to be recognised as Ngambri. The 2002 ‘Ngunnawal’ decision was taken out of respect for Aboriginal self-determination. The ACT Government accepted the general consensus at the time of a gathering of Ngunnawal people that the territory should be considered Ngunnawal.

Indigenous wellbeing. Research indicates that connection to land and kinship networks supports Indigenous wellbeing. According to the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA), connection to land, culture, spirituality, ancestry and family and community are protective factors for wellbeing. They can also serve as a:

unique reservoir of resilience and recovery in the face of adversity and moderate the impact of stressful circumstances on the social and emotional wellbeing at the individual, family and community level. Land is central to social relationships and the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous individuals, families and communities.1

Unfortunately, the comprehensive dislocation of Aboriginal populations following European settlement has led to a high proportion of Indigenous Australians, more than 40 per cent, who do not know their traditional origins. The Australian Bureau of Statistics records a high number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT affected by the Stolen Generation policies.

Who will benefit. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in the ACT has been growing steadily since the 1970s. The 2011 ABS census figures show that 5183 people who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reside in the ACT, up from 3872 in 2006 — an increase of 33.9 per cent. With this inwards migration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to the Territory, there are a particularly high number of Aboriginal people from surrounding NSW. In the five years between 1996 and 2001, about 846 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples moved from other parts of Australia to live in Canberra. Most came from NSW, with 97 of these coming from the region around Canberra. It is therefore estimated that a significant proportion of the ACT Aboriginal population may be descended from the original inhabitants of ACT and surrounding region. It is anticipated that a number of their family groups will be authenticated through the project. Aboriginal people from other parts of Australia would like to know that the best effort has been made to respect the original inhabitants of the region and those who may be descended from them.

The geographical area under study. A generous regional boundary was defined in advance based on the geography of the region and likely patterns of occupation of that geography, what is known historically about the Aboriginal populations after settlement.

The main geographical areas for the focus of the genealogical research were Canberra–Queanbeyan, Yass region, the Tumut–Brungle region and the Eden–Monaro region. It also included parts of Victoria, formerly within NSW, particularly Gippsland.

No genealogical study of south-east NSW could ignore the important population concentration and dispersal sites of the former missions and reserves such as Lake Tyres in Victoria, Wallaga Lake on the South Coast, Erambie Mission in Cowra, Warengesda, Hollywood, Edgerton at Yass, Brungle, Delegate. Some of these sites did not survive the turn of the 20th century, such as Braidwood or Delegate, others emerged in the 20th century, for example, Hollywood, Lake Tyres, and Warengesda and some which survived to the present including Wallaga Lake and Erambie.

Chapter 1 provides background on Aboriginal kinship systems, and an overview of how, as elsewhere in Australia, traditional Aboriginal societies and territorial relationships in the region have transformed since contact with Europeans. This chapter includes a description of Aboriginal society in the region prior to European settlement.

Chapter 2 discusses the project’s research methodology and findings.

Chapter 3 provides a summary of the findings and outcomes and discusses possible further research.

The future of the research material and access

The Our Kin, Our Country project has generated a significant record of the families of the region, many of whom now reside in the ACT.

Through this record, it is envisaged that individuals will be able to continue to access their family’s information and add new information to their histories.

The ACT Government is seeking a secure repository for the family histories and significant genealogical data that has now been compiled.

In the short term, the ACT Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs will continue to maintain the database and associated resources.

As genealogical material does contain some information which is personal and sensitive, access to the resource will be subject to privacy considerations.

The genealogical material created through the project — family history books, a genealogical database, and a significant collection of source materials — now stand as important cultural history resources for both the Aboriginal and wider community, increasing depth of understanding of the past, redressing the losses of the last two hundred years.

By advancing and broadening the genealogical knowledge in the Aboriginal community, the project will allow a more equitable voice to various Aboriginal groups and individuals in terms of their role in the cultural life of the region.


The name of Aboriginal language groups have been spelt differently at different times, by different groups of people for different purposes. For example, in this report, for Aboriginal language names, we have used the following spellings:

Ngunnawal Ngun(n)awal Ngunawal
Walgalu Walgal
Ngarigu Ngarigo
Ngambri Ngambra Kamburry

1 Kin and Country

Before the arrival of European settlers, the greater Canberra region had been home to Aboriginal people for up to 20,000 years. This chapter describes the effect of European settlement on Aboriginal societies in south-eastern NSW and what has survived as important elements of Aboriginal culture and kinship systems today.

The country

The ACT is located in the south-east of New South Wales. It covers 2358km2, is the smallest territory in Australia, and stretches 88km from north to south and only 30km from west to east. The ACT is bounded by the former Goulburn–Cooma railway line in the east, the watershed of Naas Creek in the south, the watershed of the Cotter River in the west, and the watershed of the Molonglo River in the north-east.

The ACT includes two geographic features — tablelands and mountain ranges. The tablelands are generally considered to extend from Gungahlin in the north to Lanyon in the south, bounded in the west by the Murrumbidgee River and in the southwest by the Namadji Ranges. The highlands of the ACT, collectively known as the Namadgi Ranges, are the northernmost outlying peaks of the Australian Alps, made up of ranges of between 1400 and 1900m in altitude and numerous deep river valleys. Over 42 per cent of the territory is taken up by the ridges, forests and rivers of Namadgi National Park.

The mountainous areas of the ACT include the catchments for the Cotter and Gudgenby rivers and their tributaries. This was to supply water to the capital city.2

The tablelands consist of gently undulating plains (at an altitude of less than 610m), and scattered hills, covered with savannah grasslands and woodland vegetation. The summer–winter temperature ranges would have allowed occupation by Aboriginal people throughout the year.3

Two major rivers flow across and around the tablelands, the Murrumbidgee and the Molonglo Rivers. Previously, other waterways like Ginninndera, Sullivan’s (formerly Ngambra / Kamburry) and Tuggeranong creeks snaked across the grasslands creating chains of ponds which only flowed rapidly only when in flood. In this environment, the greatest diversity of animal species would have occurred between forest and woodland.


There is archaeological evidence of Aboriginal people visiting this region for over 20,000 years. The territory is rich with archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation. There was a wide variety of resources and places to support the Aboriginal way of life on the plains and hills of what is now the greater Canberra region. There were places for ceremonies and sources for body paint and ochre, places for burial, and raw materials for tool manufacture, plants for fibre, food and medicine. There are still quarries, scarred trees, and stone artefact scatters across the ACT’s lowlands. There are stone arrangements in the Namadgi ranges.

There are large lowland base-camps open sites stretching several kilometres such as the one found at Pialligo. This site is similar to two other large sites at Reidsdale on the ACT–NSW border in the north and Nardoo, east of Lake George. In the ACT, Aboriginal occupation sites have often been found located close to aquatic resources, to wet schlerophyll forests or to bogong moth habitats. Medium-sized lowland camps occur in a lineal pattern along riverbanks of the Molonglo and Murrumbidgee Rivers, and Ginninderra and Tuggeranong Creeks.

The oldest Aboriginal site so far found in the ACT is the Birrigai rock shelter, located in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, which contains stone tools and charcoal from campfires dating back over 21,000 years. On the Eden–Monaro, archaeological evidence dates back to 50,000 years.4

Hunter-gatherer life style meant that people were always on the move allowing resources to replenish. Archaeological evidence shows that the ACT was criss-crossed with well-worn foot tracks, and significant trails leading to other regions and tribal territories. Trade routes ran for hundreds of kilometres. It was possible to trade bone, shell, wood, fur and stones from across the continent.

As elsewhere in Australia, Aboriginal people managed the environment with fire to clear undergrowth to create a parklike environment to make hunting and managing game easier. Several times a year Aboriginal people in the open woodlands could flush out the kangaroos by fire or spear them in the open woodlands. Fire was also used to cook, char and harden wood for tools and weapons. Bark was used for water holders.

According to early settler accounts the Limestone Plains and woodland slopes were rich in native game: emus, kangaroos, snakes, lizards on land. Aboriginal people made toeholds in trees and climbed them to catch possums. The rivers, ponds and flood plains promoted bird life: wild turkey, emu, wood ducks, black ducks, and teal. There were numerous plants such as the yam daisy. The comb and honey of the native bees could be found in tree hollows.5

In the open forests of scribbly and brittle gum, with its grassy understorey, there were wild turkey, koalas, snakes, lizards and bandicoots which would probably been caught while foraging for vegetable foods. They were easily roasted straight on the hot coals. Rich oily meat of goannas and emus and the pork-like white meat of echidnas were still eaten until the 1940s. The mountain streams were full of yellow belly, platypus, spiny crayfish, yabbies, and mountain cod.6

Aboriginal hunter gatherers travelled light. According to William Davis Wright, whose father was one of the earliest settlers, warriors were well equipped with a range of spears, nulla nullas, tomahawks, and shields. Women carried sharpened digging sticks, and baskets and bags made of grass. Kangaroo and opossum skins were sewn together with bone needles for clothing, rugs and bags. Bags were also made of twisted possum fur.

The dingo travelled with Aboriginal families, but they were soon replaced with other breeds of dog in Aboriginal camps after Europeans arrived.

It can be assumed that across the Eden–Monaro and up to Yass and Boorowa, Aboriginal people were similarly equipped.

Aboriginal people were possessed of extensive knowledge about the environment in their immediate locality and for many hundreds of kilometres, and were able to hunt and gather foods all year round.

European explorers made extensive use of Aboriginal guides when opening up territory or travelling through hazardous country. Aboriginal people assisted the early graziers in the Canberra region to find suitable grasslands for their stock, fords for crossing rivers like the Murrumbidgee, overlanding of stock through the mountains, finding lost children or bushrangers.

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