Aboriginal observations header

The human history of Woodford Reserve has been driven by the physical and ecological setting. The reserve, as 20 Mile Hollow, occupies a significant feature in the local landscape.

There is little direct evidence of the specific Aboriginal history of the Woodford area, but much can be inferred from what evidence there is and information from the wider Blue Mountains and beyond.

Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for at least 50,000 years, and the Blue Mountains for at least 22,000 years.

Dispossession spread rapidly from the initial colony at Sydney, and proceeded apace in the Blue Mountains after the 1813 ‘crossing’ and subsequent road construction. The water source and swamp in Woodford Reserve was very likely an Aboriginal place from which they were dispossessed when first James and then Pembroke occupied it, if not earlier. It is not known if it had special significance but it was part of Country with deep connections to the identity of local Darug and/or Gundungurra people. This dispossession was part of the wider dislocation of Aboriginal people across Australia.

Early colonial travellers reported few contacts with Aborigines on the Blue Mountains plateau, and there are no records of massacres or open conflict. The population and use of the area by Aboriginal people may have been relatively low compared to adjoining, more fertile areas, but the true population picture is likely to remain uncertain.

The main Blue Mountains ridge and probably branching ridges have been regarded as routes of Aboriginal travel and trade, with some of these ridges coming together near Woodford. The high density of rock art and other sites in the Woodford-central Blue Mountains area compared with a relative paucity of occupation sites suggests it may have been an important ceremonial area. The engraving in Woodford Reserve is part of this heritage.

The National Trust at Woodford Academy recently began recovering the Aboriginal history of the site, making steps towards reconciliation.


The Aboriginal concept of “Country” is complex but central to understanding Australian Indigenous culture, and to an appreciation of Aboriginal history in the Blue Mountains and the Woodford precinct.

“For Aboriginal people, “country” does not just mean the creeks, rock outcrops, hills and waterholes. “Country” includes all living things. It incorporates people, plants and animals. It embraces the seasons, stories and creation spirits. “Country” is both a place of belonging and a way of believing.” Aboriginal Art & Culture (2018)

“Country: In Aboriginal English, a person’s land, sea, sky, rivers, sites, seasons, plants and animals; place of heritage, belonging and spirituality; is called ‘Country’.” Australian Museum (2018)

Thus for Aboriginal people every aspect of their being was (and is) integrated with the land, so they were dispossessed not only of territory in the European sense, but of their culture and very identity.

“In Aboriginal belief systems it is not possible to make a distinction between sacred and profane. All parts of the material and natural world are infused with the sacred, with varying intensity. Every person and every animal has a spiritual connection, every feature has a sanctifying aspect, and every place a co-sacred source; all things have a basic connection with the sacred. It is this innate sacredness that is the social binder of Aboriginal culture.” Kelleher (2009)

The area around Woodford is considered to be the traditional Country of the Darug and Gundungurra people, many of whom still reside in and around the Blue Mountains.

Early European observations

“During the early exploratory expeditions, numerous indications were seen that people lived in the Blue Mountains, though there was no contact with anyone … However, even once the road was constructed, very few of the travellers…reported seeing Aboriginal people in the Blue Mountains.” Attenbrow (2009)

Dispossession in the Blue Mountains began with the first European explorations, perhaps even earlier. Though these explorers and later travellers reported few encounters or signs of Aboriginal people in the mountains, they were more often aware of their presence. Of course, some of these travellers may have had little interest in the local inhabitants, and their lack of observations cannot be taken completely at face value.

Blaxland (1813)

Blaxland mentions (13 May 1813), probably in the present vicinity of Springwood, ‘several native huts at different places’. Near present Linden (19 May) he describes a ‘heap of Stones piled up in the Shape of Pyramid by some European’, later described (erroneously) as ‘Caley’s Repulse’ but possibly an Aboriginal feature. Kelleher (2009) On 21 May, probably near Wentworth Falls, they heard noises near camp and feared that the natives had followed them and they were in danger.

On 24 May, still on the main range, they heard ‘a Native chopping’ but ‘he ran away before he could be discovered’. Once they were in view of the valleys to the west (present Megalong, Kanimbla and Hartley) Aboriginal observations became much more frequent.

On 26 May, possibly above the present Megalong Valley, they ‘saw the fires of the natives below’, and another group below them the next day, possibly below present Mt Victoria. They saw the second group again, in a new location, on 27 May.

Evans (1813-14)

Evans mentions nothing of Aboriginal presence on the mountains, on either his forward or return journey. The first mention comes west of the mountains on 25 November 1813, when they camped on the banks of the present River Lett in the present Hartley Valley: ‘We have not seen any natives but hear them shouting all around us. Upon returning to the ‘foot of the Mountains’ on 29 December he reports: ‘The Natives seem to be numerous; there are fires in many parts not far from us’.

On his return journey across the mountains, Evans comments repeatedly over a period of five days’ travel along the main ridge on how the mountains had been ‘fired in all directions’ (4 January 1814).

The use of fire by Aborigines to repel Europeans was reported from other regions, and if Evans (and the 1813 explorers before him) were being observed, then their reliance on green feed for the horses would have been noted.

It is possible that this burning was of Aboriginal origin and aimed at Evans’ party.

Macquarie and Antill (1815)

Major Antill accompanied Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s 1815 inspection of the new road to Bathurst. Neither account mentions Aborigines or signs of them.

Quoy, Gaudichaud and Pellion (1819)

These three Frenchmen were part of Freycinet’s voyage of exploration and science in the South Seas, and travelled across the Blue Mountains during a stopover in Sydney. They were interested in all aspects of the local environment. At Springwood they noted the blackened trees, attributed to ‘natives liking to set alight the grasses and brushwood obstructing their way’.

At an unspecified location in the lower mountains, they ‘first saw any of the wretched inhabitants of those lofty regions’: ‘a sick old man, lying on kangaroo skins, near a fire, and receiving the attentions of a younger man’.

William Lawson (of the 1813 crossing) was accompanying them, and recognised the older man as ‘Karadra, supreme chief or king of that part of the mountain’.

He had apparently killed many ‘English’ but never been caught ‘in the act’ and later had become ‘peacefully disposed’.

The Frenchmen also noted that ‘Sometimes, when hunting, the natives rove in these lonely mountains, and more than one traveller has been the victim of their murderous spears’.

Archaeological evidence

A vast amount of surviving physical evidence – rock paintings, drawings and engravings, artefacts, grinding grooves, stone arrangements, occupation sites and more - proves that Aboriginal people were active throughout the Blue Mountains. Some traditional stories and story places have also survived from earlier times. Mathews (1908), Smith (2009) Some researchers believe the physical evidence demonstrates the mountains were as populated as other areas. Merriman (2009)

The central part of the Blue Mountains Range around Woodford is rich in recorded Aboriginal sites. Stockton & Knox (2014) On a rock platform in Woodford Reserve is a ten-metre-long engraved groove which several experts have assessed as most probably Aboriginal in origin. Brennan (2015)

It has been reported that other possible engravings have been seen on the site but have been covered by grass growth in recent times. These possible engravings, number unknown, are small, three-pronged figures like bird feet.

They were seen on the reserve, north of the Academy and upslope from the engraved line. Harrison (2018)

These features in Woodford Reserve are part of a large suite of sites in the local precinct. Other sites which have been recorded within a two-kilometre radius of Woodford Reserve are: Stockton (2006)

• Woodford – a cave painting near the highway;

• Woodford – an occupation shelter near the highway;

• South Woodford – a cave painting;

• Waterhouse Park – a cave paining and grinding grooves;

• Hazelbrook – a stone arrangement;

• Hazelbrook – two occupation shelters;

• Gloria Park, Hazelbrook - a site complex with rockholes/wells, an engraving, grinding grooves, artefacts and a shelter; Koettig (1983)

• Kangaroo St, Lawson - a rock platform with engraving of a kangaroo;

• Horseshoe Falls, Hazelbrook – an occupation shelter that excavations reveal was in use 8,000 years ago.

Many more engravings, cave paintings, grinding grooves, stone arrangements and occupation sites have been recorded in a wider area of the central Blue Mountains. Stockton & Knox (2014)

The “lonely” Blue Mountains?

In the above and other accounts of 14 early journeys over the Blue Mountains Mackaness (1965), a marked contrast emerges between frequent encounters with Aborigines in areas either side of the Blue Mountains (western Sydney and the Central West), and their persistence in those regions into the mid-1800s, and a paucity of reported Aboriginal presence in the mountains themselves.

Similarly, the Burragorang Valley to the south was an important area for Aboriginal people, who lived there (and in The Gully at Katoomba) until the valley was flooded by Warragamba Dam in 1960. Smith (2016)

However several of the early accounts allude to Aboriginal attacks, or fear of attacks, on travellers which, if true (and not just presumed), suggests at least presence, as well as resistance.

Unlike many other areas, including the Sydney and Central West regions, there is no record of massacres or retaliatory raids by either Aborigines or settlers on the Blue Mountains plateau. By comparison, early conflicts in western Sydney and around Bathurst saw many deaths over several years and have been described as ‘wars’.

This early history has led many authors to suggest that the Blue Mountains may have been sparsely populated before European colonisation. However the density of recorded archaeological sites, of up to 10 per square kilometre, and even 17 per square kilometre, is similar to other nearby areas.

“The frequency of occupation and other sites suggests a population comparable to other parts of the country which have been thoroughly investigated.” Attenbrow (2009) But other considerations come into play on these statistics, including that flaked artefact densities in occupation sites tend to be lower in the Blue Mountains than in areas on the periphery Attenbrow (2009) - areas that would seem to be more fertile and productive.

“…whether these variations reflect differences in the number of people or length of time people used the sites, or in the amount and type of activity associated with making stone tools, and how they should be interpreted, is still a difficult question to resolve.” If the mountains were sparsely populated, various explanations have been offered for an apparently low Aboriginal presence.

The afore-mentioned adjoining regions are certainly more ecologically productive than the sandstone plateau, and may have been more capable of sustaining larger populations. Aboriginal people may have only ever occupied the Blue Mountains in small numbers, or they may have been reluctant (or scared) to be seen or to engage.

Relatedly, the early travellers may have avoided contact because of previous conflict in the Hawkesbury and elsewhere. Merriman (2009)

Aboriginal numbers may have already been depleted by disease (smallpox and influenza advanced out of the Sydney colony soon after white arrival).

The question of population may remain unresolved because evidence from the early colonial period is so limited.

“…the actual size of the Blue Mountains population in 1788, and at any other time in the more distant past, is now impossible to determine.” Attenbrow (2009)

It also remains unclear whether Aboriginal people occupied the plateau areas of the Blue Mountains on a permanent basis or seasonally, or for particular purposes only.

The pattern of archaeological sites, with a paucity of occupation sites compared to the frequency of art and other features, has led to the suggestion that the mid-mountains may have been mainly a ceremonial area, where people visited for special purposes rather than living for extended periods. Stockton & Knox (2014), Stockton (2006)

However other research suggests that ceremonial sites are in discrete locations rather than concentrated in particular areas, and that the Linden area shows signs of being an inter-tribal boundary and ceremonial centre.

“…the western and eastern slopes around Woodford Creek mark an accessible and functional meeting ground for the Gundungurra (arriving from the south and west) and the Dharug (coming in from the east).”Kelleher (2009)

Aboriginal travel routes

The pattern of sites and other evidence suggests that the mid-mountains may have been a ‘crossroads’ where east-west and north-south travel routes met. Around Woodford, the long ridges of Woodford Range to the south-east and Linden Ridge and Lawson Ridge on the north side provide easy travel routes extending well into the surrounding country. These ridges are well endowed with recorded Aboriginal sites, whereas few sites have been recorded in the creeks gorges.

This distribution could correspond to how Aboriginal people used this landscape, as the ridges offer much easier travel on foot than the deep creek gorges... “…gullies and gorges are the real barriers and ridges offer access.” Stockton (2006)

It has been widely suggested that the Blue Mountains Range (and the Bell Range to the north) may have been used by Aboriginal people as a travel and trade route across the mountains, linking the coastal and inland regions.

Certainly it offers one of the relatively easier routes across the mountain ‘barrier’, as white explorers came to realise and as remains the case even for modern transportation. However there is no firm evidence for a long-distance Aboriginal route where the Great Western Highway now runs.

“…there may not have been a single path across the Blue Mountains along either of the main ridges, even if they were known to have negotiable routes east and west. However, once complete in 1814, the Great Western Road was used by Aboriginal people living at both ends. People from ‘far beyond the Blue Mountains’ who attended the December 1818 Conference at the Native Institution in Parramatta probably came along this road.” Attenbrow (2009)

It is almost certain that the famous Wiradjuri resistance fighter Windradyne also travelled along Coxs Road at the end of the ‘Wiradjuri Wars’ in 1824.

“Windradyne marched for seventeen days across the mountain range into Parramatta at the head of his force of nearly 200 warriors to attend the Governor’s annual feast. With the word ‘peace’ stuck in his hat, he surrendered. The settlers who came to see him were awestruck.” Langton (2008)

We do not know if Windradyne or other Aboriginal travellers camped at 20 Mile Hollow in the early colonial years, but given that they were generally on foot, it is possible.

Aboriginal antiquity

Some sources suggest “Aboriginal people are known to have occupied mainland Australia for at least 65,000 years”Museum of Australia (2018) , but the oldest firm evidence is around 50,000 years.Mooney & Martin (2009) This includes artefacts from the eastern foot of the Blue Mountains.

Other unconfirmed evidence suggests even greater antiquity. However “Aboriginal people traditionally believe they have been here in their country since the time of creation”. Museum of Australia (2018)

The oldest known evidence of occupation on the Blue Mountains plateau is about 22,000 years, on Kings Tableland.

Stockton & Knox (2014)

This was during the last glacial period when the climate was colder and drier than present, and the vegetation of the Blue Mountains would have been quite different with extensive grassland and only limited areas of forest. Mooney & Martin (2009)

The warming phase that ended about 10,000 years ago changed the weather, vegetation and available resources, and may also have led to increased population pressure in coastal areas, particularly if the sea at times advanced quite rapidly inland.

Aboriginal people at 20 Mile Hollow

If traditional Aboriginal routes used the main ridgelines, then the generally scarce watering-points along the ridges would have been of considerable importance – as they became for white travellers in the next historical phase.

The 10-metre-long engraved line on the outcrop in Woodford Reserve is of uncertain meaning, but may have directed water to other engraved features (similar lines are known from the Central Coast). Brennan (2018)

The one known engraving proves Aboriginal presence, and there may be other evidence as yet undiscovered.

There has been one suggestion of a possible Aboriginal burial, from Aunty Carol Cooper; Brennan (2015) there is no other information on this.

The reliable spring that existed just outside the current western boundary of Woodford Reserve would have been as attractive to Aboriginal people as it later became to white settlers.

Swamps in the Blue Mountains have been recognised as particularly rich sources of plant and animal food for Aboriginal people. “Swamps were important to Aboriginal people in providing perennial water and a wide variety of bush tucker.” Stockton (2009a)

“The concentration of artefact scatters around swamps, such as at Asgard and Newnes Plateau, shows the attraction of swamps, with their plentiful food resources, to foragers of the past.” Stockton (2009a)

“Each creek has a swamp at its source and although individually small, this environment is widespread and was an important food source…Swamps have specialised plant communities that supplied foods and medicines and were places to collect yabbies, small fish, snakes and lizards and to hunt swamp rats, bandicoots and small marsupials.” Merriman (2009)

The 20 Mile Hollow swamp would have been a useful and accessible swamp, in a position where multiple travel routes converged. Pre-colonial Aboriginal people would almost certainly have travelled by and camped at this place.

The engraving and the rock platforms in the basin below the spring may have been other attractions. It has been suggested that the bare rock platforms were originally more extensive, but have become overgrown with introduced grasses.

Dispossession at Woodford

The Aboriginal people seem to have been quickly dispossessed of what became 20 Mile Hollow, as they were along the whole route of Cox’s Road. James’ sly grog shop and especially ‘The Woodman’ inn and associated use of the adjoining land were strong statements of ‘possession’ of the important spring, and would have sent a clear message of rejection to the Aboriginal ‘owners’.

The colonials would have been ignorant that that was what they were doing, and probably would not have cared anyway as Aboriginal culture and society were routinely devalued and ignored by the new settlers.

As discussed above, it may also have been the case that Aborigines were not obviously using the area. The water and the engraving are evidence that the site was a significant component of Aboriginal Country.

It may have been a campsite. We may never know if the site held greater importance, as perhaps a place of story or ceremony or particular totemic affiliation and obligation.

We don’t know how much value Woodford Reserve specifically held for the original inhabitants, but we do know that dispossession of Country and of important places was widespread and inexorable.

We also do not know for certain if and when Aboriginal people stopped visiting 20 Mile Hollow once the place was occupied by the colonials, but it seems likely since there are no known contemporary reports of such visits.

Towards reconciliation

This long dispossession has only begun to be corrected in recent years. The rock engraving was apparently not assessed by archaeologists until 2004 and was not formally recorded until 2006. Brennan(2018)

In 2014 the National Trust began to investigate the Aboriginal heritage of the site and later explored ways of including Aboriginal heritage interpretation in their activities at Woodford Academy. Recently, local Darug man Chris Tobin was given the use of a room at the Academy to conduct regular educational activities.

text: Ian Brown



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