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Paterson River history

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Aboriginal history of the Paterson Valley

Aboriginal people have inhabited the east coast of Australia for at least 17,000 years and probably earlier.[1] Baiame is the keeper of the Hunter Valley and the ancestral being of its people. He created the earth and sent other spirits to form the natural features of the land. Baiame created the first laws by which Aboriginal people lived and these were unchanged through thousands of years of Aboriginal life in the Valley.

Aboriginal nations in the Hunter Valley

There were several Aboriginal nations in the Hunter Valley at the time of European arrival. The Awabakal people lived on the southern side of the Coquon (Hunter River) while the Wonnarua lived to north west and the Worimi to the north east.

map of Aboriginal people in the lower Hunter Valley
Aboriginal axe factory

An axe factory at Green Wattle Creek in the lower Paterson Valley. It contains hundreds of grinding and sharpening grooves.

European occupation of the Paterson River Valley

There were four phases of European occupation of the Paterson River Valley, each with increased impact on Aboriginal life and culture. The first phase involved minimal contact as Europeans explored the Hunter Valley, for example the 1801 survey of the Paterson River by Ensign Barrallier.[2]

In the second phase, starting in 1804, convict timber-cutters from the penal settlement at Newcastle were the main form of European contact with Aboriginal people in the Paterson area. The gangs operated along the Paterson River and established a camp at Old Banks. They had little impact on areas available to Aborigines for hunting or materials but may have impacted through sexual relations and the introduction of European diseases.

The third phase involved settlement of a few Europeans on the river at Patersons Plains (see overview to 1821). Given the low number of settlers and the small areas of land involved, this probably had little impact on the local Aboriginal people.

The fourth phase of European settlement of the Paterson Valley involved large-scale alienation of land from 1822 as individual settlers were granted up to several thousand acres each. By 1825 most of the prime alluvial land along the lower reaches of the Paterson River has been granted to European immigrants. This scale of settlement drastically reduced the hunting areas of the Wonnarua and Worimi, restricted their supply of game and materials, and further exposed them to European diseases against which they had little or no immunity.

Conflict and accommodation

Throughout the phases of Indigenous/European contact there were varying degrees of conflict and accommodation, although conflict in the Lower Hunter was sporadic rather than sustained. The intercultural exchanges were diverse, fluid and ambivalent — some involved violence but there was also cooperation, companionship and sharing of knowledge.

Decline in Aboriginal numbers

In the 1830s Aboriginal numbers in the Lower Hunter declined markedly, and mortalities in a smallpox epidemic from 1829 to 1831 may have exceeded 30 per cent of the Aboriginal population. After this epidemic Aborigines survived in numbers only in the Upper Hunter but not in the Lower Hunter area (which includes the Paterson River valley).


1. Attenbrow, Val. Sydney's Aboriginal Past - Investigating the Archaeological and Historical Records. UNSW Press, 2nd ed., 2010.

2. Barrallier surveyed what we now call the Hunter and Williams Rivers in mid 1801 and returned to survey the Paterson River in November 1801, see: Macqueen, Andy. The Life and Journeys of Barrallier 1773-1853. Self published, 1993.


Archer, Cameron. Chapter 3 (The Indigenous era) in "Social and Environmental Change as Determinants of Ecosystem Health: A Case Study of Social Ecological Systems in the Paterson Valley NSW Australia". Ph.D. thesis, University of Newcastle, 2007.

Attwood, Brian and SG Foster (eds). Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience. National Museum of Australia, 2003.

Laffan, Jennifer and Cameron Archer. Aboriginal Land Use at Tocal: The Wonnarua Story. CB Alexander Foundation, 2004.

Miller, J. Koori: A Will to Win. Angus and Robertson, 1985.

Rule, Margaret. "Relations Between the Aborigines and Settlers in Selected Areas of the Hunter Valley and in the Liverpool Plains, 1800-50". Hons. thesis, University of Newcastle, 1976.

Sokoloff, Boris. Aborigines in the Paterson Gresford Districts: Effects of Settlement. Paterson Historical Society, 2006.

Virtual Sourcebook for Aborginal Studies in the Hunter Region.

The Virtual Coquun - Hunter River Project.

Walsh, Brian. Chapter 5 (The silence of convict-indigenous relations at Tocal) in "Heartbreak and Hope, Deference and Defiance on the Yimmang: Tocal's convicts 1822-1840". Ph.D. thesis, University of Newcastle, 2007.

See also

An overview of settlement at Patersons Plains up to the end of 1821.