Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

South Western Slopes - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

The South Western Slopes was traditionally Wiradjuri country, the largest Aboriginal language group in NSW. The Wiradjuri people travelled to the alpine regions of the South Eastern Highlands and Australian Alps bioregions for the annual summer feasts of bogong moths (HO and DUAP 1996).

Wiradjuri means 'people of the three rivers', these rivers being the Macquarie, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee (HO and DUAP 1996). For the Wiradjuri people, the three rivers were their livelihood and supplied a variety of consistent and abundant food provisions including shellfish and fish such as Murray cod (HO and DUAP 1996). In dry seasons the food from the rivers was supplemented with kangaroos and emus hunted for their meat, as well as fresh food gathered from the land between the rivers, including fruit, nuts, yam daisies, wattle seeds and orchid tubers (HO and DUAP 1996).

Evidence of the presence of the Wiradjuri people is common along the Macquarie and Lachlan Rivers in the northern half of the bioregion, but less so along the Murrumbidgee in the south, even though the Wiradjuri people lived on both sides of the Murrumbidgee (HO and DUAP 1996). Surviving carved trees are numerous in the northern part of the traditional Wiradjuri range, whereas there are only 3 of these surviving near the Murrumbidgee (HO and DUAP 1996). The reason for this is not clear, although the original presence of such carved trees is not necessarily indicated by their present-day distribution (HO and DUAP 1996).

The Wiradjuri people generally moved around in small groups, using the river flats, open land and waterways with some regularity through the seasons as indicated by debris that has accumulated in these areas (HO and DUAP 1996).

Clashes between the new European settlers and the local Aboriginal people were common around the Murrumbidgee and even further north, particularly between 1839 and 1841. These violent incidents have been termed the 'Wiradjuri wars' and involved removal of cattle and spearing of stockmen by the Wiradjuri people in response to killing of their people as well as loss of their fishing grounds and significant sites following invasion by the new settlers (HO and DUAP 1996).

Settlers' concerns about the dangers of the Aboriginal people subsided during the 1840s as did the independence of the Wiradjuri people. By the 1850s, although corroborees were still being held on the hills surrounding Mudgee, the culture of the local Aborigines had been vitiated by disease, alcohol and mass European influx during gold rush periods (HO and DUAP 1996).

Despite their tragic recent past, the identity of the Wiradjuri people of the South Western Slopes Bioregion remains robust to the present day, a high degree of marriage within the Wiradjuri community contributing to this strength of identity. Throughout the bioregion, the major Wiradjuri groups currently live in Condobolin, Peak Hill, Narrandera and Griffith, with significant populations at Wagga Wagga and Leeton and smaller groups at West Wyalong, Parkes, Forbes, Cootamundra and Young (HO and DUAP 1996).

European occupation

Charles Sturt and George Macleay observed the South Western Slopes Bioregion in 1829 and within 15 years pastoralists occupied most of the river frontages on the Murrumbidgee in the bioregion's south. Further north, John Oxley explored the region in 1817 and, soon after, pastoralists began to bring their cattle to the bioregion. By the 1820s, pastoralists were already making their mark on the landscape. On the southern bank of the Murrumbidgee, Peter Stuckey had introduced what were probably St Helena willows that grew along the river in competition with the native casuarinas and eucalypts (HO and DUAP 1996).

Stock were already grazing in the southeast of the bioregion in 1826 and settlement extended west along the Murrumbidgee, with emancipists such as Charles Tompson and George Best settling near what is now Wagga Wagga. As Murrumbidgee frontages were occupied, settlement began to spread to the river tributaries, expanding north and south from the Murrumbidgee.

As the traditional lands and lifestyles of the Aboriginal people were overtaken by Europeans, big pastoral properties developed around Mudgee and Rylstone, which became towns in 1837 and 1842 respectively. In the north of the bioregion, a similar pattern developed with the establishment of huge properties initially as cattle stations, with some stations changing to sheep not long after.

Cattle runs were established in Narrandera in 1832 and these were followed from 1840 by sheep stations (NSW NPWS 1991) such as Buckingbong station which was well watered by nearby swamps and creeks even in the drought years (HO and DUAP 1996). Wheat was grown in the area for use on the stations. Albury began as a sheep station in 1835 on both sides of the Murray River and merged soon after with the nearby Wodonga run on what is now the Victorian side of the river (NSW NPWS 1991).

The so-called 'Wiradjuri wars' led to the temporary departure of pastoralists from some runs in the area around 1839-40, so fearful were they of resistance by the local Aborigines determined to keep their land. However, most station owners returned later in the 1840s and sheep and cattle numbers grew.

A severe drought hit the Murrumbidgee area in 1850-51 just as the gold rushes began and, despite the drought, the people of the bioregion saw success. As the drought yielded and the population of the area increased with the gold rush, meat prices soared and cattle and sheep farmers benefited. Production of beef, which had been increased to cope with demand during the gold rush, slumped in the decades following, while sheep numbers increased five-fold around the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers up to the 1870s (HO & DUAP 1996). Increased stock numbers led to further occupation of land and to accommodate this ongoing development pastoralists cleared what was left of the uncleared land in the area, sinking wells, building dams and fencing the land as they went.

Gundagai was among the first towns to be settled in the area, developing in the early 1840s around the Gundagai run that was established in 1826. The town fell victim to a devastating flood in 1844 and was shifted to higher ground on the opposite (southern) bank of the Murrumbidgee soon after. By the 1850s Gundagai was the principal town in the south of the bioregion even after destruction from flooding in 1852 and 1853 and again in 1870, the town recovering successfully each time. Eventually Gundagai was overshadowed by Wagga Wagga as the main road south from Dubbo and Forbes to Albury by-passed Gundagai, passing through Wagga instead which had grown considerably, almost doubling in population in the late 1850s. Wagga's importance was also increased by a brief steamboat venture, increasing river traffic through the town in the 1870s.

Nearby Narrandera was gazetted as a town in 1863, growing from its importance as a road traffic centre and a base for a rapidly expanding timber industry, which relied on river transport until the railway took over in 1882. The railway also reached Albury in 1882 (NSW NPWS 1991). German settlers from SA had established vineyards there in the 1850s and other settlers from Vic were attracted to the region for small-scale farming in the 1860s (NSW NPWS 1991).

Although gold was discovered at Albury in the 1850s, a major gold rush did not occur until the 1880s. Other towns in the bioregion sprang up away from the major rivers: Junee as a link in the Goulburn to Albury railway, Young and Adelong with gold rushes in the 1850s and 1860s.

Gold was discovered at Adelong in the east of the bioregion in 1852, initiating a township that remained small until 1857. Eighty companies were mining at Adelong between 1857 and 1859 and although Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains caught the focus about this time, a new rush began in Adelong in 1872. Relics of a crushing plant and waterwheels are still evident at Adelong. In the 1900s, shaft mining was replaced by dredging for gold in the alluvial gravel of Adelong Creek, the environmental effects of which are still seen today. Not only did dredging disturb the waterways, the steam dredges required major felling of local box and stringybark timber to use for fuel (HO and DUAP 1996).

Further north, the town of Temora experienced a small gold rush in 1869 and Young, to its east, had a major gold rush before this from September 1860. Temora attracted diggers from Adelong and Kiandra, including many Chinese miners. The area was rich in gold and the mining population mushroomed from 1,500 in October to 3,000 a month later, and by April the following year Temora supported a massive population of 10,000 miners. The Chinese miners were confined to a small area to mine and were the target of brutal rioting later in 1861 (HO and DUAP 1996). As a result, the NSW Chinese Immigration Restriction Act was passed later that year and satisfied miners who had caused the riots against the Chinese moved further north to mine at Forbes in the north of the bioregion.

Dredging also began at Temora in 1900 in search of alluvial gold and although it met some success, it was all but finished in 1910. Copper mining, although rare in the bioregion, occurred in the 1870s at Snowball south of Gundagai, but lasted less than a decade before being reopened in 1895 when ore was sent north to Lithgow for treatment (HO and DUAP 1996).

Before the advent of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area at the turn of the century, fruit growing, especially cherries, was a successful enterprise around Young in the centre of the bioregion. Although cherries were planted in the region as early as 1847, the first commercial orchards were not a reality until they were planted by Nicole Jasprizza in 1878. Over time, more than 70 cherry orchards were established, and the market was more accessible when the railway reached Young in 1885. By 1933, Nicole Jasprizza was believed to have the largest cherry orchard in the world. Apples, grapes, pears, prunes, quinces, oranges and strawberries were also grown in the area, with Young apples rivalling cherries as the most lucrative crop.

Agriculture in the south of the bioregion made great improvements following the success of an experimental farm established near Wagga in 1892 by the state government. The farm tested strains of wheat and gave advice to farmers while encouraging the planting of new crops including maize, potatoes, grapes and other fruit. A series of dams and other water conservation innovations led to the inception of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area in the early 1900s.

Soon after, towns such as Griffith on the western border of the bioregion and Leeton in the adjoining Riverina Bioregion were planned by Walter Burley Griffin, the American architect who designed the nation's capital, Canberra. The town was built in 1916 with the intention that it would service a population of around 30,000, and although the town is growing rapidly even today, it has yet to reach this estimated population.

Italian miners arrived in Griffith in 1913 from Broken Hill, providing the area with a multicultural flavour that remains today. After World War I, migration from Italy was rapid and Italian families were able to buy farms cheaply after soldier settlement abated in the 1930s. By 1933, Italians owned about 10 per cent of the local fruit farms and almost 20 years on they owned almost half. In the last 30 years, the area around Griffith has developed a lucrative wine industry (HO and DUAP 1996).

West Wyalong near the centre of the bioregion is a significant location for gold fields (NSW NPWS 1991), with a new project, the Cowal Gold Project, undergoing exploration this year (NSW Department of Mineral Resources). Other basic industries are primary production, consisting of wheat and other cereals, sheep, wool and cattle and also tourism.

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Page last updated: 18 April 2016