Graham Jaunay © 1996
Of all the lonely graves in the Coorong area, probably the victims of
the Maria massacre are the most notorious but least remembered. The Maria,
a 136 ton wooden brig built in 1823 en route to Hobart Town from Adelaide
went ashore on Margaret Brook reef in late June 1840. The passengers and
crew managed to launch a boat and it would seem that all arrived safely
on shore. They were befriended by members of the local tribe, the Milmenrura
[known by the Europeans as the Salt Creek Tribe], who apparently negotiated
to take them east along the coast towards Encounter Bay - the nearest
settlement. While accounts vary, when the party reached the territorial
boundary at Little Dick Point, the aborigines would go no further. The
wreck survivors argued that they had negotiated to be taken all the way
to Adelaide. Despite the protestations, an exchange took place and the
so-called Needles Tribe took over escort duties. It would seem that the
refugees' clothes were coveted by some men of the clan although contemporary
reports have never made it clear which clan. The difficulties were seemingly
compounded by some individual crewmen attempting to entice sexual favours
from some aboriginal women without realising that this placed certain
traditional obligations on them. The first hand accounts, albeit taken
through a translator, indicated that the refugees' clothes were the motive
and no mention was made of sexual indiscretions. But then, the transcript
of the so-called trial reveals that this question was never put to the
accused. O'Halloran himself records [GRG 24/1: 1840/583] in a letter of
26 December 1840 that the aboriginals of the district had a pact whereby
they agreed to murder all Europeans they met with. Whatever the trigger,
the end result was the massacre.
When belated news reached Encounter Bay Whaling Station in the form of
rumours of a shipwreck, a party of five sailors, a policeman and three
local aboriginals led by William JS Pullen with Dr Penny travelled to
the location and located many aborigines dressed in items of European
clothing and eight dismembered bodies on the lake shore about 25 miles
[40 km] south of the Murray Mouth [SW of the present day town of Meningie].
The terrible news reached Adelaide on 25 July 1840 causing major consternation
and a special supplement to the Register was printed. At this stage Maria
had not been missed although she was well overdue at Hobart Town. A subsequent
punitive expedition aimed at inflicting the maximum amount of fear into
the natives and including Inspector Tolmer [later to gain fame for his
Gold Escorts] with Commissioner O'Halloran, was mounted. Their aim was
to punish the culprits by hanging three of the ring leaders. In the round
up of the guilty, three aboriginal men were killed and an unknown number
wounded trying to run away. A further two were tried by court martial
and hung on the spot with instructions that their bodies were to be left
hanging to rot on makeshift tree gibbets over the graves of the first
victims. A third guilty man managed to escape this fate by swimming across
the Coorong Reach after slipping away from his captors. This party also
found further bodies wedged in wombat holes. Over the next six months
bodies were found and given a burial. These graves were not permanently
marked and therefore their locations were soon lost. The closest one can
pinpoint the location comes from reports of where the killings took place.
The main site was known as The Yards or Fosters Bight and is located opposite
the present township of Meningie, twenty-five miles in from the Murray
Mouth. O'Halloran describes the location as opposite the first island
of the SE branch of Lake Alexandrina about five miles NNW of the lake
shore. Three other distinct locations which were discovered to be the
sites of murders indicate that the party broke up. From early accounts
it would seem that the passengers as a group made their way along the
land side of the Coorong towards the lakes while the sailors went inland.
None of the bodies found were thought to be from the crew and it is not
known whether they suffered the same fate or became lost in the bush.
The victims included the passengers
• Mrs William E Smith [the captain's wife],
The nine crew were
• Mr Samuel & Mrs Ann Sophia Denham of North Adelaide SA
& five children: [Andrew , Anna , Fanny , Thomas , Walter
• James Strutt [the Denham's servant],
• Mrs York & baby daughter,
• Mr & Mrs George Young Green,
• Mr Thomas & Mrs Kitty [née Vingoe] Daniel of Long Plains SA,
• Mr Alec Murray.
• Captain William Ethrick Smith [master]
There is some confusion over some of the names
• John Tegg [crewman],
• John Griffiths [crewman],
• John Durgan [crewman],
• James Biggins [crewman],
• John Cowley [crewman],
• Thomas Rea [crewman],
• George Leigh [ship's boy], and,
• James Parsons [cook].
• Strutt is sometimes called Sturt,
The paucity of pre-1840 records in South Australia makes it difficult
to piece togther biographies of the victims. The Maria was a coastal trader
and her crew were not South Australian.
• the Greens are called Greenshield[s] with Mr Green being also called
• a later newspaper account spells Leigh as Lee and Durgan as Dengan.
The above list comes from the custom house records in a letter to O'Halloran
in December 1840 and the names must be deemed to be the one's most likely
to be correct as all other sources seem to stem from this one.
The Denham family arrived in the colony on the Lady Emma in December 1837
and Samuel Denham soon established himself as a builder in Buxton Street,
North Adelaide although his trade was that of a bootmaker. The record
indicates that they arrived in Adelaide with seven children and since
their youngest, George Witherdell was born in Adelaide in 1838 we can
only speculate on the prior fate of three of their children. [A George
Whittington Denham was buried at Holy Trinity on 3 March 1840 aged 20
James William York and his wife arrived in South Australia in March 1839
on the Buckinghamshire. Although they had quickly established themselves
in Kensington, York died in April 1840 [James William York of Kensington
buried at Holy Trinity on 8 Apr 1840 aged 35 years] and Mrs York resolved
to resettle in Van Diemens Land.
The confusion with the name, Green, makes it difficult to find information
on this family. The Biographical Index of South Australians [BISA] names
the man killed on the Coorong as George Greenshields and elsewhere calls
him George Young Green and yet O'Halloran records finding a paper near
a male body on which was written James Greenshields 1839. The only other
family of this name at the time was Archibald Greenshields who arrived
with his family on the Recovery in September 1839. His third child born
in 1845 was named James. Could this child have been named after a massacred
uncle or cousin? Thomas Lipson of Port Adelaide records the family as
Green and this is maintained in the Abbott Index. A search of all the
usual records failed to locate this family.
Thomas Daniel a basket weaver of Long Plains and his wife Kitty had arrived
in the province on the Asia in July 1839. Their three children who arrived
with them had all perished in the few months after arrival and the Daniels
had resolved to seek a new life elsewhere. The latter half of 1839 saw
many deaths in the colony as the young, weak and older citizens succumbed
to diseases that were raging through the population at the time. The endemic
infectious illnesses cut swathes through the poorer emigrants who lacked
appropriate amenities to maintain good hygiene and left many a family
mourning more than one death.
While the exact locations of the victims graves are not known, it would
appear they were buried at four sites where they were found by various
parties as follows:-
Located and reburied in August by the initial Pullen party from Encounter
Bay 40 km from the Murray Mouth.
• A mass grave containing eight bodies thought to be Mr & Mrs Denham,
James Strutt, Mrs York and four of the Denham children. These being found
as a woman's body stripped of most flesh lying on the sand, a shallow
grave containing dismembered bodies of two men, a young woman and a child
about 10 years of age, nearby two male children aged about 10 and 15 and
a 10 year old fair haired female a short distance away. [8 bodies]
Located by the Tolmer party on mainland side of Coorong SE of previous
• A man and a woman in a wombat hole found 2 Sep 1840 [2 bodies]
Located by the Captain Nixon expedition off South arm of Lake Albert on
22 Nov 1840.
• A man found in a wombat hole
Located by Dr. Penny's party on 10 Apr 1841
• A 12-14 year old fair haired boy found in a wombat hole [a Denham child
• An upper torso of a man with jet black hair found in a wombat hole
• A woman with long brown hair and an ear ring in left ear found in a
wombat hole. [4 bodies]
Three male and one female body under a large unusually shaped rock. [4
This tally of eighteen bodies is in need of explanation. According to
first hand accounts by O'Halloran and one of his subordinates, Thompson,
the two additional bodies were from a previous encounter. Two whalers
or sealers [Roach and Delve] were murdered about a year before when their
boat was cast ashore and their bodies were discovered and included in
the count. The discrepancy as to how many were on the Maria is difficult
to resolve, the bodies discovered some time after the event were incomplete
due to the severe beatings, dismembering, decomposition and possible mauling
by dingos. The York baby is not listed in the inventory of twenty-four
passengers issued by the Port Adelaide Customs House in December 1840
and nor is it listed in the body count! One has to question accounts which
mention a York baby. Tolmer's account of the expeditions are difficult
to follow in that he seems to revisit incidents and repeat accounts within
his dialogue in such a way that the reader has to be careful with tallying
his reports of bodies as on a casual reading the total comes to twenty-eight!
SA State Records:
GRG 24/1:1840/499, 511, 583: Colonial Secretary's Correspondence.
GRG 5/82: Major TS O'Halloran [Commissioner of Police] Journal of his
punitive expedition to Encounter Bay and Rufus River August 1840 & June
GRG 5/83: Major TS O'Halloran [Commissioner of Police] Papers relating
to punitive expeditions 1840 to 1842.
GRG 56/68/20: Index to deaths prior to compulsory registration 1802-1842.
Register 1 Aug 1840 p6b and special supplement.
Register 15 Aug 1840 p6a.
Register 22 Aug 1840 p5c.
Register 12 Sep 1840 p2 [all] p3a [largely a reprint of material also
in GRG 5/82].
Register 24 Apr 1841.
Register 20 Feb 1878 p5g [Reflections of a septuagenarian. Chpt XXXI
Two wrecks - the Fanny & the Maria].
Register 7 Sep 1906 p44 [A pioneer's story. The Coorong & the Victorian
Royal South Australian Almanack and General Directory for 1840.
JW Bull, Early experiences of colonial life in South Australia, [2 vols]
Pat Button, A free passage to Paradise? Passenger lists of United Kingdom
emigrants who applied for free passage to South Australia 1836-1840, Adelaide
JG Hastings, The history of the Coorong 1944.
EAD Opie, South Australian records prior to 1841, Adelaide 1917 [facsimilie
Alan Pope, Resistance and retaliation Aboriginal-European relations
in early colonial South Australia, Lutheran Publishing, Adelaide, 1989.
Jill Statton [ed], Biographical index of South Australians 1836-1885,
Murray Tonkin, Some adventures of Alexander Tolmer in colonial South
Australia 1840-1856 Selected from his own reminiscences, SA 1985
Abbott Index 1836-ca1939 Index of BDM and obituaries published in
various SA newspapers and books.