The Maria Massacre

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],
• Mr Samuel & Mrs Ann Sophia Denham of North Adelaide SA & five children: [Andrew [10], Anna [4], Fanny [8], Thomas [12], Walter [6],
• 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, and,
• Mr Alec Murray.
The nine crew were
• Captain William Ethrick Smith [master]
• 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].
There is some confusion over some of the names
• Strutt is sometimes called Sturt,
• the Greens are called Greenshield[s] with Mr Green being also called James, and,
• 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 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 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 months.]
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 site.
• 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
• 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]
Located by Dr. Penny's party on 10 Apr 1841
Three male and one female body under a large unusually shaped rock. [4 bodies]
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 1841.
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 Diggings].
Royal South Australian Almanack and General Directory for 1840.
JW Bull, Early experiences of colonial life in South Australia, [2 vols] Adelaide 1878.
Pat Button, A free passage to Paradise? Passenger lists of United Kingdom emigrants who applied for free passage to South Australia 1836-1840, Adelaide 1992.
JG Hastings, The history of the Coorong 1944.
EAD Opie, South Australian records prior to 1841, Adelaide 1917 [facsimilie ed 1981].
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, Adelaide 1986.
Murray Tonkin, Some adventures of Alexander Tolmer in colonial South Australia 1840-1856 Selected from his own reminiscences, SA 1985 Other material
Abbott Index 1836-ca1939 Index of BDM and obituaries published in various SA newspapers and books.

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