Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers should be aware that this blog post may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.
The Australian bush can be a place of both great beauty and great fear and a search on Trove can show that being lost in the bush was a common occurrence. Thousands of articles were printed in the papers dedicated to telling the stories of individuals who, through no fault of their own, became lost in the bush. They range from the very early years of Western Australia’s colonial history up until the first half of the 20th Century. Some stories had happy endings while others did not.
One of the earliest articles about a person being lost in the bush in Western Australia was printed in The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal on 22 March 1834. A soldier who was stationed at York became lost for six days and managed to survive by eating native shrubs and grasses and by drinking from the waterholes after the Aborigines had left them. A search party was dispatched from Perth to York but upon reaching their destination, they found that the soldier had already managed to find his way back to the barracks.
In April 1923 Doris Hamilton was staying in the Mt Barker district and was trying to get home with an armful of clothes when she happened to go the wrong way. Luckily for Doris she made it to Berinup homestead after 40 hours of being lost; still carrying all the clothes apart from one frock.
James Browning (known as Jim) lived in the Kondinin district and left the area several months before the article below was printed in January 1920. He was headed for Mt Ironcap to report a gold find but went missing along the way. Several search parties scoured the country side but all they found was his dead horse and tracks which always led back to where they started.
The search was abandoned due to the lack of water in summer but was resumed again in May later that year. By all appearances, he was not found.
Children becoming disoriented and lost happened frequently. In May 1883 a little boy from Wandering followed his mother out to a field but lost sight of her when she went a different direction home. He soon became lost and a search was conducted. It went on to the next day and through to evening but the child was not found until someone happened to spy him crouching behind a bush. He was so frightened that when his name was called, instead of responding, he reacted by hiding. It is perhaps this reaction which may have caused other missing children to go unfound.
On 16 July 1886, Charles Dickson and his wife left their property in Bullcreek for about half an hour. From the wording of the article, it would appear that they left their son (who was also named Charles Dickson and was nearly two years old) on his own. Unfortunately, when they came back they found their son had disappeared and a search was organised. There were some tracks within 100 yards of the house but apart from these it was assumed any others had been washed away by heavy rainfall. Sadly, the young boy was found dead about a week later and an inquest stated that the parents had not meant to leave him on his own; there had simply been confusion as to which parent was looking after him at the time. To read the inquest please click here: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3761525
Despite the inhospitable nature of some of the areas where disappearances occurred, search parties nevertheless went out to try and locate the missing person. As mentioned in the case of James Browning, sometimes the search had to be called off due to the heat and the missing person was assumed to have perished for want of food or water.
Matthew Barlow is noted to have disappeared from the Murchison district in October 1885 after he’d gone out to look for missing horses. It wasn’t until three years later in October 1888 that Constable Watson and an Aboriginal were riding through the area and chanced upon the body of a male who they believed to be Barlow.
In most articles where someone was reported missing and search parties established, the parties themselves nearly always included an Aboriginal tracker. Their knowledge of the bush was second to none and their tracking skills phenomenal. In most instances a party with an Aboriginal tracker would eventually come across the missing person.
Theodore James Watt was also known as Jimmy the Fiddler. He was an elderly man and a long time resident of Day Dawn (an old gold mining town southwest of Cue). On 7 January 1911 he was reported missing and Mounted Constable Miller and an Aboriginal tracker left to search for him. They found his tracks and followed them but sadly Jimmy had passed away and they soon came across his body.
An example of their remarkable skills was printed in specific detail in January 1835 and may have been one of the earliest occurrences of an Aboriginal utilising their tracking skills to help find a missing person. At this time, a child belonging to Mr Hall aged about five or six years old disappeared after being left on the beach by his brother. A search was initially made without success and the next day Mr Norcott, Corporal Blyth, Mr Smith of the police and Migo and Molly-dobin (Aboriginal trackers attached to the Mounted Police Corps) set out to find the child. They expected the search to take half an hour.
The party came across the boy’s tracks and began following them. The wind was blowing quite hard and eventually the tracks became imperceptible to all but Migo and Molly-dobin. They continued following them for four miles when they indicated that the boy had turned into the bush. Migo and Molly-dobin surmised that the child had most likely crawled on his hands and knees through the thick scrub.
Their progress was now very slow, in consequence of the thick bush, and the difficulty of perceiving the track on the loose sand, — but the acuteness of the natives, who are certainly most astonishingly gifted, led them through it, and in about an hour’s time they regained the beach, the boy having made a circuit inland of about 400 yards.
The tracks became clearer and showed that the boy appeared to have wandered in and out of the bush. After some distance he was again noted to have wandered into the thick scrub and though the tracks were difficult to discern, Migo and Molly-dobin persevered and every now and then were heard to shout “Me meyal geena” which meant “I see the foot-marks”.
Hours ticked away and miles of ground was covered but Migo and Molly-dobin remained focused on their task. The tracks led them back to the beach and again led them to the scrub. The boy’s hat was found and the group was cheered that perhaps they would soon find him. Back to the beach. Back to the scrub. Back to the beach. The little wanderer had led them all over the place. Over 22 miles of ground was covered and after 10 hours of constant searching with their eyes focused on the ground, Migo and Molly-dobin finally spotted the boy laying on the beach up ahead with the ocean lapping at his legs. Much to everyone’s relief, he was still alive. To read the full account please click: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article641115
- 1923 ‘Lost in the Bush.’, Great Southern Herald (Katanning, WA : 1901 – 1954), 28 April, p. 2, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146193061
- 1920 ‘IN SEARCH OF GOLD.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 16 January, p. 6 Edition: THIRD EDITION, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article84044564
- 1920 ‘PLAYING WITH DIPHTHERIA.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 20 May, p. 4 Edition: THIRD EDITION, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article79519230
- 1883 ‘LOST IN THE BUSH!.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 24 May, p. 3, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article78847236
- 1888 ‘LOST IN THE BUSH.’, Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), 27 October, p. 23, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32715565
- 1886 ‘LOST IN THE BUSH.’, Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), 24 July, p. 31, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32701595
- 1911 ‘Lost in the Bush.’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 22 January, p. 8, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article57707516
- 1834 ‘THE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 22 March, p. 254, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article641590
- 1835 ‘WRECK OF THE CUMBERLAND.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 3 January, p. 418, viewed 28 November, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article641115