Riverina Pioneers

W.M. Sherrie

The Sydney Morning Herald

3 April 1923

Plus letters sparked by the article.

The recent death, at the age of 92, of Mr. John Francis Huon Mitchell, of Ravenswood (Vic), recalls an early pioneering story possessing a romantic interest unique in the history of Australia.

Mr. Mitchell's grandfather was one of the Bourbons of France, and instead of becoming an Australian pioneer settler he might have become King of France - if it had not been for the violent alteration wrought in the course of European history by the Revolution.

There were four brothers in the Mitchell family, and they all "went on the land" in the days when the only other occupants were chiefly aborigines. Their mother was born near Parramatta in 1797 the first free white woman born in Australia.

She was the daughter of a gentleman known at that time as Louis Huon. His real name was Gabriel Louis Marie Huon de Kerilleau, but his patrician descent and his relationship with the Royal Family of France had been kept such a close secret that even members of his own family had no knowledge of it until after his death.

On the fall of the Bourbons Napoleon saw to it that as many as possible of the family were got out of the way. Numbers of them fled to England.

Among these were Huon and his young wife. In England Mr. Huon enlisted as a private, but, although the secret of his family history had been well kept, his class was, so obvious that those in authority were not long in recognising that he was a personality of some importance.

In due course he arrived in Sydney with MacArthur's second fleet, and was granted his discharge soon after arrival. He was also presented with an area of land, and he subsequently settled in the Shoalhaven district, and devoted himself to the raising of sheep.

In that then wild enough region he and his wife founded a family whose history is largely the history of pioneer pastoral enterprise, adventure and development in New South Wales, and more particularly in Riverina.

When an old man this scion of French Royalty disappeared in a mysterious manner.

He had gone to Goulburn on business, and was known to have set out on his homeward journey. But he was never seen again.

The whole of the country in that region was searched, but no trace could be found of the missing man.

Much of the country was wild and rough in those days, and it was surmised that the old man had lost his way and had perished.

Nothing was ever heard of him afterwards, and he seemed to have vanished just as absolutely as if he had been engulfed by the earth.

Mr. Huon's only daughter married Captain Mitchell, a retired officer of the British army.

On the death of her husband, Mrs. Mitchell look her family to the Hume River, as the Murray was then known, some of her relatives having already taken up land in that district.

They had gone there a few years after the Murray was discovered by Hamilton Hume (to whom this lady was related) in 1824.

Mrs. Mitchell reached the Murray in 1838, and her four sons became pioneer settlers there. The last of this stalwart family was Mr. J. F. H. Mitchell.

Mr. James Mitchell acquired that well-known Riverina property, Tabletop, a few miles from Albury; Mr. Thomas Mitchell. Bringenbrong, on the Upper Murray; Mr. Edward Mitchell, Fairlight, in the Holbrook district; and Mr. J. F. H. Mitchell, Hawksview, which is on the river not far from Albury.

Mr. Thomas Mitchell and his sons became noted breeders of cattle and horses.

It was at Bringenbrong that some of the celebrated Australian racehorses were bred including Trafalgar, Patrobas (Melbourne Derby and Cup winner), and Munderah. All the Mitchell family were famed for their sympathetic attitude towards the blacks.

In some measure, no doubt, this attitude was traceable to the basic fact that, they possessed an intimate knowledge of the aborigines and their habits and language.

The first property held by the Mitchell family was Mungabareena, on the Murray.

This station originally embraced the area upon which now stands the town of Albury.

It was first taken up by Mr. Chas. Ebden, of Victoria, but was purchased (in 1336) by Mr. Charles Huon, who presented it to his sister, the widow of Captain Mitchell.

Those stalwart Mitchell men were the first white boys seen on the Murray, and in their early years they were brought into close association with the great Woradgery tribe of blacks, which roamed the north-east of Victoria and the spacious country lying between the Murray and the Murrumbidgee.

Mungabareena was one of the head-centres of the blacks of this tribe, and the white boys soon made friends with them and often went hunting and fishing with the members.

In this association they acquired a considerable knowledge of the Woradgery blacks, their character, and their tribal rites.

They also learnt to speak the tongue of the tribe with some fluency. In the course of these expeditions with the blacks the white boys learnt to appreciate their good qualities, and eventually the remnant of the great tribe was given a home on Bringenbrong Station, which had in the meantime been acquired by tho eldest of them, Mr. Thomas Mitchell.

On this fine cattle station the blacks were given protection, care, and comfort, until the tribe had become extinct.

Many of the words of this aborigines tribe have in a sense since become incorporated in our language, as, for instance, words such as billabong, bungil (grass), yabba yabba (or great talker), curajong, dingo, boobook, gang-gang, g'naroo, wombat, etc.

Mr. John Mitchell compiled a modest dictionary of the Woradgery tongue, which he published at the request of friends in 1904. In this booklet he also gave some account of his experiences with the wild blacks, and incidentally described a "buckeening" raid.

This was the adventure most dreaded by the blacks, as it consisted of a night attack by another tribe, near or remote, for a cannibalistic purpose.

It anyone died no member of the tribe would believe that the cause was natural. In such an event the old men would meet in conference with the object of trying to find out the tribe which caused the death.

These conferences would depute the great man of the tribe the "crargee" or doctor, to ascertain the offending tribe.

A passing cloud, distant smoke, the flight of a bird - any of those things would serve the "wise man" of the tribe as an indication of the guilty persons.

When, upon this "evidence," he had decided that a certain tribe had been responsible for the death a party of warriors, arrayed in all their war paint, would set forth to make reprisals.

Mr. Mitchell described a buckeening raid, which he had witnessed on the Murray 70 years ago, the victims being a part of the Woradgery tribe.

Those blacks were camped near the homestead at Thurgoona, and were assisting with the wool-washing then being carried on. At 4 a.m., when the local blacks were in deepest sleep, the enemy came upon them without warning.

Men were speared as they slept, gunyahs were thrown down upon gins and children, and finally the raiders seized and carried off a lad about nine years of age.

The boy was taken a considerable distance and strangled with a running noose made from twisted opossum hair.

The remainder of the Woradgeries, on learning what had happened were soon in pursuit of the raiders, and in due course came to a spot where it was evident that they had held a cannibalistic feast.

One of the primary objects of a "buckeen," it would appear, was to obtain the fat of the person carried off. The blacks had a superstition that if they anointed their bodies with the "gouri," or fat, of the victim they would have his vital strength of body added to their own.

One of the French emigre's grandsons (Mr. William Huon) took up Wodonga Station, on the Victorian side of the Murray. This was the first station acquired on that side of the river.

Mr. Huon's second wife (who survives him, and is at present residing with her family in Melbourne) was a daughter of Rawdon Hume, brother of the famous explorer, and a sister of the Huons married Mr. James Mitchell, who died some years ago at the age of 70.

Thus three families associated with the early pioneering days and adventures, including the discovery of the Murray, were all closely connected either by blood or marriage.

To look at, the Huons and the Mitchells were all typical Australian bushmen - straight, tall, and muscular.

The late Mr. John Mitchell was about 6ft 4in in height, and remained erect and active to the time of his death.

Like the majority of those who have spent many years in the spacious silent places, he and his brothers were always animated by a genuine love of the bush and of wild life.

They (like the Huons and the Humes and others whose names are associated with pioneer settlement) belonged to the types of men and women whose invincible spirit impelled them to go into unknown and unmapped regions to subdue the wilderness, with cheerful disregard of the perils, the discomforts, and the hardships involved in the daily life of that period.

These pioneers were men possessed of big hearts, as well as big frames and abundant energy, and they literally "blazed the trail" for the people who followed them.

Mr. John Mitchell was born only seven years after Hamilton Hume and Hovell crossed the Murray, and he was the last human link between the days of the powerful aboriginal tribes and their life and the era of the aeroplane and wireless telegraphy.

Riverina Pioneers

The Sydney Morning Herald

14 April 1923

Sir,-The interesting article by W. M. Sherrie on the "Riverina Pioneers," which appeared in your issue of the 3rd inst., reminded me that about the middle of the winter of 1885, I had the privilege of a rather long conversation with Mrs. Elizabeth Mitchell, then aged 88 years.

She was quite sprightly, and though for a few years she had found it necessary to keep her bed during a few weeks of the coldest part of the winter, all her faculties were quite clear, and she was as cheerful as any young person could be.

This was the more remarkable when one considers the strenuous life she must have lived, with its frequent real hardships inseparable from bush-life in the early days.

When talking with her no one could have imagined that the end was so near, but that very evening she passed away in her sleep, to the great regret of her numerous family and circle of friends.

I see that Mr. Sherrie claims that Mrs. Mitchell was the "first free white woman born in Australia."

I would be glad if he could give his authority for this.

He also states that her father fled from France with his young wife, which hardly tallies with the fact that his marriage to Miss Louisa le Sage took place at Parramatta some time after his arrival in the colony.

Mr. Sherrie is also wrong in stating that William Huon took up the Wodonga Run.

He was only 7 or possibly 8 years old at the time, and the run was formed by Charles Huon for his Uncle Paul, William's father, in 1836. William did not take charge till 1846.

Will Mr. Sherrie also show the relationship between the Huons and the Humes? It being nearly 50 years since I first became acquainted with the Huon family, I may mention that the first alliance with the Humes that I have a note of was when in the late Seventies William Huon took as his second wife Miss Hume, as Mr. Sherrie mentions.

I am, etc., Arthur Andrews. 78 Murdoch St., Watersleigh.

Riverina Pioneers

The Sydney Morning Herald

21 April 1923


The article entitled "Riverina Pioneers" in your issue of the 3rd inst. was one of the most Interesting which has appeared in the "Herald" for some time.

If W. M. Sherrie had written the whole article on Mrs. Elizabeth Mitchell alone, it would not have been one word too much.

Our history can show no more courageous and heroic women than those who, like Mrs. Mitchell of the Upper Murray, ventured southwards hundreds of miles heyond the settlements, in the 'thirties and 'forties.

They are, to my mind, even more courageous than those splendid women who in yet earlier days went to Parramatta, Hawkesbury, and Camden. These were within coo-ee of the military nearly always, but those who went south seldom saw even a mounted trooper.

The romance of the Huon-Mitchell family, as written by W. M. Sherrie, should prove the basis of a splendid romantic novel by one of our writers.

But Mr. Sherrie's account was an article, not a novel; it was intended to be fact rather than fiction.

Yet Mr. Sherrie's article has so added to fact that it will be a woeful pitfall to future historians, and even, to future generations of the Mitchell family.

The suppositions of one generation are often looked upon as facts by another. It is so easy for one generation to add a little to the suppositions of a previous one.

If future generations of the Mitchell family believe the statements in Mr. Sherrie's article they may make certain, claims, and bring upon themselves the ridicule and ignominy which felt upon the English family of Mullens when they claimed to be the Des Moulins.

For the sake of historical accuracy, I must query some of W. M. Sherrie's statements.

First then, the article states that G. M. L. Huon was one of the Bourbons of France, and "might have been King of France."

Huon never claimed to be other than he was a private In the N.S.W. corps, a tutor to the Macarthurs of Camden, a schoolmaster at Parramatta, and an agriculturalist at Bungonia.

The first inkling that the family had that Papa Huon was other than he seemed was found in a document discovered among his papers after his strange disappearance.

A copy of the translation of this is among my papers. This shows that an annuity of 200 a year was set aside for Squire Gabrielle Marie Louis Huon, of Uxilleau (? Kerilleau), infant son of the late Squire Jean Francois Huon, Lord of Uxilleau.

The gift was from the widow of John Rene Huon, Kt. Lord, Count of Les Queres, and is dated 1787. This shows that he was highly connected in France.

Later it was found that the Huons were a member of the old nobility of Brittany, the Penmarch and Le Resques being the older branches, that of Kerilleau the youngest.

Would Mr. Sherrie kindly give the genealogical details showing the relationship of the Huons with the reigning branch of the Bourbon family, and also show the extinction of all branches of the Bourbon family and the two older branches of the Huons?

A rather difficult task, as I understand from copies of the Mitchell papers, that those two branches were still extant prior to the great war.

Secondly, the article says that Huon fled to England because of Napoleon.

Now, every school boy knows that Napoleon did not even come to the fore till the capture of Toulon, in July, 1793, which was just three years after Huon arrived in New South Wales with Lieutenant M'Arthur and the New South Wales Corps in June, 1790 (vide Hist. Records).

Indeed, Huon must have left France before the French revolution, because the New South Wales Corps was ready in September, 1789, and embarked immediately afterwards (Hist, Records), and that was three years before the fall of the French monarchy, on August 10, 1792 (vide Rose's "Cent, of Cont. Hist.").

Thirdly, Mr. W. M. Sherrie says that Huon was accompanied by a young wife when he fled to England.

Was there such a wife? If so, what happened to her?

She certainly was not the mother of Monsieur Huon's Australian born children. The Parramatta Church registers stated that the mother of Elizabeth Huon, the ancestress of the Mitchells, was Louisa le Sage, the date being June 6, 1797, and M. Huon was married to Louisa de Sage by old Parson Marsden, at Parramatta. My notes, unfortunately, give no details of the marriage.

Fourthly, Mr. Sherrie states that Mrs. Mitchell was related to Hamilton Hume. She was nothing of the sort.

By a strange coincidence the entry of her birth occurs immediately under that of Hume's. Her daughter, Emma Mitchell, married Hume's brother, Francis R. Hume.

That connects the families by marriage, but in no way relates Mrs. Mitchell to the explorer himself; and, lastly, Mr. Sherrie claims that Elizabeth (born at Parramatta, June 6, 1797), was the first freeborn Australian woman.

As Elizabeth was born nine years after the establishment of the colony, and as the re- cords show that there were a number of married couples among the officers, privates, and others, all of whom were "free," it seems hardly possible that this claim can be substantiated. Surely there were other free white girl babies horn before 1797.

Mrs. Marsden's first baby, Ann, was born just outside the Heads, on March 2, 1791, so that her second daughter, Elizabeth, was probably born before Elizabeth Mitchell.

It would be interesting if the Historical Society would settle this point, as I have seen other claimants to this honour.

I hope to read many more historical articles written by W. M. Sherrie. We have not nearly enough of such articles, but their value will be greatly enhanced by a strict adherence to accuracy.

Now that the historical sense is awakening amongst our people, and our State records, family, papers, and even church registers are becoming available to genuine searchers, it behoves all writers of historical matter to spend some little time in verifying data supplied by interested families.

I have myself fallen into the same kind of pitfall, and find that the weary hours spent searching through church registers or the files of old-time newspapers are almost always well repaid.

Mary E. J. Yeo, Member Royal Aust. Historical Society. Yass, April 10.

Riverina Pioneers

The Sydney Morning Herald

23 April 1923


Referring to the relationship between the Huons and the Humes, Dr. Andrews says, "the first alliance with the Humes that I have a note of was when late in the 'seventies William Huon took as his second wife Miss Hume."

This Miss Hume was a granddaughter of Rawdon Hume, brother of Hamilton Hume, the great explorer.

But Rawdon Hume had married Emma Mitchell (sister of John F.H. and James Mitchell), whose mother was a Huon.

The statement that the founder of the Huon family (Louis Huon de Kerilleau) brought his young wife with him to Australia was based on information derived from members of the family.

In the short history of the Tabletop Estate, page 885 of Australia Unlimited, I find the following reference to this question:- "Among the fugitives from France at this time was Gabriel Louis Huon de Kerilleau, a member of the French aristocracy, and his young wife, who sought refuge In England, and eventually came to Australia with Captain Mac Arthur's second fleet."

This Information, I take it, was supplied to the Editor of "Australia Unlimited" by the Mitchell family.

I was in error in stating that William Huon was in possession of Wodonga Station as far back as 1836.

The point had no importance beyond showing that the Huons were the first people to take up pastoral country on the Victorian side of the Murray, and, in any case, the property was taken up for Mr. William Huon's father, as Dr. Andrew says.

I am, etc., W. M. Sherrie.