Getting Away with Murder: Who Was Really Responsible for the Deaths of Hugh and Donald Macquarie?

By Peter Bell and Lynley Wallis

The remote nature of colonial Qld meant it was possible not to see another human being for weeks, if not months. This isolation was one reason why squatters sometimes had no qualms about dispensing illegal “colonial justice” to Aboriginal people (although after the Myall Creek trials of 1838 squatters had become much more circumspect about such activities).

But it was not just crimes against Aboriginal people that could be committed with relative impunity by settlers – given human nature, it was just as likely that crimes against other settlers would occur. And, in such cases, Aboriginal people were convenient scapegoats against whom to point the finger of blame. The deaths of the brothers Hugh and Donald Macquarie in far north Qld in 1877 might be one such case.

The five foot six, balding Hugh and his dark complexioned younger brother Donald had come to Qld from their home in Tasmania, hoping to make their fortune. As well as trying their hands at gold mining, Hugh was a crack shearer, though that line of work shriveled up in the summer months. Hugh had been granted a Carrier’s Licence on 14 July 1874 in the District of Cooktown, and the brothers thereafter worked transporting goods between Cooktown and the Palmer Goldfield. By all accounts they were doing quite well – their pack team was worth more than £1000 and Hugh also had a share in a gold mine on the Homeward Bound reef on the Hodgkinson field.

Hugh Macquarie’s Carrier Licence from 1874 (QSA2724065 MF3415 JUS N52 Inquest 47 of 1877 Donald Macquarie Hugh Macquarie).


After another presumably successful packing trip, the brothers left Edwardstown (also known as Maytown) on the Palmer River on the morning of 27 January 1877. Owing to the wet weather, they chose to travel along the Hell’s Gate Track (a travel route that had a reputation as being notoriously dangerous as the scene of many attacks by Aboriginal people against travellers); that morning was the last time either was ever seen.

Two days later, another packer – John Rogan* – encountered two of Hugh and Donald’s horses dead along the track; also strewn about were numerous letters and papers belonging to Hugh. But, although their belongings were scattered, there was no obvious sign of either Hugh or Donald.

The package of letters found near the remains of the horses (of one only the shin bones and entrails were left) gives us more of an insight into the lives of Donald and Hugh than we have of many who died on the colonial frontier. These sometimes delightfully personal accounts lead one to suspect that Hugh might have been a hit with the ladies.

One letter addressed to Hugh dated 12 June 1876 from their cousin Effie, living in Battery Point in Hobart, noted:

We have left the domain and are living at Battery Point as above where (Polly Torley) sang so sweetly to you a few nights before you went away. Do you remember it? I remember making a third party at the concert that night. Poor Polly did not get a grand swell as she expected she married a common plasterer. The last I heard of her she had 2 little chinks and took in washing. I think of that & weep. You hard hearted man.

Another to Hugh, dated 26 May 1876 from an unnamed friend, noted mysteriously:

Mrs Stuart gave birth to a little daughter on the 11thMay and are both quite well. Now if it had been a son Mrs Stuart was to have called him Hugh after your self but she told me that I was not to tell you any thing about it when you was in Sydney but as it is a daughter she says that she has got a little wife for you if you want one.

There was also an unlabelled photograph of a man amongst the letter, shown below. And, as the man in the photo does not accord with the physical description of Hugh himself (and it would be maybe unusual for someone to carry around a photograph of themselves), perhaps it is of his brother Donald.

Unlabelled photograph found amongst Hugh Macquarie’s letters (QSA2724065 MF3415 JUS N52 Inquest 47 of 1877 Donald Macquarie Hugh Macquarie).


After searching for the brothers without success, Rogan rode on to the Laura River, coming across another six horses belonging to the brothers along the way. He herded them up, searching fruitlessly again for the men. Supposedly then from the Normanby River on 30 January 1877 Rogan wrote to Inspector Thomas Clohesy in Cooktown, reporting his discoveries. We say ‘supposedly’ because it seems more likely that Rogan’s “letter” was in fact a signed statement made to Clohesy upon his arrival at the police station in Cooktown, since there was no way for a letter to reach Cooktown before Rogan himself did and the document was not in his hand writing.

Portrait of Inspector Thomas Clohesy (from the James Grant Pattison Collection).

At the subsequent inquest, Inspector Clohesy reported having received Rogan’s letter on 31 January 1877. He then sent Senior Constable Walter Pickering with Constable Bryan and two Aboriginal troopers to investigate. This small group arrived at the Hell’s Gate Track location four days later, and searched for five days, being joined in their endeavors on 6 February 1877 by Sub-Inspector Stanhope O’Connor and his detachment of Aboriginal troopers from Boralga.

Walter Pickering, courtesy of (

An inquest was subsequently held on 22 February 1877, at which Pickering, but not O’Connor**, appeared. Giving evidence to Alpin Cameron Esq., Pickering reported having found many items belonging to Hugh (nothing identifying Donald was recovered) at and about the scene. Beyond the letters and documents, he also described an empty watch pouch, a set of gold scales and weights and an empty chamois gold bag. The presence of these things is not by themselves surprising – it is likely that the brothers sold their goods for gold, as cash was in short supply on the Palmer goldfield. The empty nature of the gold pouch is a little unusual: having had a successful trip, it could be expected that the pouch would contain at least some gold. And at the inquest, Rogan took care to specifically mention that “I got no money” from amongst the items strewn about.

Suggestions that the men had met with foul play at the hands of Aboriginal people were quickly bandied about in the local newspapers that carried reports of the deaths – even before the inquest had been held – with the Queenslander of 17 February 1877 reporting that “…the men were murdered and roasted” and suggesting that “This horrible outrage will, of course, provoke a bitter retaliation, and scores of blacks will pay the penalty of death for the murder of the brothers”. Newspapers continued to baselessly place the blame on Aboriginal people up until at least the 1940s (e.g. Cairns Post, 25 September 1940, p8; Cairns Post, 9 February 1946, p7).

Interestingly, the Coroner himself made no formal finding as to the cause of death.  Obviously he wasn’t convinced by the evidence the police presented that it was an Aboriginal attack; instead he simply adjourned the inquest without making a finding.

That the brothers had met with a violent end was not in dispute. This was based on the presence of blood spots and scraps of clothing (some of which were bloodstained). The evidence to suggest that Aboriginal people had been responsible were some spears observed by Pickering near the scene  (but not produced at the inquest, and that certainly that had not been sticking out of the dead horses) and the fires of Aboriginal people about a mile away, near which were found pieces of hair, skin and bones.

The hair had allegedly been shown by Pickering to Dr Helmuth Axel Fredrich Bernhard Kortüm (Korteum), a doctor resident in Cooktown, who was himself a JP and who often administered treatment to settlers who had suffered spear wounds or gashes in attacks by Aboriginal people. According to Pickering, Korteum pronounced the hair as being human, though Korteum himself did not give a statement at the inquest. The interpretation of the burnt skin as being human appears to have been made by Pickering alone and is hardly convincing. No proclamation as to whether the bones were human or otherwise appears to have been made by Pickering, Korteum or anyone else.

Inexplicably, no human teeth were recovered with the other things found in the remnants of the fire. Forensic science makes it clear that it would be extremely unusual for a normal fire to entirely destroy a human body; even commercial crematoriums (that burn at a much higher temperature than a normal fire) do not reduce a human body to ash, instead leaving small fragments of bone and teeth (Byers 2002). And under less than ideal cremation conditions, which surely a fire lit by Aboriginal people qualifies as, one would expect to find teeth and many charred and deformed, but still recognisably human, bones.

The absence of the bodies of Hugh and Donald is perhaps the strongest suggestion that the men met with foul play at the hands of non-Indigenous people. More often than not, in other instances of frontier violence where Aboriginal people were involved, they would leave the bodies of their European victims where they fell. Sometimes they also mutilated them in ways that were clearly designed to send a message to those who found them. In yet other cases, they dragged their victims to an adjacent waterhole and threw them in, or buried them in a shallow grave or covered them in some other way. The bodies of Hugh and Donald, however, were never found, despite the best efforts of the officers and troopers who searched for five days.

Further, the practice of burning bodies seems to be almost, without exception, a peculiarly non-Indigenous trait, usually associated with attempts to hide the evidence of a murder, such as in the case of the Irvinebank murders***.

And what might we make of the fact that there was a lot of evidence at the scene identifying Hugh and nothing identifying Donald? If they both died at the scene, why were Hugh’s belongings left and Donald’s taken away? Or did Donald escape the scene, only to be killed somewhere else which the police didn’t find? Or should we regard Donald as a suspect?

At the very least, the fact that no money or gold was found amongst the items strewn about the scene, coupled with the absence of the bodies, suggests that perhaps Aboriginal people were just a convenient scapegoat that allowed some non-Indigenous person or persons after financial gain to literally get away with murder.


* It might be relevant to note here that Rogan had originally planned to travel with the Macquaries (hence his being familiar with the men, their horses and the route they were travelling) but, having apparently lost his horses at the last minute, Rogan was delayed and started out some time later.

** Certainly, the omission of any testimony by Stanhope O’Connor is puzzling. And while Aboriginal people were not legally permitted to give evidence at that time in Qld, it is hard to fathom that such experienced trackers as the troopers who investigated the scene could not locate the bodies. It suggests that some one— or some ones — went to extraordinary lengths to ensure they would not be found. This does not accord with the treatment of most Aboriginal attack victims. One wonders also why O’Connor was never asked specifically about what his troopers had ascertained had happened at the scene.

***In this instance the burning of the bodies was done by Aboriginal troopers who were, in all likelihood, acting under the orders of their non-Indigenous Sub-Inspector, William Nichols.


Bell, P. 1982 What happened to the Macquarie brothers? Cairns Historical Society Bulletin276.

Bell, P. 1983 What happened to the Macquarie brothers? (cont.). Cairns Historical Society Bulletin277.

Byers, S.N. 2002 Introduction to Forensic Anthropology: A Textbook. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

QSA2724065 MF3415 JUS N52 Inquest 47 of 1877 Donald Macquarie Hugh Macquarie.

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