Site icon Archaeology on the Frontier

Nervous Nation

By Heather Burke, Ray Kerkhove, Lynley A. Wallis, Cathy Keys and Bryce Barker

In a previous post we detailed the results of a desk top survey into the range and nature of potentially fortified domestic structures (houses, huts, outbuildings) across Queensland.

Reliable, first-hand written accounts of such building were rare, although not entirely absent, suggesting that there was a real likelihood that at least some structures were fortified. Most accounts, however, were reminiscences told many decades later by descendants of the original owners/builders or attributed to even more generic and vague sources. Many such third-hand (or even further removed) mentions of fortified domestic buildings on the Queensland frontier can therefore only be “taken with a grain of salt”.

In this post we look at the repercussions of such “hindsight accounts”, and how this helped to construct a particular settler colonial narrative of the Queensland frontier.

Although all of the 97 potentially fortified structures in our study were built between the 1840s and the 1890s, the stories relating to them were variously published between 1851 and 2019. The majority of these accounts clustered between the 1910s and the 1950s. This means that the gap between the construction of a building and the telling of a fortification story about it ranges from no delay at all to one of over a century.

Publication dates for accounts of potentially fortified structures

Fortification narratives began notably to rise in the first decade of the 1900s. As much of Queensland was settled during the 1840s–1870s, this is probably because, by then, many of the original hut builders were in old-age, with enough time (and suitable public interest) to offer a fuller account of their lives. By this point their experiences were somewhat unusual and considered intriguing, as the conditions they lived through were no longer normative. Other spikes in the popularity of such stories are visible in the 1920s and 30s, and again in the 1950s. After largely disappearing in the 1960s fortification narratives begin a resurgence in the 1970s and 80s, rising still further in the 2000s.

The way that stories of the pioneers were cast, and the timing of them, reflects a range of political changes in wider Australian society over the last century and a half.

Earlier evocations of the frontier imagined a space rife with danger, in which Aboriginal people invaded otherwise calm European territory to wreak havoc and mayhem. The image “Besieged by Blacks”, published in the Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil on the 21 March 1874, shows this as the ultimate moment in settler defence: a man defending his hut and family while his wife and children cower behind him.

“Besieged by Blacks””, Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, 21 March 1874:215

Similarly, John Farrell’s poem “The Last Bullet”, published some 30 years later in 1901, imagined a mirror moment—a man who uses his last bullet on his wife just before help arrives to his besieged hut.

This specific version of the frontier—a potentially hostile place, where violence stemmed solely from the actions of Aboriginal people and was therefore carried into on the otherwise ordered and innocent spaces of European domestic life—dominated for many decades.

Between 1919 and 1923 Fox’s three volume History of Queensland took the notion of a dangerous frontier and canonised it as part of the classic nostalgic pioneer story. Constructed from interviews with hundreds of multi-generational pastoral families, Fox’s epic described a frontier that was made up of repeated elements: the ever-present threat of hostile Aboriginal people, the perils of environment, climate and distance, the values of perseverance and endurance, and the ultimate pioneer goal of ‘building up … a home for himself and future generations of his name—and by the service rendered to the nation in the opening up of the country’ (Fox 1919:308-309). By the time Fox recorded them, many of these stories were being told by members of the second generation and so had already passed into family legend. The frequency of repetition of this tale throughout the three volumes of Fox’s history reveals the emergence of a narrative that became common across most of the 20th century.

“Courage”, Western Mail 8 May 1952:3

It is probably not coincidental that accounts of fortified domestic structures peaked in the decades following Federation, as well as through both World Wars, when the newly minted Australian nation was explicitly engaged in a process of nation building. Constructing the ‘glorious pioneer’ narrative would have assisted this program in various ways.

The popularity of fortification narratives in the 1920s and 30s may have been strengthened by the versions of Australian nationalism that gained currency after WWI. Political tussles during these decades took place between the right-wing parties, who remained staunch supporters of British imperialism, and the left wing, who argued that Australia should be more self-reliant and less focused on Britain (Dryenfurth 2014). The left wing often championed the pioneers and their experiences as one part of their ideal of ‘true Australianness’.

The spike in fortification narratives that took place in the 1950s is more interesting. The relative prominence of such narratives in newspapers and local histories during this decade contrasts with the wider, national trend to muffle the history of Aboriginal Australia (e.g. see Broome 1996; Curthoys 1999). In other words, while national histories tended to overlook, downplay or just ignore conflict between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, local histories continued to be constructed quite explicitly in relation to it, creating a complex field for both remembering and forgetting.

A further recirculation of such stories in the 1970s coincided with a shift in interest from the pioneer narratives of resourceful forebears to the first mainstream historical arguments for frontier violence as an unacknowledged component of Australian local and national history. The 1988 Bicentennial provided an obvious focus for documenting such tales. Instead of seeing the frontier as an inherently dangerous space for white settlers, however, many such histories co-opted claims for both fortified structures and massacres into the first claims for Aboriginal resistance.

Finally, the resurgence of interest in the subject generated by the ‘History Wars’ in the early 2000s gave a new lease of life to fortification accounts. As historian Lyndall Ryan has pointed out, the debate that ensued between historians over whether European colonisation of Australia was relatively benign or violently invasive, ‘transformed massacres into a subject of study in their own right’ (Ryan 2013:258).

The findings of our study were interesting for a number of reasons. Settler fear and anxiety was, probably, relatively commonplace, and likely to have been more common than we can now reconstruct. This suggests that settlers on the outer edge of any given frontier may well have viewed themselves (wrongly or rightly) as potentially embroiled in the ‘front line’ of the frontier wars.

Settler fear was also probably more pronounced in the wake of specific events, especially pivotal attacks on European settlers. The best known examples were the widespread panic following the killing of 11 members of the Fraser family party at Hornet Bank in October 1857 and then 19 members of the Wills family party at Cullin-la-ringo in 1861. It is possible that additional defensive architectural modifications were made in this context to enhance existing, or introduce new, defensive elements. Charles Ogg, a Presbyterian minister who travelled widely throughout the colony in the 1850s and 1860s, for example, described defensive alterations made to the original Hornet Bank homestead in the aftermath of the Fraser deaths:

We found the place well supplied with arms, and all about with their pistols in their belts. There was no window, or, what had been once a window, was now boarded up, with bars across inside and out. The chimney had bars placed across it also in various ways to prevent ingress in that way. On the door post as I entered was still to be seen the blood of victims who had perished in a former attack upon the station. At sundown the place was closed up, and the doors fastened by two heavy bars right across them. It was under these circumstances that I held the first service at the station. On retiring at night each bed room door was again barred off the sitting room, and each apartment well supplied with arms. There was a small port hole in my bedroom, which I was shewn how to open in case of attack. My arms consisted of a double-barrelled rifle which stood at the head of the bed; a large pistol hanging on one of the bed posts, and two more hung by the mirror, besides a sword and dagger, whose edges I looked at and saw that they were intended for keen work.

Moreton Bay Courier, 11 August 1860:3

Moreover, fear enveloped the entire district, as local squatters and their employees waged a prolonged and concerted campaign of death and displacement against Aboriginal people (Reid 1981). Squatters such as George Pearce Serocold, of nearby Cockatoo Station, noted:

There is now war to the knife, and we are not without apprehensions of our head station being attacked at night—large pillars of smoke are being sent up all round to the West and to the North—being signals from one camp to the other—Your pistols have become my daily companions—and we are well prepared whenever they come.

George Pearce Serocold, Letter to Charles Serocold 3 March 1858, West Glamorgan Archive Service, GB 216 D/D T 2974/7

In the 1940s, to mark the centenary of St George, Ellen Meacle retold her girlhood experience of this paranoia in what is now St George, fully 300 km distant from the massacre:

… just at sunset, a sweating stockman, on a nearly spent horse, reached the homestead at Mt Driven, bringing the news which he had received from another rider, and which was to be relayed on through the district of the murder of the Frazer family by the blacks, at Hornet Bank … (This news) was held to be of sufficient importance to warrant the prompt issue of a warning, by relay riders, over several hundred miles of country. Every aborigine, even the friendliest, was (now) suspect; every habitation a miniature fort with loopholed walls and heavily-shuttered windows; every kitchen cupboard … a small arsenal.

Daily Mail 20 July 1926:17

The majority of accounts, however, were second-hand or further removed, many of which had a specific context of remembrance that calls their validity into question. These reminiscences, told in hindsight by later descendants, are likely to be in many cases inflated—perhaps influenced by the classic pioneer tales that dominated the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries. The embroidering of domestic defence into later personal, familial and regional narratives, while rendering tales of particular buildings suspect, is nonetheless itself something that needs to be considered in its own right. In this sense such stories fortify the frontier in another way: as touchstones for wider contexts of remembering and forgetting.


Broome, R. 1996 Historians, Aborigines and Australia: Writing the national past. In B. Attwood (ed.), In In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines and Australia, pp.54–72. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Curthoys, A. 1999 Expulsion, exodus and exile in White Australian historical mythology. Journal of Australian Studies 23:1–19.

Dryenfurth, N. 2014 Labor and the Anzac legend. Labour History 106:163–188.

Fox, M.J. 1919-1923 The History of Queensland, its People and its Industries in Three Volumes. Brisbane: States Publishing Co.

Reid, G. 1981 A Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events. Unpublished MA thesis, Australian National University, Canberra.

Ryan, L. 2013 Untangling Aboriginal resistance and the settler punitive expedition: The Hawkesbury River frontier in New South Wales, 1794–1810. Journal of Genocide Research 15(2):219–232.

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