During the glacial period (40,000-10,000 years ago) Strathfield local government area (LGA) was far inland and probably less hospitable than it is today. As the climate warmed, around 7,000 years ago, and the rising seas flooded the nearby valley, now called the Parramatta river, the landscape changed. Over the next few thousand years, sea levels largely stabilised, although the areas around Botany Bay would have seen some changes. The formation of mudflats, sandy beaches, and waterways would have changed the food resources available, and shaped the Aboriginal people’s lifestyle and subsistence habits. Aboriginal people adapted to these changes, and were well established in their fishing, hunting and gathering practices by the time the first English ships arrived in Sydney. In the 1700s the Wangal clan lived and were custodians of the area now known as Strathfield.
When Lieutenant James Cook first encountered the Aboriginal people of Sydney, he noted that they were using canoes, and engaged in a fishing based lifestyle. He saw very few Aboriginal people in his eight day stay at Botany Bay (approximately 21km from Strathfield), and had few encounters with them, as they seemed largely unwilling to go near the British explorers. The few encounters he did have, were somewhat hostile, being met with “darts and wooden swords” (most likely spears and boomerangs). Lieutenant Cook reacted to this clear indication that they were unwanted with warning shots at first, and the shooting an Aboriginal man in the leg.
Governor Phillip who led the First Fleet had similar initial encounters upon arrival to Australia. Initially treating the settlers with distrust, the Aboriginal people largely avoided the British, although some friendly encounters did take place alongside the few skirmishes. At Breakfast Point, (6.6km from Strathfield), on the 5th of February, 1788, Captain John Hunter and a party of British marines had their first interaction with the Aboriginal people from the Wangal clan. Lieutenant William Bradley RN noted the encounter in his diary:
‘At daylight having a guard of marines proceeded to the upper part of the harbour again, passed several natives in the caves as we went up and on the shore near the place we left beads and some other things, who followed us along the rocks calling to us. We landed to cook our breakfast on the opposite shore to them. We made signs for them to come over and waved green boughs. Soon after seven of them came over in two canoes and landed near our boats. They left their spears in the canoes and came to us. We tied beads etc. about them and left them our fire to dress mussels which they went about as soon as we put off’.
Governor Phillip decreed that no harm was to come to the Aboriginal people of Sydney, and instead, tried to learn about their way of life. One way he tried to connect with the Sydney Aboriginal people was to, perhaps misguidedly, capture some of them. Three men became the would be intermediaries of Governor Phillip. One of them was a man named Bennelong. Bennelong adjusted somewhat into the British lifestyle, had a civil relationship with Governor Phillip, learned English, and adopted some British habits, even travelling to England in 1792. Bennelong became a sort of emissary between the British and the Aboriginal people. Eventually however, Bennelong returned to his people, becoming a clan leader in his later years, and well respected by his people. Bennelong now has street names, and a Federal Electorate named after him, as well as the site of the Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point.
Bennelong was a member of the Wangal clan whose area includes Strathfield Council. This clan is commonly attributed to the Dharug (or Darug) tribe, although this name was more likely given in later years, almost a century after European settlement. R. H. Mathews, a surveyor and anthropologist, first described the Dharug/Dharuk or Darug/Daruk dialect in 1897. The first settlers who studied the Aboriginal languages, such as William Dawes (1790-1791) and David Collins (1798), did not record names for the different dialects of the Sydney region. Furthermore, little evidence suggests that pre-settlement Aboriginal people identified themselves primarily by language groups. Watkin Tench also notes that after three years of settlement, the Europeans still did not fully understand the languages around them.
The neighbouring clans to the Wangal were the Cadigal and Gameygal clans, and there is evidence of occupation in the land around Cooks River dating back to approximately 10,000 years. The languages of Aboriginal people have been reconstructed from the notes of early European settlers, and contributed to words that we still use today, such as dingo, wallaby, and waratah. Wangal country was known as ‘Wanne’ and extended in the north from Darling Harbour to the Balmain Peninsula, however, it is uncertain how far south their Country extended. The Parramatta river, marked the northern boundary of the Wangal clan.
The Parramatta and Cooks Rivers were undoubtedly used by the Wangal people, providing them with some of the resources they needed to survive. Use of the Parramatta River dates back at least around 30,000 years ago, from a site west of Breakfast Point, near Parramatta. The Parramatta river would have been used for camping, fishing, hunting, and as a provision for edible plants. The rivers would also have provided a means of travel, and a method of communication and trade between neighbouring clans. Just as the Parramatta River provided good fishing grounds for the Wangal clan, so would Cooks River have been an important focus for various activities, and there remains to this day, a connection between Cooks River and local Aboriginal communities. From historical records, we know that both men and women used bark canoes to catch fish and gather shellfish. They would have camped along the river’s edge, using overhangs or building bark huts for shelter, or simply sleeping out in the open. Where fishing did not take place, inland populations were known to hunt kangaroos, wallabies, possums, and other animals, including a variety of birds and reptiles.
Evidence of habitation along the river comes in the form of burials, midden sites, and rock shelters along the banks of Cooks River, although none of these sites survive in the Strathfield LGA. However, indicative of the tools used by the Aboriginal people, three recorded stone artefact sites are present within the Strathfield LGA and unrecorded sites are likely to be present. The materials of these artefacts are quartzite, banded chert, and yellow mudstone, and represent a few different methods of tool production. Open camp sites are the main site type in the Cumberland Plain to the west but fewer have been found in the more built up areas. Therefore, these sites are important in understanding the physical presence of people on the land, and the technology they used within their daily lives. They are particularly important, as they are more likely to survive the same environmental processes that destroy the wooden or bone implements that we know Aboriginal people were using.
As food gathering was generally not an all-day task, this left plenty of time for relaxing and social activities. Aboriginal people had elaborate and complex social lives, and strong religious beliefs. Initiation rites, marriage laws and detailed kinship systems were all aspects of Aboriginal people’s lives, and ancestors were both feared and revered. Religious beliefs are told through stories and songs from the Dreaming. Knowledge of the Dreaming was passed down by knowledge-holders, but a large part could not be passed on during the period following European settlement. Important ceremonies, such as initiation rites were performed, and may have included tooth extraction for the men, and finger removal for the women. Marriage laws indicated who people could marry, and what family group they were a part of. Cremation and burial were both a part of death practices, and the deceased were looked after to ensure their spirit could not wander after death. Aboriginal people feared the dead, and took care not to disturb any graves.
Although little physical evidence of Aboriginal life remains within the Strathfield LGA itself, the historical accounts of Bennelong and Breakfast Point tell us about the Wangal people living around Parramatta and Cooks Rivers when the British first arrived. By the mid-1800s, the Strathfield region was largely developed with houses, roads and railways. This would have forced the Wangal people from their land, and destroyed most of the Indigenous inhabitants’ campsites, scarred trees and other means of livelihood and cultural practices. There are some reports that traditional ceremonies were still taking place, and some Aboriginal people still journeyed across the land to maintain family connections. Slowly though, whether by necessity, enforcement or choice, Aboriginal people began to adapt to and mingle with the European settlers.
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Strathfield Council Aboriginal Recognition and Protocol Policy (See below)