The Pastoralists

Mountains of Memory: Pastoral History Key Points

  • Pastoral properties selected for sources of permanent water.
  • Houses near springs or permanent waterholes
  • Use of flagstones of shale, sandstone or limestone for building and floor-pavers
  • Access to land from market through valleys and gorges
  • Houses sited above flood levels in big creeks.

Who were the early pastoralists?

Practical, tough and competitive

Early pastoralists were practical men, exploring their runs for themselves or their employers, searching for permanent water. They had to work their way into country that was unmapped and rugged.

They didn’t write down details of their long and lonely rides, or how they felt about the country they were ranging through.

Competition for good land was fierce.

  • Men who found it were more likely to lodge a claim to lease it than to spread the news around.
  • Leases weren’t always taken out by the man who discovered good country.

Inherited wealth?

The first pastoralists were nearly all migrants from England and Scotland, with a few from Ireland.

  • Some started out with family wealth behind them, like Hugh Proby at Kanyaka.
  • Others built wealth through hard work after starting with very little, like William Warwick (Holowiliena Station) or John McTaggart of Wooltana.
  • Some worked just as hard, but were dogged by ill luck and lost everything, like Henry McConville, who Mincham calls ‘one of the most valiant of the many stout-hearted pioneers of the Flinders’.

Young men

Most station hands and drovers in the early years were young men under thirty.

  • Robert Bruce, who was at Arkaba for just two years in the late 1850s, described their occasional visitors ‘as lively as fleas and as mischievous as monkeys’. They enjoyed playing cricket, shooting or just running and jumping before they moved on again with their mobs of horses or cattle.

Land holdings – what does ownership mean in pastoral country?

Crown Land

  • When Australia was settled, all the land was considered to be owned by the Crown – the King or Queen of England.
  • The Crown was represented by colonial governments until State governments replaced them.
  • Crown land was surveyed and sold for town blocks or farming.
  • Unsold Crown land was, and is, is leased for pastoral use (grazing). Pastoral leases were also surveyed so boundaries could be observed.

Pastoral leases

Pastoralists pay the government for the right to occupy Crown land and use it for grazing: i.e., they lease it. A pastoral lease is also called a run or a station.

Changes in government policy towards pastoral leases affects station prosperity, people and the land.

  • At first, leases could only be held for 1 year.
  • Then they were extended to 14 years, then 21, 42.
  • The longer you can hold a lease, the more likely you are to put in improvements and to manage stock numbers carefully for the long term.
  • In early years with short leases many looked for maximum gain in the short term, which led to overstocking and disaster during drought.
  • During the great wheat drive north, the government resumed (took back) many of the pastoral leases, to give the land over for farming.
  • When farms failed, some of the land went back to pastoral use
  • It had been changed forever by ploughing and rabbits.

Pastoral settlement

By 1846, ten years after the colony was founded, pastoralists had settled as far north as Mt Remarkable. By 1849 they were beyond what is now Quorn.

Browne brothers, Arkaba, Aroona and Wilpena

  • When news came out in 1850 that new 14 year leases would be issued in 1851, the Browne brothers (W.J. and J.H.) were amongst the first to look for grazing country in the Flinders Ranges. –    One of their employees William Chace, found three well watered areas, known to the aboriginal people as Aroona, Arkaba and Wilpena.
  • J B Bull says that Chace lived with Aboriginal people ‘in some measure’, and that they showed him ‘many permanent waters’.
  • The Brownes took up leases for these areas and appointed fit young men to manage them, with a half share in the run they managed.
    • Frederick Hayward managed Aroona
    • Henry Price managed Wilpena
    • the Marchant brothers, nephews of the Brownes, ran Arkaba.
  • The Brownes, like some other pastoralists, engaged a private surveyor make a rapid survey of their three runs and establish their boundaries.
    • Their surveyor, Frederick Sinnett, mapped the Aroona, Arkaba and Wilpena runs in 1851.
    • His map shows that the central basin of Wilpena was already known as the Pound. ‘Pound’  is a word used to describe an enclosure made to confine stray horses or cattle, and this natural formation could perform that function.
  • In 1888, when many pastoral leases were falling due for renewal, the government put them up for auction to raise as much money as possible. The Brownes and H.S. Price managed to keep Wilpena, except for the pound which they didn’t want because it had become infested with dingoes.

Beyond Aroona

  • Settlement soon spread beyond Aroona, and by 1858 nearly all of the Flinders thought to be suitable for grazing had been occupied.
  • At the same time, grazing moved out on to the dry plains alongside the ranges. Settlers had realised that the grey saltbush and blue bush make excellent fodder, and water could be found by drilling.

Caring for flocks and herds

  • Early runs were unfenced. Valuable sheep could wander off, or be taken by dingoes. Pastoralists therefore employed shepherds who lived in huts near permanent water (shepherds huts).
  • At dawn each shepherd drove his flock of 1000 or more sheep up to 6km to feed, and brought them back to the yard by sundown. [Mincham 1986]
  • Some pastoralists shifted from keeping sheep to cattle in the 1840s.
    • Cattle are far more wary and formidable than sheep, and better able to withstand attacks from Aborigines or dingoes. Certainly all who kept sheep had to see that they were carefully shepherded [Mincham 1983:47]

Droughts hit pastoral land

  • Much of the land opened up by the pioneer pastoralists changed hands after droughts in the late 1850s and 1860s.
  • In good years locusts could wipe out the feed that came through after rain. Robert Bruce described the Robert Bruce described the …horrible putrescent heap of rotting oxen, steeds and sheep that accompanied drought at Aroona in 1859. [Mincham 1983:75] that accompanied drought at Aroona in 1859.
  • After the Great Drought of the 1860s, there was a run of good years. The government extended pastoral leases from 14 years to 21 years.
  • Gradually, the stations were re-occupied
  • Fencing became common, and boundary riders took over from shepherds. Many red gums were felled over the years for fence posts.


  • Many pastoralists committed themselves in good years to high rentals they couldn’t possibly keep. When drought struck again in 1896, it completed the devastation of vast areas denuded of vegetation caused by over-stocking and plagues of rabbits. Dingoes killed sheep in large numbers. Wool prices were falling in the 1890s too. –    Run after run was abandoned at this time.
  • All of the runs in the Gawler Ranges and many in the North Flinders and Beyond, including Callabonna, were deserted.
  • It took graziers a long time to learn how to manage stock numbers through good years and bad.

Stock route

  • As the northern areas (hundreds) were being surveyed in the late 1870s, Goyder’s surveyors were instructed to lay out a continuous stock route 400 metres wide, so that stock could be moved north and south through the lands that would soon be fenced.
  • Cradock and Chapmanton townships were laid out within the Travelling Stock Route.
  • You can see the surveyed stock route on the western side of the Cradock- Orroroo Road. (marked text also used in Carrieton)

Pastoral Industry: A View from 1914

The Handbook of South Australia in 1914 gives a picture of how important grazing was for the State. Its authors wrote:

  • The expansion of the pastoral industry has had much to do with the general prosperity of South Australia. The pastoralist has been the pioneer settler testing the country and pointing the way for agricultural and closer settlement.
  • A history of the pastoral industry would embrace the commercial, agricultural and social record of the State. The pastoralist “blazed the trail,” and it was upon him that the early colonists depended for food supplies and the inauguration of an export trade which ever since has been the basis of the State’s prosperity.
  • In 1912 exported pastoral products were ‘sheep, cattle and horses (living), meat (frozen &c.) skins, hides, tallow, wool etc.
  • The frozen meat trade ‘has largely contributed to the prosperity of the pastoral and agricultural industries of the State.
  • Freezing works had taken the place of boiling down works by 1914

Horses feature in a way we don’t see now:

  • South Australia is the natural home of the horse, climate and herbage being unequalled in the production of a hardy animal.
  • The authors noted that sheep, cattle and horses could feed freely on ‘natural herbage’ in the Flinders region.