Aboriginal trackers were used frequently by police in Western Australia, including the Cockburn district, throughout the history of the colony.
In fact, the first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers in the country was in Western Australia in 1835, when two men known as Migo and Mollydobbin tracked a lost child through the bush near Pinjarra for ten hours, discovering him alive and saving his life.
Aboriginal people’s expertise in following tracks of animals, humans, and vehicles was unparalleled. Though there were some white men who also performed the role of ‘tracker’, and were often credited with the results even if they worked alongside Aboriginal trackers, they were few and far between.
Whenever a crime caused enough confusion to require a step-by-step account of movements, it was almost inevitable that Aboriginal men were brought in to assist police.
The tragedy is that in most accounts, their names were not thought important enough to mention, and only their deeds remain.
Escaped convicts at North Lake, 1852
The earliest known Aboriginal trackers to work in the Cockburn district were three unnamed men who, alongside police, started out on a journey to track three escaped convicts through the bush at North Lake.
Still wearing their iron chains, three convicts had escaped from the convict establishment at Fremantle (precursor to the Fremantle Prison) and made their way to a lime kiln in the area. They forced the limeburner to ‘conduct them to a hut upon the North Lake, which they broke into and obtained possession of two guns.’ Police thought it likely that the men had gone south, and they enlisted three Aboriginal trackers to start the chase.
A £5 reward was posted by the Colonial Secretary, and the men were caught a month later.
Thomsons Lake, 1863
Ten years later an Aboriginal man helped police discover three ticket-of-leave criminals hiding at Thomsons Lake in 1863. These three men had broken into a store in Fremantle and stolen a gun, some food, and the key to the store’s safe.
In 1863, the land between Fremantle and Thomsons Lake was nearly all virgin bush. It is safe to say that without the help of Aboriginal people who knew how to read the land, police would not have been able to follow the thieves’ tracks and arrest them.
Thieves at North Lake, 1872
In December 1872 three men broke into the house of Fremantle merchant Tom W. Oakley while he was at church, and stole a large iron chest from his ‘counting-house’. The tracks of their light wagon were traced by a ‘native constable’ known as Harry and two white policemen from the streets of Fremantle all the way out to North Lake, where the men were caught at 1am the next day.
The Davilak mystery, 1896
In 1896, a man’s body was found in Dixon’s paddock near the Davilak estate, modern-day Manning Park. He had been lying there for some time, as the body was in a state of decay. An Aboriginal tracker brought in on the mysterious case discovered cart tracks that led to where the body had been left, and estimated the tracks had been there at least three months.
They began at the Beaconsfield Hotel (now Moondyne Joe's on Wray Avenue) and led through the bush to Forrest Road and onto Davilak. The tracker noted that the cart had not been carrying a heavy load, as the imprints were light. This dispelled a theory that the cart had been carrying wood, and made it more likely that the body had been brought out to where it was found.
This body later turned out to be that of Abdul Hoosin, an Afghan camel trader who was living temporarily on the Dixon’s property. His servant Moolshan had murdered him and sold his camels as his own, making a lot of money before disappearing to Karachi.
Samuel Weedon’s murder, 1911
In the mysterious case of Samuel Weedon, two Aboriginal trackers were brought in to try and untangle the clues. Unusually, they were both named and interviewed in the following coroner’s inquest.
Samuel Weedon’s body was found beside a pile of horse manure he had been loading into a cart. His horse had wandered away and found its way back to his home, shared with his employer Andrew Wakely. Subsequent evidence made it seem likely that Wakely had been involved in Weedon’s death, including his version of the events that had brought the horse and cart back to the house.
The Aboriginal trackers, known as Pompey and Charlie (no second names), both stated that they were of ‘no religion’ when under oath in the courtroom.
They had both examined the cart tracks and footprints surrounding Weedon’s body, and had both concluded that Wakely’s version of events had been a lie. Though Wakely was never brought to trial, the implication that he had murdered his employee remained strong.
Murder-suicide at Spearwood, 1912
The tragic case of Marie and Marius Martin, French settlers at Spearwood, made headlines around the country. Marius had spent many years in Western Australia before returning to France to marry Marie and bring her back as his wife.
Their life at Spearwood was harsh, and living in a one-room corrugated iron hut was not the ideal marriage Marie had dreamed of. She threatened to leave Marius and several times they were seen violently arguing, before one day in November 1912 a neighbour grew suspicious of Marius's behaviour and went to check on them.
Marie was lying face down on her kitchen floor in a pool of blood, dead from three blows to the head with an axe. Marius was missing, and it was then that an Aboriginal tracker called Rodger was brought in. Within an hour, Rodger and Mounted-Constable Honner of Fremantle had found Marius’s body hanging from a tree in the Spearwood bush, where he had killed himself after murdering his wife.
Burglary at the Newmarket Hotel, 1913
When, in 1913, burglars broke into the Newmarket Hotel and stole licensee Ben Mainstone’s cash register along with twelve bottles of whisky, and cases of cigars and cigarettes, the police brought in Aboriginal trackers to follow the trail. They were traced as far as White Gum Valley, but were not caught.
Burglary and explosion at Bailey’s store, Spearwood, 1937
Thieves making the rounds of the Cockburn district in 1937 broke into Bailey’s store and post office off Rockingham Road in Spearwood in early 1937, stealing the safe and blowing it up in the nearby railway yard. They stole the contents and left the safe behind.
Two police detectives, one of them an expert in fingerprints, took an Aboriginal tracker with them to Spearwood to take on the case.
Missing pensioner, 1948
An Aboriginal tracker was called in by police to help find Ronald Clarke, of Wattleup Road in what was then known as South Coogee, who had wandered away from his home in November 1948. His tracks were picked up along a dirt road near his house, but were lost in the bush.
In all these cases, Aboriginal trackers were considered a vital part of police proceedings. Whether it was tracking missing persons, trying to apprehend burglars, or minutely examining the scene of a crime, their expertise in matters of the land and its secrets was second to none. The fact that the Cockburn district for most of its life was mostly bushland and open fields and paddocks meant that most crimes or disappearances involved untouched natural surroundings.
It is a true disservice that those who knew the land best and who were willing to put in their time to help white police and citizens were rarely even given the courtesy of having their names recorded in the reports.