Special care notice
Visitors should be aware that this material may contain images or documentation relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are deceased. Visitors are warned that there may be words and descriptions, which may be considered insensitive and/or offensive in today’s contexts.
Aboriginal communities in the Illawarra
The Wodi Wodi are the Aboriginal custodians of the Illawarra who spoke a variant of the Dharawal language. Dharawal speakers lived and live in the country from Botany Bay to the north, through Campbelltown and Moss Vale to the west, and south to the Shoalhaven River and Jervis Bay. Dharawal people are distinguished as fresh water, bitter water or salt water people, depending on whether they occupied the coastal regions, the swamps or the plateaus and inland river valleys (Department of Environment and Conservation NSW, 2005, p. 6).
Traditional stories tell of the Wodi Wodi's journey in canoes from the north to the mouth of Lake Illawarra, in the time when the Spiritual Ancestors were animals. They brought with them the sacred Dharawal (cabbage tree palm). Baiame is a sacred sky-hero who led the Wodi Wodi to their country, formed the natural features of the land, and gave them their social laws and rites. Totems of the Wodi Wodi include the magpie, lyrebird, pelican, satin bowerbird, the red-bellied blacksnake, and the lace monitor, and these form the heart of culture, and how the people relate to, care for and manage the land (DEC NSW, 2005, p. 7).
Dharawal people moved throughout their territories and, at times, those of their neighbours, depending on season and purpose. They had regular routes but travelled broadly, caring for the country in ceremony and practice, and harvesting only what was needed. People from other language groups travelled from inland areas to the coast to exchange foods, raw materials and artefacts. The fish, oysters, water-fowl, grubs and ochre of the Illawarra were particularly valued by inland people (DEC NSW, 2005, p. 8) .
The Minnamurra River was harvested for fish and shellfish over millennia, as evidenced by the many middens that line the riverbank, and nearby swamplands were home to range of birds. There are midden sites at Bass Point, Minnamurra River, Minnamurra Point, Gerroa and Gerringong, and quarry sites in Shellharbour, Killalea, Knights Hill and Saddleback (Griffin, p. 21). There are also stone arrangements in the Jamberoo Valley and engravings in Foxground. The Bass Point campsites are possibly the oldest dated coastal campsites in NSW, with occupation going back 17,000 years (Flood, p. 286).
The first written references to the people of the Central Illawarra may have been by Captain James Cook in April 25 1770, when he recorded his observations in his log book. Bass and Flinders may have recorded the first European contact with the people of this region at Port Kembla in March 1796. Many early settlers, explorers and government officials wrote of the local Aboriginal people. These reports and letters have been compiled by Michael Organ into a comprehensive collection found in the Kiama Library Local Studies Collection.
The traditional trails used by the Wodi Wodi were the very ones that allowed the cedar-getters, surveyors and settlers to move into the area. European colonisation brought conflict, disease, dispossession of lands, and dramatic environmental changes to the landscape, resulting in the displacement of Aboriginal communities and loss of traditional homelands. The cedar-getters were the first to come to the region and were followed by European farmers and their animals. As land was cleared and towns established, Aboriginal families lost their communities, their independence and often their lives. Despite great adversity, Aboriginal people survived and adapted, and have kept their connection to the land through the maintenance of customs and stories and responsibility for country.
[Watercolour painting by Robert Hoddle, c. 1830, 'En route to Kiama', courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW]
The Minnamurra Massacre
An Aboriginal massacre occurred at the Minnamurra River (near Swamp Road) on 1 October 1818. White settlers massacred at least six Aboriginal people camped by the river. There were no repercussions for these murders and the massacre was never publicly acknowledged.
On 1 October 2018, members of the Aboriginal community held a ceremony to mark 200 years since the massacre.
Professor Lyndall Ryan from the University of Newcastle has identified more than 150 massacre sites in New South Wales. Professor Ryan estimates these massacres resulted in the deaths of approximately 6000 Aboriginal people in the early years of the colony.
King Mickey Johnson and Queen Rosie
One of the most famous Aboriginal inhabitants of this area was King Mickey Johnson (1834 -1906), who was possibly brought to the area by E. H Weston (Albion Park) from the Clarence River region. After working for Weston for around ten years, he moved to Kangaroo Valley with his wife Rosie and was living there during the 1891 census. He and Rosie then moved to Berawaurra (Windang) at the mouth of Lake Illawarra, where they lived for many years.
Mickey was proclaimed 'King of the Illawarra Tribe' at the Illawarra Centenary celebrations in 1896 and was presented with a crescent-shaped brass plate inscribed with 'Mickey Johnson, King' by Archibald Campbell, MLA. Aboriginal breastplates were a form of regalia used in pre-Federation Australia by white colonial authorities to recognise those they perceived to be local Aboriginal leaders (Aboriginal people did not traditionally have kings or chiefs, but rather elders who consulted with each other on decisions for the group).
Mickey later moved to the Aboriginal camp on the flat at Minnamurra River near the bridge, possibly because of dissatisfaction with his treatment by the Government and the Mission. Mickey and Rosie had five children. Mickey Johnson died in 1906 when he was 72, and is buried in the Kiama cemetery. A small cabin at Minnamurra was provided for Rosie in 1923, through donations from the community. Rosie later moved to Myola and the Currumbeen Creek area to be with her family and is buried on the northern side of Currumbeen Creek.
Rosie Johnson (left), known as the 'last of the traditional Illawarra Aborigines', lived at Kiama, and her last home was built in one of the disused Kiama quarries. Today, Rosie's descendants still live in the Wollongong area.
- General Information
- Local Aboriginal place name meanings
- Resources on Local Aboriginal History
- Online Resources
Gerringong and Bombo were good source of ochre, used in ceremonies.
Language spoken in the region was Dharawal.
The Wadi Wadi people were nomadic and followed trails to La Perouse, Bass Point, Wreck Bay and over the mountains to Cooma and Jindabyne.
Trading and travel occurred across tribal boundaries
The people of Lake Illawarra had strong associations with the people from Kangaroo Valley
By 1924, there were few aboriginal people in Kiama. with camps at Brown Street, at the top of Bombo Hill and Minnamurra River.
Some local Aboriginal men were employed in the quarries and saw mills of the area.
Many Aboriginal people of the South Coast died in the great flu epidemics of 1890 and 1919
Local Aboriginal place name meanings
The following are possible meanings to local names:
Attunga - high place
Bombo - from Thumbon (renowned head man)
Bong Bong - big swamp
Coolangatta - splendid lookout or view
Gerringong - fearful noises on beach
Elanora - home by the sea
Illawarra - from the aboriginal words Elourera or Allowrie, meaning high place near the sea
Jamberoo - track or meeting place
Kembla - from Djembla (wallaby)
Kiama - name of the father spirit of Eastern NSW (Kiahma or Baiame); or fish caught from rocks or where the seas roar
Minnamurra - sheltered camping ground, lots of fish
Moruya - home of the black swan
Nowra - Black cockatoo
Terrara - scrubby place
Tongarra - Place of cabbage trees
Toolijooa - place of emus
Warrigal - wild dog
Wollongong - from Wollonyuh or Wollonga, meaning sound of the sea or hard ground near water
Resources on Local Aboriginal History
Kiama library has several resources relating to Illawarra and South Coast aboriginal history. You are welcome to use these resources within the library.
Illawarra and South Coast Aborigines 1770-1850, (1990), compiled by Michael Organ, Aboriginal Education Unit, University of Wollongong.
The Wodi-Wodi people of the Illawarra (1981) by Basil Griffin
A History of Aboriginal people of the Illawarra 1770-1970 (2005), Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW)
Murni Dhungang Jirrar: Living in the Illawarra, (2005). Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW)
What makes the waves (Arrilla of Northern Illawarra). This story is said to have been narrated by Ellen, daughter of Mickey Johnson
Noogaleek: Belonging to me an Aboriginal oral history, (1987). Illawarra Education Consultative Group
Aboriginal history of our area , Gerringong and District Historical Society. (pamphlet)
Aboriginal Illawarra, (2005), Department of Environment and Conservation (NSW), (pamphlet)
Local Aborigines in the Illawarra, Don Nash, (unpublished paper)
The riches of ancient Australia, Josephine Flood, (1990).
Dispossession: Black Australians and white invaders (1989), Henry Reynolds.
University of Wollongong - Illawarra Aboriginals; an introductory history
University of Wollongong - Illawarra and South Coast Aboriginals; 1770 to 1900
University of Wollongong - Library - Illawarra History
University of Sydney - Local Aboriginal History and Culture
Wollongong City Council - Aboriginal communties
Office of the Environment and Heritage - A history of the Aboriginal people of the Illawarra
List of Australian place names of Aboriginal origin - Wikipedia
Trove - Aboriginal languages intriguing and sophisticated
Reconciliation revealed in Kiama - article from Local History Society Kiama
Murni, Dhungang, Jirrar - Aboriginal people and wild resource use
Australian's Together - better relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people
National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) - Aboriginal people and the colony of NSW
- Early Contact Map
- Tribal Map of Illawarra
Early Contact Map
Tribal Map of Illawarra
Tribal Map of Illawarra