8 war heroes you didn't learn about in school

The Frontier Wars was the bloodiest conflict on Australian soil. We look at eight of the warriors who fought for their people and their land against colonial forces.

Frontier Wars

Aboriginal Warriors by Joseph Lycett 1815-1822 Source: National Library of Australia


Pemulwuy was one of the earliest recorded resistance fighters of the Frontier Wars. A Bidgigal man of the Darug nation he reportedly had a clubbed foot, suggesting he may have been a Carradhy (clever man). In Port Jackson in 1790 he speared John McIntyre, the gamekeeper of Governor Phillip, who later died of his injuries. The Governor then called for an expedition in retaliation however it failed to find any Aboriginal people.

From 1792, Pemulwuy lead continued attacks on farming settlements: burning huts and stealing crops. The largest conflict was the ‘Battle of Parramatta’ where Pemulwuy lead approximately 100 warriors in an attack on the government farm at Toongabbie before marching towards Parramatta. Pemulwuy was shot seven times and at least five Aboriginal men were killed. Though Pemulwuy was kept in detention at the hospital, he escaped - increasing his already impressive reputation.

Despite recognising  Pemulwuy as "a brave and independent character", Governor King offered a reward for his death or capture and issued a government order than any Aboriginal people seen near Parramatta should be shot on site. Pemulwuy was shot dead in 1802, and his head was removed and sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England for his collection, however its current whereabouts are unknown.


Musquito was born on the northern shore of Port Jackson and by 1805 had begun raiding settlements in the Hawkesbury region. A warrant was then issued for his arrest and he was captured and gaoled in Parramatta. He was later exiled to Norfolk Island where he remained for eight years before being sent to Launceston, Tasmania.

By 1817 he was working as a tracker, hunting down bushrangers including Michael Howe; however he eventually became known as a bushranger himself. After Indigenous people were increasingly pushed out of the main settlements he retreated to the bush and formed a gang. The group of 20-30 conducted raids on farms, killing several stockkeepers on the East Coast between 1823 and 1824. Musquito was wounded and captured in 1824 and later charged with aiding and abetting the murder of a stockkeeper. He was hanged with another Aboriginal man, Black Jack, at Old Hobart Gaol in 1825. 


Windradyne, a Wiradjuri warrior, was a key resistance figure in the Bathurst War in 1824. When Governor Brisbane came to power the pace of settlement greatly increased west of the Blue Mountains, placing competition on traditional food sources. Windradyne began leading attacks on small farming outposts using guerrilla warfare techniques. In December 1823 he was blamed for the death of two stockmen. Soldiers were dispatched to capture him and it reportedly took six men to subdue him.

After he was released, the hostilities continued to escalate with Aboriginal women and children being killed and seven stockmen attacked in the Wyagdon Ranges. The town of Bathurst was finally placed under martial law in 1924 and a reward issued for Windradyne’s capture. However he avoided arrest and was later pardoned by the Governor when he appeared at the annual feast in Parramatta. 


Born around 1795 Yagan was the son of Midgigoroo, an influential Noongar elder in the area south of Perth. After a young boy was shot near the homestead owned by Archibald Butler, the Noongar man retaliated by spearing one of his servants, labourer William Gaze. Yagan was captured and sentenced for Gaze’s murder in 1832, spending six weeks detained on Carnac Island before escaping. Despite having no knowledge of boats, Yagan and two others managed to steal one and steer it the 13km back to shore.

After his return he eluded capture for another year and became a well-known figure in the Perth colony. Robert Lyon, a minister who studied the local Indigenous people and pleaded to save Yagan from the death penalty, described him as "the Wallace of the age" in the Perth Gazette. Yagan was killed in an ambush by brothers William and James Keates in 1833 and his head was taken to England where it was kept in the Liverpool Museum. His remains were finally repatriated and buried in 1997. A new development in Perth is being named Yagan Square to honour him. 

Statue of Yagan on Heirisson Island
Source: http://library.trinity.wa.edu.au


A Bunuba man, Jandamarra was born about 1870 in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. As a youth he spent time living on a remote station and became a good horseman but he later returned and became an initiated man of the Bunuba people. Though he was captured for killing sheep the charges were later dropped when he agreed to care for the horses at the police station. He later became a stockman and joined the police as a tracker, charged with capturing his own people who had been spearing stock.

He was given an ultimatum by the Bunuba and so he subsequently shot his police partner Constable Richardson while he slept and freed the detained Aboriginal people at the station. For the next three years Jandamarra lead his people in resistance to the settlers. Fifty painted warriors fought against the settlers in the ‘Battle of Windjina Gorge’, which left Jandamarra with severe wounds. He later raided his former police station twice before being shot dead by another Aboriginal tracker in 1897. 


Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner

Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, along with 14 other Tasmanian Aboriginal people, were brought to Melbourne in 1839 by the 'protector of Aborigines', George Robinson. Two years later the two men, along with three women, stole two guns and waged a six-week guerilla-style campaign in the Dandenongs and on the Mornington Peninsula, burning stations and killing two sealers.

They were eventually caught and while the three women were acquitted Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner were found guilty of murder and were sentenced to hang. Their bodies are buried under what is now the Queen Victoria Market.



Tarenorerer (aka Walyer)

Born in Tasmania around 1800, it is believed that Tarenorer was sold to white sealers on the Bass Strait Islands in her teens after being abducted by Aboriginal people of the Port Sorell region. She quickly learnt to speak English fluently, and also learnt how to firearms during her time with the sealers.

In 1828 she escaped from the sealers and returned to her country, where she gathered men and women from different groups to initiate warfare against the invaders. She personally trained her warriors in the use of firearms and in effective battle tactics against the slow to load guns of her enemies, and introduced guerrilla warfare strategies of killing livestock.  She believed to have said 'she liked a luta tawin (white man) as she did a black snake'. 

After conflicts with other Aboriginal groups she escaped to Port Sorrell with two of her brothers and two sisters, but was again abducted by sealers and taken to Bird Island. She hid her identity and was known to the sealers only as 'Mary Anne'. In 1830 she was taken to Swan Island after it was believed she was plotting to murder one of the sealers, and her true identity was soon revealed. 'Protector of the Aborigines' George Robinson was elated at her capture and believed it a 'most fortunate thing that this woman is apprehended and stopped in her murderous career'. She was kept in isolation for fear that she would incite a revolt on the island, and she became ill and died of influenza on 5 June 1831. 

Walyer by Julie Downing
Source: National Gallery of Australia

Published 22 April 2016 at 1:26pm, updated 25 April 2019 at 1:41pm
By Karina Marlow, Luke Pearson