Brothers face grim ends on greatest cattle drive

Greenough Pioneer Cemetery. Image Sharyn Moodie

It was a real wild west story – the Clarkson brothers planned the greatest cattle drive ever in Western Australia’s short colonial history.

In early 1874 Henry, with his older brother William, two half-brothers and other proven outback men bought up cattle from around Albany and drove them via Augusta, through the Margaret River region and eventually up to Geraldton and another 500 kilometres north on to the Murchison region.

The Clarkson brothers. Cemetery Walk Trail brochure.

Henry, a drover and livestock dealer, was commissioned to take a mob of cattle from Albany in the very south of the state to Nichol Bay in its north-west.

Along the way they bought more cattle and recruited extra hands, so when they reached the Murchison in December they had more than 1500 cattle and 173 horses.

But the Australian summer heat was relentless, they were struggling for water and in serious trouble.

On December 28, William and Henry  set out to find water. They gathered four days of provisions, a revolver each, one single-barrel gun and a pack horse.

When they were not back nine days later, the remaining men put together a search party, which made a “hurried, unsuccessful journey” – mostly due to lack of water.

But another search party quickly set out with a pack-horse loaded with water. Two days and 52 miles later they reached a place called Hooleys Well.

Here they found Henry’s compass hanging on a tree, and tracks to the north. Following them they  eventually found a girth hanging on a tree, and about four miles away, the punnel of Henry Clarkson’s saddle.

Yet further on they found a tree where a horse had been tied up for some hours, and a note written in pencil.

“I could not get her any further without giving her a spell, I will try to get to the well and will return if I can.”

Note left by William Clarkson

The words “If I can” and “try to” were underlined.

On the other side of the note were the words “you will find the watch, it is now half-past 5 o’clock”.

Also found scratched on the tree were the words “Try and bring the mare with you’’.

Why the search party did not continue from there is unknown – perhaps lack of water – but the men decided to call in the authorities.

This necessitated a return to Geraldton to report the situation to the  Resident Magistrate.

By the time a new search party set out, almost a month had passed since the brothers left their droving party.

The new search party included two more Clarkson brothers,  Edward and Robert.

It took them until February 5 to reach a place close enough to start the search.

Edward said in a letter that even the trip to the search point was fraught with hardship “in consequence of the want of water for ourselves and food and water for our horses.’’

He said they reached Hooleys Well on the sixth – finding it perfectly dry, but after a little digging managed to obtain a couple of quarts of water for each horse.

While looking for more water, they found a “native spring”.

“Concealed in some native shades we found portions of Henry’s bridle, a gun-stock and stirrup-irons. This was evidently a regular camping-place of the natives, for we found a number of spears and other articles recently in use, and many fresh tracks in all directions’’, he wrote.

The search party moved their camp to the spring.

The next day they went north again, coming across the saddle the initial search party had found.

Half a mile east of there they found the carcass of the horse.

It had a spear mark in the neck and one in the hip.

 “I have no doubt the natives killed her,’’ Edward said.

Up the road they found the remains of his brother William under a small tree. He had died lying on his side, his boots under his head for a pillow, his partly lowered trousers unbuttoned and his shirt partly pulled up.

There were no signs of violence on the body, and a pannican nearby appeared to have contained urine. A gun barrel, still loaded with shot, was present.

Edward said

“He appeared to have laid down and died in his sleep — nothing whatever had disturbed him after his death. It would however be difficult to say whether he died of wounds or not (due to decomposition).

The next day, (the ninth) one of their trackers found Henry’s body –  in a very different condition to William’s.

“The remains were partly covered with earth and bushes, the face feet and hands were exposed.’’

 “The body appeared to have been opened and the inside taken out, the whole of the abdomen was gone. I am quite satisfied the flesh had been removed from the bones, on the feet and hands the skin was whole. A small piece of a spear was found nearby, but there was no blood on it.

Police  Corporal William Laurence  was satisfied the remains were those of white men.

It seemed to me that the flesh had been cut off from the thigh. William Clarkson’s bowels were still in him, but Henry Clarkson’s seemed to have been taken out.

Corporal William Lawrence

The bodies were brought back to Greenough, just south of Geraldton.

An inquest was held at the Greenough Court House on March 2, where a three-man jury viewed the remains of William and Henry.

Coroner Fairbairn, in summing up,  pointed out that there was no evidence to show that murder had been committed, and advised them to bring in an open verdict.

Yet this was their judgement.

“We find that Henry Clarkson was wilfully and deliberately murdered in the beginning of January last, at spot about 7 miles north of Hooley’s Well, on the Nicol Bay road, by some person or persons unknown.

“We find that William Clarkson died from exhaustion the beginning of January last, at a spot about sixteen miles north from Hooleys Well on the Nicol Bay Road.

This was not quite the end of the matter.

For a start, the cattle still needed to be taken north. Johnnie Brockmann took on the task of leading the large contingent, and succeeded.

And an arrest warrant was made out for an Aborigine who was suspected of being involved in Henry’s death.

However, when they came upon him and another older man in the bush, the suspect fled.

The other man, Mingaberry, described as aged and decrepit, rolled on the ground in fear and despite being reassured that he was not their target,  “seemed oppressed with a fear that they were going to shoot or otherwise kill him.’’

He blurted out a confession that he and his decamped mate had speared “whitefellow” in the neck.

But the case was let go when it became apparent the confession was not made to a legal authority and “it was evident that it had been elicited by catechising the accused when he was oppressed by a feeling of terror.

The jury was directed to find a verdict of not guilty and the prisoner, still appearing overwhelmed with fear, was discharged.


Cemetery Walk Trail, Geraldton Regional Library

Hardwick, G, Working the Capes: The Irish Cattle Economy of the Lower South West of Western Australia, 1829-­1918,  Hard Copy,, February 2002

Northern Territory Times and Gazette, Saturday 31 July 1875, p2

The Herald, Saturday 20 March 1875, p2

The Inquirer and Commercial News, Wednesday 3 March 1875, p2

The Western Australian Times, Tuesday 2 February 1875, p3

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: