Researching frontier violence in the archives

Dr Jonathan Richards, 2023

Archives and libraries, the places which safely store historical documents and records, are great sources of historical information about people, places and events. Different archives and libraries store different kinds of files and records, and the Queensland State Archives (QSA) at Runcorn, in Brisbane, is the main storage facility for official documents created by Queensland Government agencies and departments. There are no private records or letters at QSA.

Disease, starvation and introduced addictive substances (alcohol, sugar, tobacco and other drugs) killed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but frontier massacres and killings were some of the most traumatic episodes that First Nations people had to contend with. This is a brief introduction for people wanting to find information about massacres held at QSA. The descendants of the deceased (and of the survivors) who are interested in finding details of these violent events, can begin by reading the official records.

Starting a search of the records

Unfortunately for people wanting to research these atrocities, there is no official series simply labelled “Massacres” or “Frontier Killings” in the archives. This is because archives are not organised by events or topics (like libraries), but are instead arranged by the people and the organisations who created the records.

You can start your investigations into records of frontier violence by first determining the date and place, possibly from previous work done by other people (such as historians and writers), from newspaper stories (for example, as found on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website, or from community and oral history. Trove is a very useful place to start. Another good way to search for records about particular historical events is the QSA collection – ArchivesSearch (

Letters, documents and files are stored in most official archives, including QSA, according to a system made up of three key elements – Agencies, Series and Items. The Agency refers to the government department or body that created each record; the Series refers to the way particular groups of these records are filed or organised; and the Item refers to the specific letter or piece of correspondence. Using these three organising principles (Agency, Series, Item), is your way into finding official records in the collection at QSA, including those about frontier massacres.

As a general rule, the Queensland Government departments (Agencies) that were most often involved in the committing of frontier massacres, or the investigation of such killings, were the Police Force and the Justice Department. Once you have identified the relevant or likely Agency involved in a violent event, the Series and Items created by that particular Agency can be searched for specific references.

Once the date or place of a massacre has been discovered, the names of the individuals and Agencies involved may assist in further searches across archival and library collections. For example, where possible, learning the name of police officers involved in a frontier massacre may lead to other documents related to the particular event. You may need to visit multiple locations (such as the State Library of Queensland, the Police Museum, or local historical societies and museums) to discover more about the individuals or organisations involved.

The Colonial Secretary’s files

The largest Agency in nineteenth-century Queensland Government was the Colonial Secretary’s Office (later renamed the Home Secretary’s Office), a “super-department” that dealt with most government business before individual departments (such as Police and Prisons) were established. Agencies like the Police and Prisons usually continued reporting to the Colonial Secretary (later the Home Secretary, Chief Secretary, and the Premier) after they became separate bodies.

In the nineteenth century, Queensland Police (including the Native Police) reported via the Commissioner of Police to the Colonial Secretary’s Office (and later to the Home Secretary’s Office) which means that any official (surviving) correspondence about killings or massacres should theoretically be filed in the Colonial Secretary’s / Home Secretary’s Office Inwards Correspondence letters, Series 5253.

Series 5253 (which used to be called “COL/A” and also “HOM/A”), arguably the most important nineteenth century Series in the Archives, includes letters about everything from hospitals and land to police and prisons. This is a large Series, with over 800 bundles of records. Fortunately, there are ways to make the research easier.

When a letter arrived at the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Brisbane, clerks would use the Indexes and the Registers of Inwards Correspondence to see if there had been any previous correspondence about that topic or from that particular letter-writer. If they found any previous relevant letters, the most recent item would be pinned on top of the earlier correspondence, and the Register entry would be noted ‘Previous’. This means that you may be able to discover other letters in the “paper-trail”.

A second Series of records (Series 11933), the Indexes to Registers of Letters Received at the Colonial Secretary’s Office for the years between 1861 and 1877, allows you to identify individual letters (for those years only). The Indexes in Series 11933 can be used to search another set of records, Series 11936, the Registers of Letters Received at the Colonial Secretary’s Office (1859-1896).

Series 11936 is organised by year, which means there may be more than one Register to check. Sometimes, events or investigations continued for two or more years, and this was the case with some inquiries into frontier massacres and killings. The Registers are available as digital copies on ArchivesSearch, which means that you can download and check them without needing to physically visit the QSA Reading Room.

The Registers tell us which letters were received in Brisbane, the name of the senders, a brief description of the contents of each letter, and the response (if any) of the Colonial Secretary. Often, files were read and marked ‘Away’, which means no action was taken and the letter was placed in storage. However, the receipt of a letter and the entry of that fact in the Registers does not necessarily mean the letter has survived. Much has, but frustratingly there are gaps in the collection.

Records difficult to locate or absent

Other instances of violence between colonists and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, outside of records related to the Native Police, exist in the Archive. However, these are not easily or readily searchable and such records may be scattered across a wide range of Agencies’ records, including Lands, Mining, Office of the Governor, Public Works and others.

Some frontier massacres were not reported or investigated, which means there are no records of them at QSA. In these cases, you will need to look elsewhere for evidence.

One example – Irvinebank 1884

An example of a violent incident that is represented in the records at QSA is provided below as an illustration of the research methods involved. It is important to note that more information about the event may yet be found, and this example is used to provide guidance and pathways to learning more.

Irvinebank is a small mining community on the western side of the Atherton Tableland, inland from Cairns. In October 1884 troopers from a nearby Native Police detachment (under the command of Sub Inspector William Nichols) killed a number of Aboriginal people near the township and then burned their bodies in an attempt to conceal the murders. Seven troopers were subsequently arrested and charged with murder.

Page 5 from the Police Inquest about the massacre at Irvine Bank

An inquest into the deaths, held by the local Police Magistrate, is available in the QSA records (QSA ID ITM2727097), and letters from Nichols and other police officers relating to the event (QSA ID TM3690439). Nichols, tried at Herberton in 1885 with being an accessory to the murders (see QSA ID ITM3690440), was dismissed for his ‘inexcusable conduct’, and the government sacked the troopers. Newspaper reports about the killing and the investigation can be found on Trove and a Parliamentary debate about the massacre and the government response can be found online. The inquiry into this killing, one of the first to be fully investigated, led to the creation of much paperwork (most of which has survived).

More information

We will be sharing more in the coming months, but in the meantime, visit the Queensland State Archives Frontier wars web page to find an essay by Dr Jonathan Richards and other resources.

About Dr Jonathan Richards

Jonathan Richards is a professional historian who lives in Brisbane, researching Queensland history through letters and documents held at the Queensland State Archives. He has devoted many years to intensive historical research for Native Title claimants, community organisations and government bodies, and published numerous articles on colonial law and policing. He holds degrees in Australian Studies and History, and was awarded a doctorate in 2005 for his dissertation on Queensland’s Native Police.

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2 Responses

  1. Philippa Adsett

    Hi Dr Richards
    I am writing up the history of the Wilcox family who settled in Toowoomba and Plainby near Crows Nest from 1865. Some of the family had selections in Plainby. I would like to include some history of the First Nations people – particularly around Plainby or Crows Nest prior to 1865. I wonder if you would provide me with some relevant references to read please?
    Thank you, Philippa Adsett

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