Pathfinders: A History of Aboriginal Trackers in NSW

Shortlist year: 2021

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: NewSouth Publishing

There are few Aboriginal icons in White Australia history.

From the explorer to the pioneer, the swagman to the drover's wife, with a few bushrangers for good measure, Europeans play all the leading roles. A rare exception is the redoubtable tracker. With skills passed down over millennia, trackers could trace the movements of people across vast swathes of country. Celebrated as saviours of lost children and disoriented adults, and finders of missing livestock, they were also cursed by robbers on the run.

Trackers live in the collective memory as one of the few examples of Aboriginal people's skills being sought after in colonial society. In New South Wales alone, more than a thousand Aboriginal men and a smaller number of women toiled for authorities across the state after 1862. This book tells the often unlikely stories of trackers including Billy Bogan, Jimmy Governor, Tommy Gordon, Frank Williams and Alec Riley.

Through his work on native title claims, historian Michael Bennett realised that the role of trackers—and how they moved between two worlds—has been largely unacknowledged. His important book reveals that their work grew out of traditional society and was sustained by the vast family networks that endure to this day. 'Pathfinders' brings the skilled and diverse work of trackers not only to the forefront of law enforcement history but to the general shared histories of black and white Australia.

About the author

Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett has worked as an historian in native title since 2002, preparing evidence and writing reports for claims throughout NSW. It was through conducting research for native title claims that he first realised the extent to which the NSW Police relied on trackers for their expert skill. He grew up in Dubbo where he first learned of the exploits of Tracker Alex Riley.

Judges’ comments

Michael Bennett's 'Pathfinders' profiles Aboriginal trackers and explains the contribution they made to law enforcement in New South Wales. This is an important but neglected aspect of our history. This book draws on extensive archival research, oral history interviews, secondary sources and field work. But it is the author's flair for storytelling that brings this history vividly to life. This book explains how Indigenous customs and traditions, learned over 60,000 years, were intrinsic to their work whether it was catching bushrangers, finding lost children or missing farm animals. These trackers were highly skilled and a rare example of Indigenous skills transferable to the colonial economy. Tracking was more than just following a trail of footprints; it was understanding human behaviour, how to navigate rivers and landscapes, knowledge of plants and animals, and being able to negotiate with communities. These skills were passed on from generation to generation and remain valuable today, including in native title recognition. This book also grapples with terrible interactions that many Indigenous Australians had with law enforcement. Some Indigenous Australians were hostile to those men and women who cooperated with police. These trackers were invariably treated as heroes and saviours, and dreaded by criminals. This book is well researched and written, and makes a substantial contribution to better understanding our past.