Fremantle Stuff > organisations > First People

First People, aka Aboriginal/Indigenous people, Nyoongar

Walyalup is the Nyoongar name for what the colonisers called Fremantle. The people living here were and are the river-plain people, the Whadjuk. The country south of Derbal Yaragan (Swan) and Booragoon (Canning) rivers was called Beeliar. At the time of colonisation, 1829, the most prominent of the people in this country were Midgegooroo and his son Yagan. They had both been shot dead five years later.

In the south west of Western Australia at the time of European settlement, there were approximately thirty separate tribes and for the land centring on the Guildford area and extending for about 2000 square kilometres there was a minimum of around 450 persons. In Charles Symmons’ census of Perth Aborigines taken in 1840 he lists the names of all those then living on either side of the Swan River and acknowledges them as the ‘original owners of the land’. For the area running from Mt. Eliza to just past Broun’s farm was the land of Monday and from Bassendean to the head of the Swan was, so Symmons tells us, the province of Wiap. (Carter 1986: 16)

South of the main waterway (the Aborigines called it 'beela') lay the country of the Beeliar, a tribe which at time of settlement had Yagan and his father Midgegooroo among its leaders. (Williams: 2)


About thirteen Noongar groups or tribes then lived on the plains of the Swan River. Each tribe followed seasonal hunting trends as they moved within the traditional borders of their country. Countries like Mooro, Beeliar and Walyalup spread naturally across the landscape we now know of as Perth and its suburbs. Yellagonga, Munday and Midgegooroo were their leaders.
The Noongar people of this region were called Whadjuk. ... Midgegooroo and his wife led the Walyalup Aborigines when Stirling first brought his British gentlefolk to Fremantle. His son, Yagan, was then considered by the English as ‘not a chief’ but nonetheless ‘ranked amongst the princes of the country’. As frontier conflict mounted around the Swan River, Midgegooroo and Yagan led their people in negotiations with the colonists and in resistance to their dispossession. By 1834, though, Midgegooroo was dead - executed in Perth at a nod from Stirling [actually Irwin; Stirling was in England] while bound captive to a door - and the patriot Yagan was murdered by two white boys in his country near Fremantle. Gare: 9-10.

Terminological notes (GG):
The term First Nation[s] [People] has become the accepted term now - actually during the year 2019, by my observation, replacing the earlier terms 'native', 'Aboriginal', and 'Indigenous [people]', as each successive term came to be seen as insufficiently respectful. Two points. First, the term 'First Nation people' is quite a mouthful. Second, it's inaccurate. The numbers of the first people were not large, as they lived subsistently off the land, which could not sustain large numbers. And they were not organised in anything remotely like what 'nation' usually means, but rather in small family and 'skin' (clan) groups. Estimates of all the people who lived south of the Swan and west of the Canning Rivers down to, say, Rockingham, were only a few hundred - where now hundreds of thousand of people (but not a nation) live. A third note: we've copied this term from - as usual - North America - the masters of our evolving language, as also almost everything else.

Chris Owen:
For terminology regarding Aboriginal people, ‘country’ describes land and sea areas belonging to different language groups. The complexity of Aboriginal society across the Kimberley was unknown to colonists at the time and it included up to seven different types of social organisation concerning kinship systems, marriage divisions, and classificatory ‘Sections’ also known as ‘skin names’. The prevailing assumption was that Aboriginal people lived and moved in defined areas and possessed a ‘tribal structure’ that shared a common language and culture. This perception was reflected in later anthropology and the term ‘tribes’ was used extensively up until the 1950s to describe what are now generally known as language or dialect groups that consisted of smaller ‘bands’, ‘hordes’ or clans. Aboriginal people could also often speak a variety of dialects of the same language and their identity was not fixed. For example a person may be from ‘coastal’ Warwa country but have affiliations with another location. The term ‘tribe’ is used [in his book] if quoted in a historical source. Similarly ‘mob’ was extensively utilised to describe anything from ‘tribes’ to family groups.  

References and Links

Baines, Patricia 1987, The Heart of Home: The Intergenerational Transmission of a Nyungar Identity, University of Western Australia dissertation.

Bolton, G. C. 1981, 'Black and white after 1897', in Tom Stannage ed., A New History of Western Australia, UWAP: 124-180.

Bracknell, Clint, 2014, 'Kooral Dwonk-katitjiny (listening to the past): Aboriginal language, songs and history in south-western Australia', Aboriginal History, Vol. 38.

Carter, Bevan 2006, Nyungah Land: Records of invasion and theft of Aboriginal land on the Swan River, 1829-1850, research by Bevan Carter and Lynda Nutter, foreword by Robert Bropho, Swan Valley Nyungah Community, Guildford.

Carter, Bevan, Eden Hill Camps: Records of Racism in Australia.

Crawford, I. M. 1981, 'Aboriginal cultures in Western Australia', in Tom Stannage ed., A New History of Western Australia, UWAP: 3-34.

Delmege, Sharon 2000, The Fringedweller's Struggle: Cultural Politics and the Force of History, PhD dissertation, Murdoch University.

Dortch, Charles & Joe Dortch 2012, 'Archaeological evidence for early human presence in the western reaches of the Greater Swan Region, WA'Fremantle Studies, 7: 51-76.

Gare, Deborah 2014, 'The female frontier: race and gender in Fremantle 1829-1839', Fremantle Studies, 8: 1-18.

Green, Neville 1981, 'Aborigines and white settlers in the nineteenth century', in Tom Stannage ed., A New History of Western Australia, UWAP: 72-123.

Hallam, Sylvia J. 1981, 'The first Western Australians', in Tom Stannage ed., A New History of Western Australia, UWAP: 35-71.

Hughes-Hallett, Debra 2010, Indigenous History of the Swan and Canning Rivers, Curtin University.

Lyon, Robert Menli [Robert Lyon Milne] 1833, ‘A glance at the manners and language of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia with a short vocabulary’, Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 30 March 1833: 52. The second part [of four?] of the article was published in Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 20 April 1833: 63-4. Many of the first people's names for places above come from this source. The author's real name was Robert Lyon MILNE.

Owen, Chris 2016, Every Mother's Son is Guilty: Policing the Kimberley Frontier of Western Australia 1882-1905, UWAP.

Pascoe, Bruce 2014, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Magabala Books, Broome.

Williams, A.E. 1984, Nedlands: From Campsite to City, City of Nedlands.

Nyungar Wardan Katitjin Bidi-Derbal Nara (People's Ocean Knowledge Trail of Cockburn Sound and Districts).

Garry Gillard | New: 4 May, 2018 | Now: 4 June, 2021