The theme for History Week this year is From the Ground Up; very relevant to the Yass Valley. The pastoral industry was the basis for the settlement of this fertile district and continues to be important today. 

From early days of the settlement at Port Jackson in 1788 men had pushed out in all directions in pursuit of land, but it was Hamilton Hume’s sighting of the Yass Plains in 1821 that pre-empted the establishment of farming enterprises in the Yass district. His fellow explorer on the epic overland trek to Port Phillip, William Hilton Hovell, noted in 1833 “There are at present both to the South and West, stations upwards of a 100 miles beyond Mr Hume’s station such has been the rapid improvements of the colony in eight years.” This may have resulted from the encouragement given by the Sydney Gazette of 18 November 1830 which enthusiastically endorsed the Yass district, “It abounds with some of the richest pasturage in the world for sheep and cattle” and added “These fertile (Yass) plains would yield a plentiful living to the thousands of our fellow subjects now perishing in England” 

Initially holdings in the Yass district were measured in the thousands of acres for ex-convicts such as George Davis at Gounyan and free settlers alike. Owning land meant you were somebody as exemplified by the class based land tenure system in England and in the New South Wales colony land grants were freely given as a means to establish the colony. The Aboriginal claims to the land were generally ignored in this process; the traditional lifestyle of the Ngunnawal peoples of the Yass region would have clashed with the newcomers in a fight they ultimately could not win. Perhaps the more fortunate Aboriginal groups were those who were permitted to stay on the new runs carved out of their traditional areas by early settlers such as Henry O’Brien, Hamilton Hume, George Barber, the Mantons and John Terry. From as early as the 1840s however the district also saw small holdings taken up by ambitious free men who had been sponsored to come to the colony as labour for the pastoralists. With the Robertson Land Act of 1861, it was often these men who grasped the opportunity to add to their small holdings thus breaking up some of the big runs but further alienating Aboriginal people from their traditional land. 

Wool became the main game and a very profitable one. Whichever way land was obtained it was a hard, often isolated and precarious life for families with regular droughts, bushfires, confronting encounters with alienated Aboriginal people, uncertain supply routes over barely formed roads and huge variations in wool prices. But from the ground up the pastoral industry saw the development of villages and towns such as Yass, Gundaroo, Bowning, Binalong, Bookham and Murrumbateman.  Various mining ventures came and went but it was sheep, wool, cattle, grain and orchards that sustained these small settlements. 

Whilst there were many dedicated fine wool sheep breeders noted in the district it is Sir Walter Merriman – Knighted in 1954 by the Queen for services to the wool industry – and his Merryville stud that established Yass internationally as the Fine Wool “capital” of Australia. Yass may have been overlooked when the site for the National capital was promulgated in 1913 but it can be proud of its other title. 

Judith Davidson 

For the Yass and District Historical Society 

Image courtesy of Diana McQuillan’s private collection