Skip to content

James Dawson (1806 - 1900) Pastoralist, champion of the Aboriginal people, environmentalist.

James Dawson was an outstanding luminary in the colonial history of western Victoria.

He was famed for his knowledge of, and respect for the Aboriginal people and as a fierce advocate of their interests. But the welfare of the Aboriginals was not his only passion: if there was a pressing political or moral issue alive at the time, one could be sure James Dawson would have something to say about it. He continued with fervent letter writing in support of his causes until well in his 90s.

James Dawson was born on 5th July 1806 at Bonnytoun, near Linlithgow, Scotland. He was the youngest son of whiskey distiller Adam Dawson and his wife Frances {nee McKell}.

In 1837 he married Joan Anderson Park, a niece of the famous African explorer Mungo Park, at ‘Glorat House’, Campsie, Scotland. A failed business venture at Hackney in London and the delicate state of Joan’s health, prompted the Dawsons to migrate to the fledgling colony of Port Phillip to start a new life.

On the 24th November 1839 they set sail in the ship China, securing a comfortable stern cabin and bringing with them a flat packed two-roomed pine cottage with cooking utensils and preserved food. Among their fellow passengers were business partners George Selby and his family, and Patrick Mitchell, a nephew of James. They arrived at Williamstown, on 2nd May 1840.

A few months later Dawson, together with Selby and Mitchell, purchased a small dairy farm on the Yarra River above Anderson’s Creek, near present day Warrandyte. The Dawson’s only child, Isabella, was born there in 1842.

In 1844 James and his partners sold the farm and looked further afield for farming opportunities. James came to the Western District with Selby and Mitchell, and within a month they had taken up squatter’s rights over ‘Cox’s Heifer Station’, later re-named ‘Kangatong’, in the Hawkesdale area near Port Fairy. James returned to Melbourne to collect his wife and child for an arduous twenty-three day bullock dray journey to the new property.

Pictured left: ‘Kangatong Station’, 1857. Sketch by Eugene von Guerard. 

In the 1840s the colony was in economic depression and cattle and sheep were almost worthless. To try to make ends meet, James established a fat rendering plant at Port Fairy, a venture which also struggled. However, he continued on the land, and profited when the pastoral industry recovered and boomed as a result of the gold rushes in the 1850s. 

James sold his interest in ‘Kangatong’ in 1866 and for the next two years the Dawson’s managed a property at Keilor near Melbourne. They moved to the Camperdown area in 1868, where James leased a property on the south side of Lake Bullen Merri, which he named ‘Wuurong’. 

Unlike most people at the time, James Dawson and his daughter Isabella shared a deep interest in, and respect for the Aboriginal people They used their years at ‘Kangatong’ and Camperdown, to study the languages and cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Western District. In 1876, James was appointed the local Guardian of Aborigines. 

In 1881, James Dawson with the help of Isabella, published the landmark book Australian Aborigines: The Languages and Customs of Several Tribes of Aborigines in the Western District of Victoria, Australia

Dawson’s book draws on his daughter’s ability to speak the local languages and attempts a balanced description of a culture he considered ill-used and underappreciated by white settlers. Minute details about clothing, tools, settlement and beliefs combine to depict a complex society that possessed highly ritualised customs deserving of respect. Dawson also included an extensive vocabulary of words in three indigenous languages. His work provides valuable source material for modern researchers in anthropology and linguistics. It also provides priceless information for the descendants of the original Aboriginal people, to help them learn about their lost culture and languages.

After the death of his wife Joan in October 1879, James lived for a time with Isabella and her husband William Taylor at their property ‘Renny Hill’, on the north side of Lake Bullen Merri.

In 1882, Dawson travelled to his native Scotland for two years. In celebration of his return in 1884, his daughter Isabella organized some Aboriginal friends from Framlingham to perform a corroboree at ‘Renny Hill’. A report from the Camperdown Chronicle of 10th May, 1884 states: The corroboree was given in honour of the return to the colony, after an absence of two years, of Mr James Dawson, the great friend and protector of an almost extinct race.

In addition to his concern for the plight of the Aboriginal people, Dawson was deeply concerned about the destruction of the natural environment.

At Tower Hill, an extinct volcanic complex of crater lakes and scoria cones near Koroit, he foresaw impending ruin of this fine natural feature by land clearing and the draining of swamps that was occurring in the area. This led him to commission artist Eugene von Guerard to paint Tower Hill as it was in 1855. Such was the quality, accuracy and detail of von Guerard’s painting that over a century later it was carefully studied to help guide the rehabilitation of the Tower Hill Reserve.

James Dawson was also a very good amateur taxidermist and his collection was housed in an early Camperdown museum which he developed in the Mechanics Institute building. Later his collection was donated to the Camperdown Higher Elementary School in Wilson Street Camperdown. Unfortunately, when a fire destroyed the school in the 1940s, most of the collection was lost. 

James Dawson died on 19th April 1900 at the age of 93. He is buried with his wife Joan at Camperdown.