Kitty Pluto was one of the most successful Aboriginal prospectors on the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland.
Aboriginal people have been involved in Australian prospecting and mining from its beginning. Aboriginal guides and assistants were as crucial to frontier prospectors as they were to explorers; their bushcraft was used to find mineralisation as well as tracks and water. On the small remote fields of the north, their labour was particularly important. Henry Reynolds cites the Mulgrave mining warden writing in 1891, that local Aborigines were “Very useful to the miners, who have so many difficulties to contend against, in a country so much broken and covered with so dense a jungle”. On the Rocky goldfield, on Cape York, local Aborigines carried in all supplies because the country was too hard for packhorses.
Aborigines also prospected and mined, either alone, or as partners or assistants of non-indigenous miners. Unfortunately, they are seriously under-documented and we know only a few of them by name. The most notable was Jupiter Mosman, who is credited with the discovery of the Charters Towers field in 1871, but the majority of Aboriginal diggers worked in the far north, especially in Cape York Peninsula. In the early 1870s, during the Palmer gold rush, Romeo discovered the tinfield of Mount Romeo south of Cooktown on the Annan River. A small town grew up, with a store, hotel and a post office that only closed in 1930. An unnamed Aboriginal woman is said to have encouraged the rush to the Hodgkinson goldfield in the late 1870s by discovering rich quartz on the banks of Explorer Creek at Thornborough.
Later in the century, Asmus was with the Webb brothers in 1891 when they found the antimony deposits on the already established Coco Creek goldfield. Miners worked this field into the second decade of the twentieth century. Aboriginal diggers discovered the Jordan reef behind Innisfail in 1898. The settlement that grew there supported a postal receiving office until 1906. In 1909, a Mount Emu Plains stockman, called King, discovered the gold of Mount Emu on the Flinders River. Keating, who discovered and worked scheelite at Keating’s Claim in the Burton Range in 1917 was also Aboriginal. During World War Two the women of Moa in the Torres Strait worked the wolfram shows when the men enlisted.
The Batavia goldfield was first discovered in October 1892 on Retreat Creek, a tributary of the Wenlock River. The lucky prospector was Romeo, in partnership with non-indigenous prospectors William Baird and Jack Duval. About 150 men rushed to a camp called Bairdsville. Most had left by 1894, but Baird and Romeo remained there until, in 1896, Baird was killed by local Aborigines. Romeo disappeared from history. The Batavia field lay idle until about 1910 when an Aboriginal couple from Rockhampton, Pluto and Kitty Pluto, began to prospect in the Mein-Wenlock area.
In October, the couple found gold lead at a place they called Plutoville. The superintendent of the Mein telegraph station helped them legalise their claims. There was a small rush to the ground which gave good returns of very pure gold (including 213 ounces in nuggets found by Pluto and his non-indigenous partner, Anderson). Rough camps called Chock-a-Bloc, Lower Camp and, of course, Bairdsville, were supplied from Coen, 80 miles away.
Batavia became the Wenlock in 1915 when Kitty Pluto discovered the field’s richest leads at Lower Camp in 1915. The town of Wenlock was established in the wake of Kitty’s discovery, though it was not formally so named until 1938. Kitty made another rich find in the area in 1922. The Wenlock mines were worked until the Second World War, producing nearly 35,000 ounces of gold. The maximum population was 160 in 1932, when there were two mills on the field. In 1940 Peter Larsen tabled a £a310,000 Batavia gold exhibit at the Cairns Show. The last resident of Wenlock died there in 1957. His name and history are known, but almost nothing is known about Kitty Pluto, without whom the town would not have existed.
Colin Hooper, Angor to Zillmanton: stories of North Queensland’s deserted towns (Brisbane, 2nd edition, 1995); Henry Reynolds, With the White People: The crucial role of Aborigines in the exploration and development of Australia (Ringwood, Victoria, 1990); Glenville Pike, Queen of the North: A Pictorial History of Cooktown and Cape York Peninsula (Mareeba, Queensland, 1979).
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