COUTTS CROSSING: A place we call home
The name Coutts Crossing carries the legacy of a regrettable chapter in the early history of the region. The solution is simple - change it, right? But what if it's the place your family has called home for generations? What if your childhood memories are filled with a happy association of a place you are proud to say you belong? The Daily Examiner editor Bill North met with Coutts Crossing residents to gain perspective on why they don't believe changing the name will achieve anything for the broader community.
FEW deny 23 Aboriginal people died from eating poisoned flour, allegedly given to them by property owner Thomas Coutts, near Kangaroo Creek about 28km south of Coutts Crossing in late November, 1847.
But many residents, such as Coutts Crossing Hall custodian Teddy Bowles, view plans to change the name of the village as a fruitless exercise, and feel vilified by a 'green movement'.
"My concern is this may be a 'green movement' not necessarily intiated by the community as a whole," she said.
"We acknowledge the history of Coutts and are respectful of what has happened in the past, but we must remember that not all history is 'good history'.
"The important thing is to learn from history's mistakes and to move forward as a community. Changing a name won't change history nor erase the alleged actions of one man. But in fact, keeping the name serves to recognise and acknowledge those losses.
"The history of Coutts Crossing is more than the action of one man and to lose its name now will only strip the community of its identity and cost the community financially."
Coutts Crossing is named after Thomas Coutts as the first European settler to cross the Orara River where the Armidale Rd bridge is built adjacent to the village.
"It's not named in honour of him, it's just the fact he was the first to cross the river here," Nymboida resident John Cooper said.
"There's also a Coutts Water at the longest head of the Nymboida between Ebor and Dorrigo, and Coutts Crown is a peak at the top of the Clarence (near Urbenville)."
Mr Cooper suggested if authorities were to change the name, they could call it Burragan's Crossing, named after a locality near the current Coutts Crossing village which had a school, a butter factory and a reserve.
But rather than change the name, Mr Cooper suggested to place the traditional name underneath Coutts Crossing signs, as well as other Clarence Valley towns, consistent with what other places have already done throughout Australia.
"The old name of Coutts Crossing was Darm-mer-ar," he said.
"Changing the name won't rectify what happened in the past. Keeping in context with the times, there was crime and punishment on both members of the populace.
"There's no doubt Coutts probably did what he was accused of, this just happened to be where he crossed the river."
Lower Kangaroo Creek resident Von Rogers and her husband Alan were founding members of the Coutts Crossing Historical Society in 1982.
"We agree (to change the name) as long as they change the name of every place, every road, every town where something untoward happened," Mrs Rogers said.
"There's wonderful people here, lovely people who help each other. We have grandchildren who go to school and it's inappropriate to tag us as the village of the damned. That is an insult to the people of this town."
Mrs Rogers said times were harsh for both races of people during the early days of settlement.
Her husband Alan is a direct descendant of Richard Craig, who was a 16-year-old escaped convict from Moreton Bay who lived for several years with the indigenous population at Dalmorton. In 1839 he led the first timber crew in the Clarence Vallery to the red cedars along what was known as Craig's Trail.
So how about Craigstown?
Another suggestion is Yuraara - the traditional name of the Orara River.
Coutts Crossing resident Julie Burke explained historical documents indicated Coutts arrived with several thousand head of sheep and cattle and left with less than he started.
"He had a lot of land, but not a lot of it was arable, and by the time all this was happening he was struggling, the livestock was easy killings for the Aborigines," Mrs Burke said.
"Everyone was trying to survive."
Wayne Burke suggested building a memorial at the Coutts Crossing Historical Society opposite the hall explaining the history of what happened.
Adrian Pryor has lived in Coutts Crossing for 13 years and felt a retraction was in order from The Daily Examiner for the front page headline 'Village of the damned' published by on June 2.
"I don't condone what happened, but nobody does it now, so changing the name won't change anything," Mr Pryor said.
"There are lots of friendly people here, I was made to feel very welcomed by my neighbours when I first arrived at Coutts Crossing."
Mal Tilse, who is part Aboriginal, moved to Coutts Crossing with his family in 1992 and his children attended Coutts Crossing Public School, where the region's early history was taught.
"We all know the story, but that was 170 years ago," Mr Tilse said.
If it was changed then what do people like my children who grew up in Coutts say when they're are asked where they grew up and went to school?
"Then you've got tohe cost of changing all the maps and a whole series of stuff."
Gerald Hay's family has lived in Coutts Crossing since 1871. He was concerned changing the name would be a highly involved and costly exercise.
"If they change the Coutts name, they have to change the hall's name, the church's name, the store, the school, and the cemetery."
Coutts Tavern licensee Evan Groth said most of his patrons were not happy about the push to change the village's name.
"Not one person who's come through here has been in favour of it," he said.
Glen Gillett was born and bred at nearby Blaxlands Creek, which was also named after an early settler implicated in a suspected murder of an Aboriginal person.
He is also a descendant of Henry Gillett who was a part-owner of 'Susan', one of the first ships to sail up the Clarence River to Grafton and of which Susan Island is named after.
"They can't change the name of Coutts Crossing - it never happened here," Mr Gillett said. "All the crossings are named after the people who first crossed them."
Coutts Crossing resident and motoring journalist Des Henwood also opposed suggestions of a name change.
"It's a really sad situation but it's happened in other places and they haven't changed their names," Mr Henwood said.
Michael Williamson suggested there were more important things to focus on.
"Why change history? The place is named Coutts Crossing since white fella first came here," Mr Williamson said.
"If they want to do something about this, put it to the electorate.
"But there are better things to be discussing, like fixing up Armidale Rd, rather than change some signs that will cost council more money.
"All these great ideas don't do anything to help the Aboriginal people."
"If they want to do something for the Aboriginal people, why don't they go down to the Coutts Crossing cemetery and find out why all the Aboriginal crosses are no longer there."
OPINION: A sign of the times
The Coutts Crossing name change debate has opened some sores on both sides.
The descendants of the 23 Gumbaynggirr people poisoned to death cannot fathom that an alleged mass murderer's legacy lives in the name of a town near where the atrocities occurred.
The residents argue that little will be achieved by changing the name or trying to bury the past. They feel the significant costs to change signs, maps and club names as well as the loss of their own identity outweighs any community benefit from changing the name.
What happened at Kangaroo Creek was not an isolated incident, and it is a sad indictment on the legal system at the time that Thomas Coutts and other murderers walked free during those times.
But often history serves to remind us of the lessons we have learnt. Of how far we have come as a society.
Much of the world, including Australia, was a barbaric place in the 1800s. Many parts of the world still are. But we are fortunate we now live in a nation that deplores racial conflict, where food is plentiful and avenues exist for communities to embrace their own culture, however much was lost from these tragedies in our shared history.
The people of Coutts Crossing are connected to the name not because of some lauded hero, but because it has forever in their lives been their 'Coutts', and it will always be.
Nymboida resident John Cooper, who has a thorough knowledge of the region's history, had some thoughtful suggestions.
Why not place the traditional name of every Clarence Valley town underneath the name assigned by Europeans?
While some of Mr Cooper's translations differed from the Gumbaynggirr Language database we sourced from the National Parks and Wildlife Service's Discovery resource (at end of this article), here's a few he provided:
- Coutts Crossing - Darmmerar
- Grafton - Judarlmun
- South Grafton - Bunggigar
- Nymboida - Nhimboy
Gumbaynggirr place names
ACCORDING to the Gumbaynggirr Language database on the NPWS Discovery resource, the original Gumbaynggirr name for Coutts Crossing was Daam Miirlarl. Here are just a handful of the traditional names of other townships on Gumbaynggirr land:
- Buccarumbi - Bugurrang
- Dalmorton - Ngandaam
- Glenreagh - Jungguuy
- Glenugie Peak - Gunayjin
- Halfway Creek - Baany
- Jackadgery - Jaganyji
- Kangaroo Creek - Dawaalam
- Mary's Waterhole - Miimiga Gawngganba Miirlarl
- Nymboida - Nyiimbuy
- Sherwood - Nilga
- Skinners Swamp - Nyanuumgu
Source: Gumbaynggirr Language database, NPWS Discovery resource