It is not often a headstone will create controversy, but in the case of the solitary grave of James Stapleton and John Franks, buried at Barrow Creek, that is very much the case. Barrow Creek is a tiny town in the Northern Territory, population of around 11, but in 1874 it was established as a telegraph outpost.
Gravesite of James Stapleton and John Franks, killed by Aboriginals at Barrow Creek. Photo courtesy Lhea Schweikert
The site for the telegraph station was chosen in September 1871 due to the presence of surface water and for a well site of about 10 to 12 feet. The Barrow Creek Telegraph Station was one of twelve repeater stations between Adelaide and Port Darwin. In 1873, 5000 sheep were driven overland from South Australia to be distributed amongst the Telegraph Stations along the Overland Telegraph Line. In that same year local Aboriginal people speared a horse and some sheep at Barrow Creek. It was possibly a sign of things to come.
James Stapleton was a Canadian public servant who had come to the colonies with plenty of experience working with telegraph lines in Canada, the USA and Central America. He was one of the first operators to come to the Northern Territory, spending some time in Katherine, before taking up the role as station master at Barrow Creek.
Not much is known of John Frank's background, except that he was a linesman at Barrow Creek, at the same time James Stapleton was station master and William Flint was an assistant operator.
On Sunday evening, 22 February, 1874, Stapleton, Frank, Flint, and a few others, including a young Aboriginal employee, were sitting outside the telegraph station, when they were beset on by a group of Aboriginal men from the local Katetye people. Frank was killed by a spear straight to the heart, and as the others ran for cover, they were all wounded by a volley of the same weapons engulfing them.
Stapleton would die of his wounds the next day, while Flint and the Aboriginal lad would recover from their injuries (although, after a short illness Flint died 14 years later at only 33 years of age). One of the other survivors was a police trooper named Samuel Gason.
Over the next six weeks, Gason along with a constable from The Peak and staff from the Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek Telegraph Stations, went in search of the culprits and carried out four punitive expeditions against Aboriginal people between Taylor Creek and Central Mount Stuart.
Barrow Creek Telegraph Station as it stands today. Courtesy Northern Territory Government
A report in the South Australian Register after these revenge attacks indicated the randomness at which they were undertaken.
'...announcing the death of three natives as the issue of an encounter which took place in April, several weeks after the original outrage. It is something to know that these unfortunates were present on the occasion of the attack, but they must have played a very subordinate part in it, for they were not included either by name or description in the previous warrant under which Police trooper Gason and his band purported to act.'
The revenge attacks, while no exact figures are available, went on to cost possibly more than 100 Aboriginal lives.
There has been plenty of speculation as to why the local tribe attacked the telegraph workers. Water was scarce in Barrow Creek and as mentioned above, the telegraph station was built where there was surface water, a precious commodity for the local tribes. There were also rumours that white men had had their way with the Aboriginal women, kidnapping and raping them, and the attack was in retribution against the white men that were available, rather than the actual criminals.
Another possibility for the attack was, according to MJ O'Reilly, who had gotten to know a member of the Katetye tribe, they were highly offended that the telegraph station had been built on a sacred site.
It seems both sides may have taken the opportunity to exact revenge at the first opportunity, rather than actually dispensing justice. Whatever the reason and whatever the offence, many lives were unnecessarily lost.
'Scene of One-Time Massacre', Chronicle, SA, Thursday, 10 November, 1932, Page 39
'Barrow Creek, NT', Aussie Towns, accessed 17th March, 2023, https://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/barrow-creek-nt
'Barrow Creek Telegraph Station Information Sheet', Northern Territory government, accessed 17th March, 2023, https://nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/200056/barrow-creek-telegraph-station-information-sheet-and-map.pdf
'Katetye People', Wikipedia, accessed 17th March, 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaytetye_people
'Telegraph Tragedies', Adelaide Observer, Saturday 30 May, 1903, Page 42
'Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930', The Centre for 21st Century Humanities, accessed 17th March, 2023, https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/detail.php?r=700
'The Barrow Creek Affair', South Australian Register, Thursday 25 June 1874, Page 4.