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Ross, Alexander Donald (Don) (1915–?)

PUBLICATION: Alexander Donald Pwerle Ross and Terry Whitebeach, The Versatile Man: The life and time of Don Ross, Kaytetye Stockman, Institute for Aboriginal Development, Alice Springs, 2007

NAME: Alexander Donald Pwerle Ross (Don)

SEX: Male

BIRTH PLACE: Barrow Creek Telegraph Station, Thangkenarenge

BIRTH DATE: 9 Feb 1915

LANGUAGES SPOKEN: Kaytetye, English

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Barrow Creek Telegraph Station: Where Don was born, and where his mother worked as a cook. (p.1)
  • Neutral Junction Station: George Hayes Senior bought Neutral Junction Station soon after Don was born; and Don and his mother moved there with him. Don lived in a tent inside a tin shed until George Hayes built a log cabin. (p.8) He enjoyed life of the station, which had a bountiful garden on the bank of the Neutral Creek. (p.12)
  • While Don lived in the homestead, he enjoyed hunting and gathering with the Kaytetye children who camped below the homestead.
  • Don worked as a stockman at Neutral Junction Station and Barrow Creek Station from the age of eight. By the end of the Second World War he had saved enough money to buy the property from his Grandfather, George Hayes. (p.119) His grandfather provided him with 3000 pounds, which went towards the 16,000 pounds that his agents were asking for Neutral Junction Station. (p.119)
  • When he sold Neutral Junction Station, Don worked at various stations in the Northern Territory: including Stirling, Annitowa, Ammaroo, Ooratippra and Arapunya Station. (p.133)
  • Alice Springs: Around 1957, Don built a house in Alice Springs so that his children from his first wife Lorna could attend school. (p.131) He moved to Alice Springs again with his third wife, Grace, when their children also required schooling. (p.153)
  • Katherine: In later life, Don worked as a saddler in Katherine for five years. (p.155)
  • Darwin: After leaving Katherine, Don moved to Darwin for ten years, and continued to work as a saddler. (p.154)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL:

  • n/a

EXPERIENCE OF EDUCATION:

  • Don never received a formal education. He presumed that this was because his Grandfather, George Hayes Senior, wanted him to obtain only practical skills so that Don could work on his property. (p.22)
  • Don was taught to read, write and count by Bill Abbott, who was a “well-educated” man from England. (p.22) While Bill was working at Neutral Station he noticed that Don was copying other peoples’ writing, as so began to give him classes in the evening.  (p.22)
  • Reading and writing came naturally to Don, and after Bill left he continued to teach himself.

EXPERIENCE OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • Don became a stockman on Neutral Junction Station at the age of eight. He claims he wasn’t forced to begin work at such a young age; rather he followed his Grandfather, and developed a passion for working with horses. (p.21)
  • By his late teens, Don was receiving top wages and running the stock camps. (p.79) He suggests that the other Aboriginal workers were jealous of his position as a “Big Stockmen”. (p.21)
  • Don was an excellent horseman and broke in many horses. (p. 85) He tells of his encounters with “proper jump-buckers” – or very wild horses – who he managed to subdue; subsequently only he could ride them. (p.85)
  • Don also describes the means he and the other stockman used to capture the cattle for castration and branding. This includes the “broncoing” methods, where the stockman rode near to a calf and threw a rope around him to “pull him up.” (p.89)
  • As well as mustering, castrating and branding cattle, Don did farm maintenance. He gained a reputation for being a quick-learner with a wide range of skills. (p.85)
  • Don also recounts the risks involved in being a stockman. He recalls his close encounters with dingoes, centipedes, snakes and spiders while camping in the wilderness. (pp.86-87) Don also remembers being attacked by cattle on numerous occasions and having accidents on horses. (pp.86-90)
  • During the Second World War, while the army was camped at New Barrow, Don worked to provide meat for the soldiers. (p.109) After that, Don travelled with a white mineral prospector named Steve Randwick. (p.110) He and Steve were forced to leave Katherine when the Japanese bombed it, and so he went to Anningie to look for tin. (p.110) Don then returned to work at New Barrow. (p.110)
  • By the end of the Second World War George Hayes decided to sell Neutral Junction Station. By that stage, Don had saved enough money to buy him out of the property (p.119) His grandfather gave him 3000 pounds, which he put towards the agents asking price of 16000 pounds. (p.119)
  • As the owner and manager on Neutral Junction, Don completed a number of major works. He built a meat cooler, installed electricity in the house and fenced a number of paddocks. (pp.120-121) Don notes that the fencing reduced the number of Aboriginal employees on the property.
  • Don had six station hands working for him, and three thousand head of cattle. (p.122) He kept a meticulous diary of everything that happened on the station. (p.122)
  • This situation changed when the Bennett and Fisher Stock and Station Agent installed a partner on the property, named Ken Milnes. Don described Ken as a lazy, inexperienced man with a gambling problem. (pp. 128-129) Ken’s tendency to run up debts and make costly errors on the station caused Don a great deal of anxiety. Eventually, he decided that he could neither work with Ken Milnes nor get rid of him, so he sold the station. (p.129)
  • Don regrets having to sell Neutral Junction, which was where he grew up and where the Kaytetye people lived. He blames Ken Milnes and the Stock and Station Agents for forcing him to give up his home. (p.130)
  • After selling Neutral Junction, Don was planning to move to Queensland before Stan Brown offered him a job working on a neighboring property, Stirling Station. (p.130) Stan paid Don 25 pounds a week, which was a very good salary for the time. (p.130)
  • In 1957, Stan sold Stirling Station and Don got a job repairing saddles in Alice Springs. (p.131) When he left his wife Lorna, he worked at numerous stations- including Stirling, Annitowa, Ammaroo, Ooratippra and Arapunya – as the head stockman, as well as a general farm labourer. (p.133) Don describes the work as tough but enjoyable and well paid.(p.133)
  • Don returned to Alice Springs with his third wife Grace so that their daughters could attend school, and again worked as a saddler. (pp.153) This job was time consuming, but much less taxing than working with cattle. (p.153)
  • Don then got a job working for the Alice Springs Council, gardening at Larapinta Park. He took pride in his work, and mourns the park’s decline since he left. (p.153)
  • Don then worked as a saddler in Katherine for four years, and in Darwin for ten years. (p.154) Declining health forced him to give up this profession when he was 70, and return to Alice Springs. (p.154)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • The Department of Native Affairs: The Department sent rations to Neutral Junction Station for the Kaytetye people. (p.123) When Don owned the property his wife Lorna distributed these rations. (p.123)
  • Bennett and Fisher Stock and Station Agent:  Bennett and Fisher Stock and Station Agent managed Don’s purchase of Neutral Junction Station from his Grandfather. (p.119) They later installed an inexperienced co-manager name Ken Milnes. Don presumes that Ken was either a friend of the Agents, or owed them money, because he was inexperienced and incapable of managing a station. (p.129)

Salient laws and policies:

  • When Don was young, it was illegal for a mixed-race man to have relations with a woman of full Aboriginal descent. Don claims that, because of this law, he and his Kaytetye partner Aileen lost their baby, as they were worried they would be charged if they took her to hospital. (p.33)
  • Don states that the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal people and the end of prohibition led him to become a heavy drinker in the 1970s. (p.138)
  • Despite his alcohol consumption, Don continued to work tirelessly on the stations. (p.138)

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Don recalls being bitten by a spider when he was a boy. He isn’t sure what type it was, but he became very ill. George Hayes treated him with salty water. (p.86)
  • During the Second World War, when the army was camped at New Barrow, Don got bad flu from sleeping in a wet saddlecloth with no blanket. (p.109) His throat closed up and he was admitted to the Army base hospital, and then on to Alice Springs Hospital. (p.109) Don was sick for long after he was released from hospital. (p.110)
  • Don was sent to hospital again during the war when he caught measles from the soldiers. (p.116)
  • While working as a stockman, Don had a number of bad falls from his horse. When he was 16 or 17, he dislocated his shoulder when a horse fell on top of him. (p.82) From then on, he had to ride with just one arm, and had to learn to crack a whip with his left hand. (p.82)
  • Don also hurt his foot with a pair of pliers, and the doctors had to “sew it back on again” using a skin graft from his thigh. (p.83) He also broke a toe when a bullock stood on his foot. (p.90)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS:

  • Hettie Hayes: Don’s mother was the daughter of George Hayes – a white landowner – and a Kaytetye woman named Connie Ngangkarle.(p.2)  Connie died of an unknown illness when Hettie was young. From then on Hettie lived with her father in the station homestead, but she continued to visit the Kaytetye people who camped at Neutral Junction. (p.2)
  • Hettie had four children while she was living at Neutral Junction, to four different fathers. None of her partner helped her to raise their children. (p.4)
  • Don describes his mother as a kind, industrious woman, an excellent cook, gardener and clothes-maker. (p.10)
  • When Don took over Neutral Junction, Hettie helped his wife Lorna to look after their eight children. When Don and Lorna moved to Alice Springs, she moved with them. When Lorna died, Hettie took full care of her grandchildren. (p.139)
  • Alec Ross: Don’s father was a Scottish stockman, who travelled around the district. He was never married to Hettie, and never played an important role in Don’s life. (p.3)
  • When Don met Alec as an adult, he chastised him for abandoning Hettie. (p.139)

RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARTNERS:

  • Don claims that many of Kaytetye women pursued him as a sexual partner. He presumes this was because he was the only person of mixed descent (and was considered better looking).(p.32)
  • One of Don’s partners was a woman named Aileen, who was his “promised wife” in Kaytetye law. (p.33) He also had an affair with a Kaytetye woman named Daisy, who was from the wrong skin group. (p.69) Don describes this relationship as his “biggest regret.” (p.69)  
  • In 1939, Don married Lorna, who he described as a “bush woman” from Western Australia. (p.76) At the time that he was courting Lorna, Don was also seeing a white woman called Ruby Ridgedale. (p.76)
  • Apparently, Lorna and Ruby both wanted to marry Don, and he was forced to choose between the two. He chose Lorna because he was worried that, if he ever got into an argument with Ruby, she would call him racist names. (p.77) Don later came to regret this decision. (p.77)
  • While Don was married, he also a child – Harry - with a Kaytetye women who was his “second choice”. (p.33)
  • When Don was in his fifties he left Lorna for a young woman named Emily Furber. Like Lorna, Don describes Emily as a “bush woman”, but recalls she was younger and better educated that he was. (p.131)
  • Don continued to provide for his family. However, he ignored Lorna’s pleas that he return, because he preferred his life with Emily. (p.131) After four years together, Emily died suddenly while she and Don were on holidays in Mount Isa. (p.131)
  • After Emily died, Don married another woman named Grace Miller. He describes Grace as tall woman who was “three parts Aboriginal, you know. Father was a half-caste and mother was black.” (p.132) Grace lived on various stations with Don, and they had three girls together. When their daughters were of school age, they moved back to Alice Springs. Grace died soon after from a chest infection, and her mother took care of their daughters. (p.153)
  • When he was in his seventies, Don was going to get married again to a woman name Ethel Holt. Unfortunately, she too passed away before the wedding. (p.155)

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • In total, Don had 24 children with multiple partners. He fathered his first daughter, Margaret, with a Kaytetye woman who used to sneak into his camp. (p.32)
  • Don then had a daughter with a woman named Aileen, who was his “promised wife” in Kaytetye law. (p.33) Their daughter died of pneumonia when she was a toddler. (p.33)
  • Don claims that the baby died because he and Aileen were worried they would be charged if they took her to hospital. At the time, it was illegal for a mixed-race man to have relations with a woman of full Aboriginal descent. (p.33)
  • Don had eight children with his first wife Lorna, who lived with him at Neutral Junction. Don recalls that the children were mischievous, and had a number of different pets, including an emu. (p.122)
  • While Don was married, he also had a child, Harry, with a Kaytete women who was his “second choice”. (p.33)
  • Don moved to Alice Spring in 1957 so that his children from his first wife Lorna could attend school. He built his family a house, and continued to provide for them when he left Lorna for his second wife Emily.(p.132)
  • Don and Lorna decided to take their son Noel out of school in Alice Springs, because he was getting into too many fights. (p.133) Noel subsequently went to work with his father as a stockman. He later returned to Alice Springs and got a job as a senior stock inspector. While working, he died in a helicopter accident. (p.134)
  • Don had three daughters with his third wife Grace. He spent much more time with his youngest children, and used to take them on outings while living on the Station. (p.132) He and Grace moved back into Alice Spring when it was time for them to attend school. (p.153)
  • When Grace died of a chest infection, her mother Fanny looked after the children. (p.153)

IMPORTANT/INFLUENTIAL FIGURES:

  • George Hayes Senior: Don’s maternal grandfather was a property owner and a linesman (a person who maintained telegraph lines). He had a number of Aboriginal mistresses, including Don’s grandmother Connie. When Connie died, George took Don’s mother Hettie with him to Neutral Station. (p.3)
  • Despite his liaisons with Aboriginal women, Don claims that George Senior “hated blacks”– or people of full Aboriginal descent  (p.25) The only exception was his friend Moses Kapetye, who Don describes as a “proper Kaytetye.” (p.25)
  • George Hayes’ nickname among the stockman was “Horn and Bulls”, because he could be an angry and violent man. George Hayes was very strict, but never violent towards Don. (p.23) He showed him occasional kindnesses by taking him into town on his buggy and buying him sweets. (p.23)
  • As well as being his grandfather, George Senior was also Don’s first employer and mentor. George taught Don lots of useful skills, which enabled him to rise quickly in the stockman ranks. However, George was also tight-fisted in managing his property, and he didn’t build enough windmills. This created extra work for Don, who had to cart water with camels. (p.60)
  • Don also regrets that his Grandfather wasn’t interested in his formal education. (p.22)
  • When George Hayes retired, he gave Don 3000 pounds to go towards the asking price his agent had put up for Neutral Station. (p.119) He then moved South and married a white woman named Molly. (p.119)
  • George Hayes Junior: Don’s maternal half-uncle, who was the only recognised son of George Hayes Senior. Like his father, George Hayes Junior had mixed-race children. Unlike his father, however, George Hayes Junior made sure his children received a formal education. (p.40)
  • When George Hayes Senior retired, George Hayes Junior did not have enough money to buy him out of Neutral Junction, so George snr sold it to Don instead. Don gave George Hayes Junior a job driving a truck and cutting timber. (p.120)
  • Old Grandfather Ross: Don’s paternal Grandfather. Don had less contact with Old Grandfather Ross, however he preferred him to George Hayes Senior. He recalls that Old Grandfather Ross used to make whips for him as a child.
  • Harry Ross: Old Grandfather Ross also had an Aboriginal mistress. As such, Don had a half-uncle of mixed descent named Harry Ross. (p.4)
  • Harry worked at Stirling Station. Don claims that Harry was a very hard man. Whenever issues arose with the Aboriginal stockmen, the property own called on Harry to “straighten them blackfellas up”. (p.5)
  • Steve Randwick: Steve and Don went prospecting for minerals together during the Second World War. (p.110)
  • Stan Brown: Stan was the owner of one of the neighboring properties, Stirling Station. He was a friend of Don’s, and gave him a job when he sold Neutral Junction.
  • Despite their friendship, Stan had a reputation for being cruel and murderous towards the Aboriginal people on his property. (p.125)
  • Stan’s wife tried to initiate an extra-marital relationship with Don. He rejected her advances, out of both fear and respect for his fried Stan. (p.126)
  • Ken Milnes: the Bennett and Fisher Stock and Station Agents installed Ken Milnes as Don’s partner at Neutral Station. (p.128) Don presumed that Ken owed the Agent’s money, or he was their friend, because he was an inadequate and inexperienced partner. (p.128)
  • Ken was a problem gambler, and he used to borrow money to fuel him habit. Don tried to get rid of Ken, but he wouldn’t leave because he had used the Station as a guarantee for his debts. (p.128)

THEMES/PREOCCUPATIONS:

The Kaytetye People:

  • Don’s mother was a Kaytetye woman. When he was growing up on Neutral Junction Station, most of his friends were Kaytetye.
  • Don felt sorry for the Kaytetye people, who lived in makeshift camps. (p.17) He claimed that he and his mother would have preferred the Kaytetye people to have lived with him in the homestead. However, his grandfather George Hayes would not allow it. (p.17) George Hayes also tried to prevent Don from speaking the Kaytetye language. (p.17)
  • Don claimed that George Hayes was frightened of the Kaytetye people, and used to sleep with a shotgun. At a result, the Kaytetye also feared George Hayes, and thought him a “savage bugger”. (p.23)
  • Don also worked alongside Kaytetye people as the head stockman, and they taught him how to identify food in the bush.(p.81)
  • Don believes that most of the Kaytetye people became stockman by force, rather than choice.
  • Don considered the Kaytetye people his best friends, because they were “easy-going, friendly, do anything for you”. He felt sorry for the fact that they were never paid in anything but tobacco. (p.31)
  • When Don became the owner of Neutral Station, his wife distributed rations among the Kaytetye people, sent from the Department of Native Affairs in Alice Springs. (p.123) When Don was forced to sell the property, he claims that they were sad to see him go. (p.130)

Clashes on the colonial front

  • Don recalls some clashes between pastoralists and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. For example, he claims that the Aboriginal people on Stirling Station tried to spear to manager, Stan Brown, because he was cruel to them. (p.124) As punishment, Stan killed the person responsible and burnt his body. (p.124)
  • Don claims that most issues between Aboriginal people and white pastoralist arose over women. (p.68) He remembers that Nugget Morton, the owner of Arrupetyene station, was attacked by an Aboriginal group because he had taken and woman into his camp. (p.??)
  • Don recalls the events surrounding the Coniston Massacre in 1928, when a number of Kaytetye people were killed in a revenge attack, following the death of Frederick Brooks. (p.68) He remembers that his Grandfather was relieved that Brooks death was avenged, and many Kaytetye people feared for their lives. (p. 68)

Sports

  • When he was a young man, Don was an excellent athlete. He recalls how he used to go to Barrow Creek sports day, and on one occasion he claims to have almost broken the world record in high jump. (p.24)
  • Bob Purvis, who became Don’s (classificatory) father in law, took him to Adelaide try out for the Olympics in 1936. Even with a broken collarbone, Don almost beat the South Australian champion. (p.25)

Child removal:

  • Don recalls that a number of mixed-raced children were taken away from their families in the Northern Territory. This included Don’s six-year-old son Alec, whose mother was a Kaytetye woman named Weedah.
  • Don was shocked when he found out that Alec had been institutionalized. He didn’t see Alec again until he was an adult with three children of his own. (p.73)
  • Don notes that George Hayes Junior’s mixed-race children were not removed because they were well look after. He claims that – on the same grounds – his son Alec should also have been allowed to stay with his family. Don believes that the only reason Alec was taken because he was away in Adelaide at the time. (p.72)
  • Weedah had another child, who was also taken by the authorities. According to Don “she died a sick woman”. (p.74)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: The Versatile Man is based on Don’s interviews with Terry Whitebeach. It also includes supplementary information and questions from Myfanwy Turpin, Emily Hayes and Shirleen McClaughlin.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Ross, Alexander Donald (Don) (1915–?)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/ross-alexander-donald-don-17823/text29408, accessed 23 July 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012