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George Musgrave (c. 1920–2006)

by Christine Musgrave and Noelene Cole

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George Musgrave, Mary Valley, Cape York Peninsula

George Musgrave, Mary Valley, Cape York Peninsula

Photograph by Noelene Cole

George Musgrave (c. 1920–2006), Kuku Thaypan speaker, knowledge holder, and teacher, was born in c. 1920 on Kuku Thaypan Country at Five Mile Creek near Musgrave telegraph station, Cape York Peninsula, far north Queensland. His father was Old George Musgrave (also known as Deafy George or George Deafy) and his Kuku Thaypan language name was Me Rromi (Eaglehawk Man). In later life family and friends called him ‘Poppy.’

Kuku Thaypan people endured decades of persecution and cultural disruption following the discovery of gold at Palmer River by Europeans in 1872. Musgrave related how, in the ‘wild time’ (Musgrave 1999)—the Frontier Wars—his Old People fought the Native Mounted Police, a heavily armed paramilitary force tasked with facilitating colonial expansion and settlement in Queensland by eliminating Aboriginal resistance and dispossessing Aboriginal people of their lands. In 1897 Musgrave’s father had led his people to meet Sub-Inspector James Lamond of the Native Mounted Police at Five Mile Creek to try to resolve ongoing conflict in the area. Later, Deafy George became a police tracker at Musgrave Native Mounted Police camp. George Musgrave described him as a courageous man who chose to carry ‘a bundle of spears’ (Musgrave 1999) rather than a gun. He stated that his father was the first Aboriginal person in the area to speak English.

During the frontier turmoil, Musgrave’s extended family was drawn into cattle station life as a way of staying on Country and surviving the devastating impacts of colonisation. They provided skilled (unwaged) labour to white pastoralists and became pioneers and mainstays of the cattle industry. Cattle station life enabled the family to maintain aspects of their customary lifestyles, particularly in the wet season when there was little station work to do. The Old People taught Musgrave the ceremonies, stories, and story places of his Country; how to track, hunt, gather, and cook bush foods; how to make artefacts such as spears, woomeras, and baskets; and how to prepare bush medicine in the traditional way. He was fluent in his father’s language, Awu Laya (a Kuku Thaypan language), his mother’s language, Olkola, and those of neighbouring cultural groups. English was his fourth or fifth language.

Having learned to ride horses and work with cattle as a child, Musgrave began stock work when he was around ten. Fred and Mary Shephard, the lessees of several stations in the area, purchased Musgrave station in 1931. Musgrave and his younger brother Tommy George, later known as TG, viewed the Shephards as family and called them dad and mum. In the 1930s many Aboriginal children and adults were forcibly, often brutally, removed from their families by police and sent to distant missions and reserves. Musgrave remembered the day when the police rode up on horses and questioned his mother at the homestead: ‘You got any black kids here? Don’t tell lies to us’ (Musgrave 1999). Fred Shephard acted quickly to conceal the brothers in mailbags in the storeroom. The boys were grateful to Fred for saving them from the fate that befell many others, including their grandmother, Royan, and her son, their ‘little uncle’ (Musgrave 1999). Later, Musgrave was reunited with them at Palm Island, but there were other relatives removed who he never saw again.

An accomplished stockman, Musgrave regularly drove herds of cattle over two hundred miles (322 km) south to saleyards at Mareeba. These journeys took many weeks and required expert droving skills and detailed knowledge of the stock route and the environment. His older brother Jerry Shephard worked as a tracker for the Laura police. When he retired, Musgrave took over, working as police tracker at Laura until the 1990s. Musgrave was frequently called on to find people lost in the bush. He enjoyed recounting his adventures, such as when he disguised himself as ‘an old woman’ to arrest an armed fugitive.

In the mid-1960s Musgrave had married Kathleen Banjo, daughter of Lena Banjo, a traditional owner for Laura, giving him additional rights and responsibilities there to those inherited at his Country of birth. The couple lived for a while at the police station at Laura before moving to the Old Reserve, an area of land overlooking the Laura River where Aboriginal people had camped since at least the 1880s. After retiring as a tracker, Musgrave focused on caring for his large household and undertaking cultural and community work. He was widely respected as a Murri doctor—an Aboriginal person with deep knowledge of traditional medicine and healing powers. With TG he taught language and culture classes at Laura State School for many years, and he was a founding member of Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation and their ranger unit in the mid- to late 1980s.

Musgrave was a key Kuku Thaypan claimant in the Lakefield (Rinyirru) National Park land claim in the 1990s. Through sharing his deep knowledge of culture, languages, stories, and land/people connections, he contributed significantly to this and other successful Aboriginal claims. A magnificent corroboree dancer, he taught younger community members to paint up, dance, sing, and keep time with clapsticks at the biennial Laura Dance Festival. As well as teaching the younger people of his community, he educated linguists, anthropologists, scientists, archaeologists, teachers, students, and tourists about his Country and culture. His knowledge was crucial to various environmental, cultural heritage, and archaeology programs on Cape York Peninsula, including the Quinkan Prehistory project, a major interdisciplinary research venture that confirmed the antiquity and continuity of Aboriginal occupation and rock art practice in the region. An eloquent public speaker, he was in demand at land management meetings and rock art conferences.

From the early 2000s, Musgrave collaborated on a traditional knowledge recording project with TG, Bruce Rigsby, Victor Steffensen, and others. As part of the project, he visited Museum Victoria, Melbourne, where he provided valuable information on materials in the Stewart River part of the Donald Thomson Collection. He was delighted to identify himself (as a child) and relatives in photographs taken by Thomson around 1929. With TG and Steffensen, he presented training workshops across Australia on land care and fire management based on traditional knowledge and practice. Musgrave and TG were awarded honorary doctorates of letters from James Cook University in 2005 in recognition of their many achievements in conservation, cultural heritage management, and education.

Predeceased by his wife, Musgrave died at his home at Laura on 9 February 2006 and was buried in Laura cemetery. His daughter Christine has carried on the family tradition of community engagement in her roles as an Elder, senior ranger, and active board member of Ang-Gnarra Aboriginal Corporation.


Christine Musgrave is the daughter of George Musgrave and Kathleen Banjo Musgrave and is a native title holder of Thaypan and Kuku Warra lands. She was born on Country at Laura and continues to live there with her family.

Noelene Cole is an archaeologist who has worked in south-east and south-central Cape York Peninsula with Traditional Owners including Christine George for many years.

Select Bibliography

  • Cole, Noelene. ‘Battle Camp to Boralga: A Local Study of Colonial War on Cape York Peninsula, 1873–1894.’ Aboriginal History 28 (2004): 156–89
  • Cole, Noelene, George Musgrave, Laura George, Tommy George, and Danny Banjo. ‘Community Archaeology at Laura, Cape York Peninsula.’ Tempus 7 (2002): 137–50
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘416 Miles’ Mercy Flight.’ 19 January 1949, 5
  • Morwood, M. J., and D. R. Hobbs. Quinkan Prehistory: The Archaeology of Aboriginal Art in S.E. Cape York Peninsula, Australia. St Lucia, Qld: Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland, 1995
  • Musgrave, George. Interview for Laura Community Oral History Project. 1999. Transcription by N. Cole
  • Personal knowledge of IADB subject
  • Queensland. Land Tribunal. Aboriginal Land Claim to Lakefield National Park. Brisbane: The Tribunal, 1996

Citation details

Christine Musgrave and Noelene Cole, 'Musgrave, George (c. 1920–2006)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

George Musgrave, Mary Valley, Cape York Peninsula

George Musgrave, Mary Valley, Cape York Peninsula

Photograph by Noelene Cole

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Me Rromi (Eaglehawk Man)
  • Poppy

c. 1920
Musgrave Telegraph Station, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, Australia


9 February, 2006 (aged ~ 86)
Laura, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.