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Pluto (1869–1916)

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This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Pluto, 1890

Pluto, 1890

Queensland State Archives, ITM341532, DR17429

William Davis (1869–1916), prospector and mining entrepreneur, better known as Pluto, was born at Charters Towers, Queensland, in 1869. He worked as a stockman and possessed a detailed knowledge of the people, places, and workings of the stations of the lower Burdekin River. During his twenties he was often before the magistrate for fighting, vagrancy, and drunkenness. In 1889 he spent two months in Townsville gaol for assaulting a constable, and in 1890–92 was sentenced to two years at Brisbane’s Boggo Road for burglary. At the time of his second committal he was recorded as being five feet six inches (168 cm) tall and weighing eleven stone (70 kg).

After his release, Pluto travelled north and was next heard of in the company of Edward Campbell ‘Basalt’ Earl, a European writer whose exploration of northern stations from Charters Towers to Cooktown, and from Laura to Coen, was serialised in the Queenslander in 1895–96. He left Earl’s party to try his luck on the Coen goldfield, then a jumping-off point for prospecting on Cape York Peninsula. In 1905 he discovered a rich alluvial deposit at Chock-a-Block, Iguana Mountain, on the Batavia (later Wenlock) goldfield. Five years later, in October 1910, he found an even richer deep lead on the Batavia River. Known as Pluto’s Lead No. 1, it caused a small rush that revived the goldfield and founded the town of Plutoville. Wade Robinson, superintendent of the Mein telegraph station and acting mining registrar for the field, helped Pluto to peg his claim, which gave good returns, including 213 ounces in nuggets. Pluto was granted the prospecting title for the field, a type of claim containing more land than usual and given to the discoverer of a new lode.

There are conflicting reports as to whether Pluto worked his claims alone or with a partner. Some stated that Pluto worked with ‘a mate, Mr Anderson’ (Cairns Post 1911, 3), presumably a non-Indigenous man. However, there are no records of an Anderson on the field with a miner’s right (or even a first name) and he was not mentioned in connection to Pluto’s discovery until after June 1911. Pluto may have decided to work with Anderson to reduce the likelihood of trouble with officials, as Aboriginal people were denied basic civil rights under Queensland’s Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Alternatively, he may have engaged Anderson to help him mine the deposit before he was able to recruit local Aboriginal people.

Questions also remain about Pluto’s bank accounts. In 1912 Chief Protector of Aboriginals Richard B. Howard noted that Pluto ‘had £195 to his credit’ (Cairns Post 1913, 7) in the Bank of New South Wales, Cooktown, an unusually large balance for an Aboriginal person at that time, as well as £12 10s in a Government Savings Bank account. The employment of Aboriginal people was regulated under the Act: permits were issued by the protector and wages were paid into a government account to which Aboriginal people had no access. The balance in Pluto’s Government Savings Bank account matched what Aboriginal workers were allowed to be paid by their white employers: five shillings per month. Yet there is no evidence that Pluto worked for a white person during that time. Later reports suggested that some of his earnings were banked ‘for him’ (Northern Miner 1929, 7) by the police into a trust account, to his considerable indignation. This may have prompted him to hide his future earnings. In 1913 he had just £29 15s 9d in his Bank of New South Wales and Government Savings Bank accounts.

Pluto had left his original find in December 1911 to go prospecting. Not ‘expected back for months’ (Cairns Post 1911, 3), he was still out prospecting when the chief protector visited in 1912 and 1913. In 1914 he let his claim to a group of new chums ‘on tribute, but apparently all the gold … had been taken out’ (Morning Bulletin 1914, 6). Tributing involved leasing a claim to other miners, with the gold won being shared with the mine owner as royalties. It was not normally used for exhausted alluvial claims. This type of cheating of the unwary did occur on the goldfields, and Pluto was certainly capable of such action.

Between 1911 and 1916 Pluto made several new gold discoveries in the vicinity of the Batavia goldfield: Pluto’s Lead No. 2 in 1911; Pluto’s Gully in 1912; and a claim known as the Tunnel in 1914–15, with Aboriginal miner Billy Fox. He also found gold at a number of locations along Sefton Creek and one at Retreat Creek, and re-found Down’s Gully, where gold had first been discovered in the 1890s but the location had been lost. Evidence suggests that Pluto was marking out claims on the Hodgkinson field near Thornborough in 1914; if so, he may have been dodging the chief protector or the new chums he had duped.

‘Pluto the black gold-tracker’ (Worker 1913, 16) was also known to employ Aboriginal miners. In 1913 it was reported that he was mining for gold north of Plutoville with a party of Aboriginal workers. Two years later he was said to be working with ‘a small tribe of blacks’ (Brisbane Courier 1923, 6). He had formed a relationship with Altengen, a local Aboriginal woman known as Kitty, and his employees were probably members of her family.

Survived by Kitty, and possibly a son, Young Pluto, Pluto died on 16 January 1916 at Coen Hospital. Although hailed at the time of his death as ‘the discoverer of Plutoville,’ a mine that was said to have ‘produced upwards of £20,000 worth of gold’ (Cairns Post 1916, 7), his success was later downplayed as accidental: in 1938, a white miner, J.K., claimed that Pluto had first struck gold while ‘driving [in] a tent peg’ (Queenslander 1938, 2). Such attempts to write him out of history failed. Plutoville has persisted on maps of the Wenlock goldfield and Pluto is remembered as a highly successful prospector and mining entrepreneur who was responsible for a number of gold discoveries on Cape York Peninsula at a time when Aboriginal initiative was being increasingly restricted under the Queensland Protection Act.

 

Galiina Ellwood is a Quandamooka person and wrote this article on Yirriganji Bulmba.

Select Bibliography

  • Brisbane Courier. ‘The New Field.’ 31 December 1923, 6
  • Cairns Post. ‘ALS.’ 1 September 1913, 7
  • Cairns Post. ‘Mining in the Peninsula.’ 15 December 1911, 3
  • Cairns Post. ‘A Short Account of Travel.’ 19 January 1916, 7
  • Ellwood, Galiina. ‘The Aboriginal Miners and Prospectors of Cape York Peninsula 1870 to ca. 1950s.’ Journal of Australasian Mining History 16 (October 2018): 75–92
  • Evening Telegraph (Charters Towers). ‘Batavia River Gold Find.’ 15 August 1911, 3
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton). ‘Queensland Aborigines.’ 26 September 1914, 6
  • Northern Miner (Charters Towers). ‘On the Track.’ 26 June 1929, 7
  • Queenslander (Brisbane). ‘York Peninsula Minerals.’ 19 January 1938, 2
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin. ‘Cooktown Warden’s Report.’ 19 May 1915, 2
  • Worker (Brisbane). ‘World of Labour.’ 13 February 1913, 16

Citation details

'Pluto (1869–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/pluto-31649/text39126, accessed 1 February 2023.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Pluto, 1890

Pluto, 1890

Queensland State Archives, ITM341532, DR17429

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • William, Davis
Birth

1869
Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Death

16 January, 1916 (aged ~ 47)
Coen, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation
Key Organisations