Aboriginal History

The State Records Office holds historical sets of records from Colonial and State government agencies that document interaction with Aboriginal people throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.

The official records that document the control of the lives of Aboriginal people, especially after the passing of the 1905 Aborigines Act, are of vital significance particularly for those people who are tracing their family history. Many of these records are held by the State Records Office. Some of these records are restricted if they contain personal and confidential information about individuals. We work with Aboriginal History WA to assist people applying for access to restricted records.

Warning: The State archives collection contains materials that may be potentially upsetting and offensive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  Being essentially an historical collection, such materials may use racist, sexist, derogatory, abusive and insensitive language from previous times. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that the State Records Office archives catalogue includes names of deceased persons.

Colonial Secretary's Office Records

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Between 1829 and 1886, Aboriginal affairs in Western Australia was the administrative responsibility of the Colonial Secretary, who operated in accordance with policy dictated by the Home Office (UK). The Aborigines Protection Board was established in 1887 and then assumed primary responsibility for Aboriginal affairs.

Correspondence relating to Aboriginal people may be located by searching the indexes and registers to the Colonial Secretary's Office correspondence located on the 3rd floor of the State Library / State Archives.

Aborigines Protection Board

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In 1887, the administration of Aboriginal affairs was removed from the Colonial Secretary and entrusted to the Aborigines Protection Board, which consisted of five members and a secretary, all of whom were nominated by the Governor. The Board was responsible for overseeing the activities of the Protectors of Aborigines, who were individuals appointed by the Governor or the Board under the Aborigines Protection Act 1886.

Protectors reported to the Board on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and were empowered to institute court proceedings and to enforce judgements for or on behalf of any Aboriginal person. Persons appointed as Protectors included Resident Magistrates, Wardens, Inspectors of Police, Justices of the Peace and in some cases ministers of religion.

The Board operated between 1887 and 1897 before being replaced by the Aborigines Department, under the Chief Protector of Aborigines.

Few records remain from the Aborigines Protection Board but the State Records Office holds what has survived. These records include:

Minutes, 1891-1893, Series 3000

Subjects dealt with in these records include the appointment of Aboriginal Protectors, inquests, requests from religious bodies for financial relief and reports from Resident or Police Magistrates pertaining to trials and convictions of Aboriginal people.

Correspondence & Report, 1892-1894, Series 3026

Contains letters, correspondence and reports received by the Aborigines Protection Board on matters relating to the treatment of Aboriginal people throughout the Colony. Also includes some copies of responses forwarded.

The records of the Aborigines Protection Board are open access and are available on microfilm on the 3rd floor of the State Library / State Archives.

Departmental Records

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The Aborigines Department was established in 1898 as a consequence of the Aborigines Act 1897 (which abolished the Aborigines Protection Board) and operated as a sub-department of the Treasury, with a small staff under the Chief Protector of Aborigines. The Aborigines Department continued until 1909 when it was reorganised, the first in a number of departmental reorganisations to occur over the following decades.

The State Records Office holds a number of collections of records from the Aborigines Department and its successor agencies (covering the period 1898-1997), with the most heavily used being the general subject files of these agencies. While earlier sets of files are open access, many subsequent files are restricted access archives. 

The most significant collections of these Departmental records held by the State Records Office comprise:

Chief Protector of Aborigines files, 1898-1908, Series 3005
The files deal with a wide range of topics relating to the welfare of Aboriginal people and the general administration of the Aborigines Act 1897 (and the later 1905 Act), including the admission of Aboriginal children to missions, the distribution of government rations to the old and infirm, and criminal investigations and court cases concerning Aboriginal people. The index referred to below lists the names of Aboriginal people mentioned in these files.

General Files, 1926-1972, Series 2030
The General Files represent the main category of records that have been transferred to the State Records Office by successive government departments responsible for the welfare of Aboriginal people. Many of these files have subject or locality based titles. They concern places where Aboriginal people lived such as missions, pastoral properties, town reserves and institutions (e.g. Moola Bulla and Moore River). Very few of these records are personal or family files, but the files can contain some personal information.

Indexes to Aboriginal Affairs Records

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The following indexes are useful for helping identify Aboriginal people mentioned in specific records:

Index to Chief Protector of Aborigines Files 1898-1908

This index contains a comprehensive listing of all the names of Aboriginal persons mentioned within the Chief Protector of Aborigines files. The index contains historical terminology which may be confronting for clients. References to the names and designations of settlers and officials who were directly connected to the events detailed within the files have also been listed, as have references to persons from non-English speaking nationalities. The Chief Protector of Aborigines files (Consignment 255) can be accessed on microfilm on the 3rd floor of the State Library / State Archives.

Personal Names Index

This Personal Names Index was compiled by the (then) Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority and contains references to over 5,000 people of Aboriginal descent who are referred to in the departmental files held by the State Records Office, and to personal history cards held Aboriginal History WA. The relevant file number or card number is provided against the person's name.

The personal history cards are particularly useful, containing information extracted from former Native Welfare personal files (copies of which are also held by Aboriginal History WA).

Researchers can consult the State Records Office's copy of this index on the 3rd floor of the State Library / State Archives and can apply for copies of the cards through Aboriginal History WA.

The Bicentennial Dictionary of Western Australians

This multi volume publication of the University of Western Australia Press includes four volumes that provides biographical information relating to Aboriginal people:

  • Vol VI Albany Region 1821-1898;
  • Vol VII New Norcia 1845-1914;
  • Vol VIII Southwest Region 1829-1840, and
  • Vol X Rottnest 1838-1931.

In addition to these published volumes, further indexes to names of Aboriginal people by region have been compiled by Neville Green (a member of the Dictionary's Aboriginal Committee) and Susan Moon, covering the Murchison, Pilbara, Southwest, Gascoyne, and Kimberley up until 1890. Individual entries give a person's common name, alias (or other name), locality and the source of the information (invariably nineteenth century official records and newspapers).

All of the indexes above can be consulted on the 3rd floor of the State Library / State Archives.

Other Official Records

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Information relating to Aboriginal people can be located within the records of a number of other Western Australian government agencies. The following collections contain significant records of interest to those researching Aboriginal history.

Court Records

The State Records Office holds the records of the Supreme Court of Western Australia as well as records from over 100 lower courts located throughout the metropolitan and country areas of Western Australia. These include Clerk of Courts, Police Courts, Local Courts, Licensing Courts, Warden's Courts and Coroner's Courts.

The following are selected examples of some of the court records held by the State Records Office which contain information relating to Aboriginal people:

Department of Community Welfare

In 1972, a departmental reorganisation resulted in the functions of the then Native Welfare Department being spilt between two newly created Departments, the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority and the Department of Community Welfare. The newly formed Department of Community Welfare assumed responsibility for the treatment of Aboriginal children and other matters previously under the jurisdiction of the Native Welfare Department. Consequently some records relating to Aboriginal people can be located through the records of the Department of Community Welfare and its successor agencies. These files also cover matters such as Aboriginal health and housing, the operation of missions and other matters concerning Aboriginal welfare.

It should be noted that many records relating to the Department, including early adoption files, are held by the Department of Communities and are not accessible through the State Records Office.

NOTE: Many of the files relating to the Department of Community Welfare and it's successor agencies are restricted access records as they contain sensitive personal information. 

Health Department

Information relating to Aboriginal health matters and the treatment of Aboriginal patients is obtainable through the records of the Health Department and its predecessor agencies. These records can generally be located through the listings of the Department's General Files (1899-1987). Subjects covered within the General Files include such things as the treatment of Aboriginal patients within certain localities, the transfer of Aboriginal patients to Perth for treatment, general reports on Aboriginal health, and policy and administration matters connected with Aboriginal Health.

Earlier records relating to public health in Western Australia, including to a lesser extent Aboriginal health, may be located in the indexes to the Colonial Secretary's Office (CSO) correspondence. 

NOTE: Health records may have a restricted access period of up to 100 years in cases concerning patient information. 

Prison Records

Some historical records relating to Aboriginal people can be located through the various prison records held by the State Records Office, such as the records for Rottnest Gaol for the pre-1900 period. Other records may be located within the general prison registers for Fremantle Prison.

Examples of some of the more relevant prison related records include:

Police Records

In the early 1900s, police officers in Western Australia were required to act as inspectors for the Aborigines Department as part of their normal duties. Even prior to the establishment of the Aborigines Department, many police officers held positions as Protectors of Aborigines for the Aborigines Protection Board.

Records relating to Aboriginal people may be found amongst both the Police Department General Files and through the records of the individual Police Stations, most significantly in the Occurrence Books and Charge Books. Police Station records can include information on rations for Aboriginal people at local stations, gathering of witnesses for trials, records relating to Aboriginal trackers, as well as various criminal matters pursued by the police. These records are often useful in tracing the names of Aboriginal people residing in specific districts.

Copies of police reports containing information on matters relating to Aboriginal people were often forwarded for the attention of the department responsible for Aboriginal affairs. These reports can sometimes be located amongst the General Files of the Aborigines Department and it's successor agencies.

The following list contains selected examples of some specific Aboriginal related records obtainable through the records of Police Stations:

  • Gingin Police Station, List of Passes to Aborigines, 1937-1938, Acc 411, Item 53, AN 5
  • Kookynie Police Station, Rations issued to Aborigines, 1920-1921, Acc 3348, Item 4, AN 5
  • Newcastle Police Station, Employment of Aborigines, 1908-1910, Series 1781
    Employment agreements made between individual Aborigines and their employers in accordance with the Aborigines Act 1905.

Royal Commissions and Committees of Inquiry

The State Records Office holds records relating to a number of Royal Commissions that have been conducted in relation to Aboriginal people in Western Australia. These investigations have covered topics such as the treatment of Aboriginal people by the Canning Exploration Party (1908), the administration of the Aborigines Department (1904), and the condition and treatment of Aboriginal people (1934). For a listing of the various Royal Commissions and Committees of Inquiry relating to Aboriginal people that have been held in Western Australia consult the following publication:

Further Records

There are many other sources of information relating to Aboriginal people contained within the records held by the State Records Office. Often these sources will be located within the records of government agencies which may not be directly connected with Aboriginal people. These records can be identified by searching for the name of the relevant agency in our online catalogue.

Selected examples of other Aboriginal related records include:

  • Resident Magistrate Esperance, Register - Passenger Lists / Native Dogs Destroyed, Acc 113, 1893-1896, AN 370
    This is primarily a register of passengers arriving in Esperance, however it also contains a brief register showing the names of Aboriginal people and details concerning the shooting of native dogs in the area.
Page reviewed 5 February 2021