Extract from "Early days of the upper Murray" - Jean Carmody.
The waters of the Khancoban Pondage (or dam) now cover much of the land which Reuben Sheather and his stepsons, the Scammell brothers, owned in the Khancoban Valley.
There were also three girls in the Scammell family, but the second girl, Louisa, died at the age of seventeen due to a riding accident. She lay down with a headache after a fall, and was found lying dead on the bed by her sister. Her younger sister, Lucy, married George Wheeler, the youngest member of Charles Wheeler's family of Nariel.
Frances (Fanny), the eldest of the Scammell girls, became the wife of Johnny Whitehead of Wabba. The story goes that, when the father, Thomas, was home in Scotland on a visit, he selected a Scottish bride for Johnny but, on his return, he was informed that Johnny had already made his own choice. Consequently the Scottish lass had to find herself another husband, which she did in the Tallangatta Valley.
Bill Scammell, the second brother in the family, married Johnny's sister Margaret, and the other Whitehead girl, Agnes, became Mrs Walter Sullivan, also of Khancoban. Later, two mountain peaks, one on each side of Khancoban Creek and both overlooking the Khancoban valley, were named after the Whitehead sisters, Mt Margaret being the one on the right, and Mt Agnes on the left. They were named by John Melbourne Read, who went to Khancoban when he was eighteen and worked for a time for both Sullivan and Fred Scammell, before selecting for himself.
Fred Scammell's wife was Catherine Byatt of Tumbarumba, and Jack Read liked to tell of the nights when Fred would say to him, "Leave the mare tied up in the buggy tonight, Jack". He knew that, before the night was out, he would be instructed to "Slip out and pick Mother up", and by next morning there would be another little Scammell in the world. Two other midwives who travelled around the area at the time, to attend the selector's wives at childbirth, were Mrs Doran and Mrs Emerson; the latter preferred to travel on horseback rather than in a vehicle when she was called.
Jack Read and his brother George (Sydney) were born on the diggings at Stanley. George learned blacksmithing there, before the brothers moved to Melbourne with their mother, who had remarried after their father's death. Both Jack and George selected at Khancoban, on opposite sides of the river.
Certain requirements were compulsory on taking up a selection, in those days, in an effort to prevent a man from 'dummying' another, and so allowing the big squatter to acquire more than his share of the land from his run which had been thrown open for selection. Among the conditions, three months continuous residence was required on the block each year, or it was forfeited. Jack found that even this rule could be circumvented, and the surveyor tricked, with some help from a friendly mailman.
One day, when he went for his mail, Jack was told, "The surveyor is on his way down. I passed him today, Look out to see him tomorrow." Before daylight next morning, Jack was on the job. Throwing some blankets onto his mare and draping a pack saddle over her back (a large bag sewn up at the end and split across the middle to give a roomy pocket on each side), Jack stuffed the pockets with bread, tea and other household goods. At the rough hut on his block, Jack built a fire which would burn down to a good bed of ashes. He boiled his billy, leaving it sitting on the hob with tea leaves thick in the bottom, and scattered a few pieces of bread about on the bench; he then spread the blankets on the bunk. Leaving the hut when he was satisfied with his preparations, Jack proceeded up the hill and hid himself to await the arrival of the surveyor on his tour of inspection. The Government man duly arrived, rode through the river and was seen to investigate both inside and outside the bogus dwelling. "Oh yes", he later told the Scammells, "He's certainly doing residence all right. He'd apparently gone out on the job, because he'd left tea leaves in the pot and the ashes were still smouldering."
Jack Read lived until he was nearly eighty-four, in that time losing two teams of draught-horses through old-age. It can be said that he literally died at the handles of a plough, preparing a piece of ground for a crop of potatoes. Years earlier, Fred Scammell had given him an old plough, and Jack always insisted that no one else knew how to hold it in the ground properly. The team of horses lent to Jack for the occasion, fresh in from a winter spell, proved to be too much for old Jack's heart. He never recovered from the strain and died a few days later. The plough is now in the Corryong Museum.
While they lived at Khancoban, the Scammell brothers had a great deal of contact with the aborigines who made regular visits to the valley, but "By Gad, they were comical beggars!' Edwin used to say of them.
One of their policies (inexplicable to our way of thinking) was to desert new-born babies who came into the world on the eve of the tribe's departure for a 'walkabout', perhaps threatening to hold up the progress of the others. Fred Scammell and his wife reared a tiny baby girl found abandoned in one of the old camps; she lived with the family until she was about five years old, when she was accidentally killed falling off a dray. One must wonder if a baby boy, a future hunter, would have been considered a such a liability and suffered the same fate at the hands of the tribe.
Although they were friendly towards the native race, nevertheless the Scammells never quite trusted them, and always made sure they were facing those they were dealing with. They had gained the impression that the aboriginal warriors possessed an irresistible urge to knock on the head any outsider who turned his back towards them.
Every year the tribe would camp at the top end of Khancoban, where later Herb Barlee lived, and, leaving the women there with a few men to guard them, the reminder would make their annual trek out to Mt Townsend for the feast of Bogong, or bugong, moths. It was always noticeable that they went out into the mountains "as poor as greyhounds" and came back a week or two later sleek and fat.
Sometimes it was found necessary to smoke the moths out from cracks in the rocks, but normally they swarmed like a hive of bees and the natives, after scorching the wings off with torches, would go right in under rocky crevices and gather them by the handful. These moths, moulded into cakes and roasted over coals, were delicious with their nutty flavour. These cakes were the natives' equivalent of 'lollies', and many of them were carried about by the gins in small skin dilly-bags. Some aborigines also made dilly-bags and fishing nets from a twine made from the fibrous bark of the kurrajong tree.
Although this trek out to the high country was almost in the form of a ritual with the native people, the Bogong moth could not be considered as a part of their staple diet: it was more of a special annual treat.
The tribe's principal food was possum, which the men obtained by scaling trees, cutting toe-holds if necessary with their stone axes; in addition, they hunted kangaroos and other wild game, or speared fish in the streams. The women's duties included digging roots, finding grubs and catching smaller game, such as an occasional small marsupial. Even the children had to do their share in providing for for the tribe, by obtaining gum from the trees and knocking down birds. But for all their work, the women and children were always obliged to sit behind the men during a meal - the food was usually roasted over a fire or buried in hot ashes - and were thrown the bones and scraps that were left.
The aborigines living on this side of the northern ranges were on a whole friendly and docile race, who lived in great fear of the aggressive blacks who at times came over from Tumut, through Tumbarumba, and also of the warlike Monaro tribes. The Monaro warriors periodically organised a raid into the district, during which they killed off many of the local men and carried off a number of young gins. Tribal laws forbade marriage within the tribe to a woman of one's own totem, in an effort to prevent inbreeding. Among tribal totems were animals, birds and occasionally flowers, and every native belonged to one or another of these.
Not all the aborigines who travelled to Khancoban were members of Upper Murray tribes. One old black came up after wombats each year, from the vicinity of Beechworth. He was always accompanied by his two gins, and he took it in turns to carry them on his shoulders, taking one a few miles before putting her down to walk while he picked up her companion. When he reached the Scammells place, he always left his wives there, while he continued on alone.
One day he was digging out a wombat-burrow on Adgintoothbung when, from the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow pass over the ground close to where he was working. Instinctively he yelled to frighten whatever had caused the movement and at the same time jumped. If he had been any slower in his reaction, he would have had his head split open, but as it was he received a glancing blow from a nulla-nulla wielded by one of the Tumut blacks, who had crept up on him while he was busy. The old man turned and fled as the spears rattled around him through the scrub but, with fear as a driving force, he was eventually able to shake off his pursuers. Telling Fred Scammell about the incident later, he admitted that he should have been warned that something was wrong when he caught sight of a small dog close to where he was digging. The old aborigine carried an ugly blue-black swelling on the side of his head for the rest of his life, a constant reminder of his lucky escape.
Although the drink and diseases of the white man have been blamed for the decline in numbers of aborigines in the early days, many natives who had little contact with either still died out at an unnaturally high rate. The opinion has been expressed by some of the early settlers who had the black man's welfare at heart, that one of the greatest curses that the native tribes had to contend with was the white man's gift of blankets. Given as an act of kindness - in many cases 'official' - these blankets caused nothing but trouble to a nomadic people living close to nature. The aborigines were unable to understand that a wet blanket had to be dried out before it could be used again; this was something completely alien to their way of life. As a result, they went to sleep under a wet blanket which, becoming cold during the night, caused many of them to catch a chill and die of pneumonia.
The early history of Khancoban begins when a run was formed there, about the 1838, by William Guise. It soon passed to John Hay, commonly known as 'Swampy Hay' to distinguish him from Sir John Hay of Welaregang (no relation), the nickname being derived from the Swampy Plains River which flowed through the valley. 'Swampy Hay' married one of the Robinson girls of Coppabella, when he was occupying Ournie and managing Welaregang for his namesake.
Before the advent of cattle, the Swampy Plains River was so choked with reed-beds, especially down towards its junction with the Indi, that there was no defined course to the main stream. This situation continued until the owners of the run, overstocking during good seasons, found themselves short of feed when faced with a drought. When that happened, the starving cattle fed almost exclusively on the clumps of reed, which never really recovered from the intensive grazing and so never had the opportunity of regaining their former hold on the river flats.
In 1848 two former officers of the India Army, Captain Grant and Captain Trevallyon, leased the run and it seems likely that the name Khancoban originated during their occupation. The name Khan means an inn in Iran, but it is a title of respect in Pakistan and adjoining countries; no trace can be found with any certainty of the meaning of 'coban', although an interesting version claims that the name was originally Khancobra.
Matthew Hervey occupied the run after the army officers, and it then passed to George Mair (of Mair and Garland), so it continued to change hand periodically.
In 1869 the partnership of Douglas, Nicoll and Menzies purchased the run and, as usually happened following this type of arrangement, the lease passed to the Douglas sons, Henry and Charlie. They sold the station to Thomas Mitchell in 1876, and he gave it to his son John on the occasion of his marriage. After some parental opposition - during which time John threatened to saddle a horse and head for Queensland, until his mother used her powers of persuasion on his father - John married his cousin Fanny (Frances), a daughter of Edward Mitchell of Ellerslie, north of Albury.
The young couple made a start on Khancoban Station with little more than the bare land; they had only a rough house, no fences, and a few head of cattle.