The Original Occupants
The indigenous inhabitants of the region have been subject to some debate over the years, largely as the region would appear to fall on tribal boundaries. The generally accepted understanding is that the Bangerang were the most populous tribe in the surrounding district, with the Wiradjuri tribe to the north of the Murray River. Lake Moodemere, just a few kilometres west of the town was an important gathering place of Whroo, a branch of the Bangerang people. Hume & Hovell were thought to be the first Europeans to encounter the indigenous inhabitants of the region when they crossed the Murray River in 1824, and noted the impressive physiques and good health of the local tribes. Aboriginal tribes along the Murray were considered to enjoy a relatively easier life than those in sparser inland areas with the river and dense tracts of bush providing a varied and reliable source of food.
Important indigenous artist Tommy McRae would call the shores of Lake Moodemere home for much of his life, and became very prolific in his later life from around the mid 1880’s until his death in 1901 (McRae is buried near to Wahgunyah in Carlyle Cemetery). His sketching’s are considered amongst the most important renditions of traditional aboriginal life and works are held in various important collections around the country including the National Gallery of Australia and the Melbourne Museum
Major Thomas Mitchell would be the next noted explorer to pass through the district in 1836, and his promising account of the region is thought to be responsible for attracting the early settlers that followed.
John Foord and John Crisp took up the ‘Wahgunyah Run’ of some 35,000 acres in 1841 that encompassed the modern day townships of Wahgunyah and Rutherglen. They were soon followed by Lindsay Brown in Gooramadda (to the west of modern day Rutherglen) who licensed a holding of similar size. James Gullifer settled slightly south of the town with a 12000 acre holding named Lilliput.
Foord would become a noted pastoralist in the district and further afield, and established the township of Wahgunyah in the mid 1850’s. His empire would grow to include cattle, a punt for river crossings, a flour mill built in 1858, and he played the key role in establishing ‘Port Wahgunyah’; the busiest trading post upstream of Echuca (and would remain so until the arrival of the rail line from Melbourne in 1879).
By 1860 Wahgunyah was a well established township burgeoning on the river trade, home to numerous hotels, a brewery, bank and police station. However it was hardly prepared for the explosion in population that was about to take place.
The discovery of gold in Victoria in 1851 had created spot fires in various locations around the countryside with massive influxes of colonial and immigrant miners hoping to strike it rich. The Wahgunyah Rush would commence in September 1860 when a handful of prospectors followed the Indigo Creek downstream a number of miles from the Chiltern diggings. Gold was found in what is now Main Street Rutherglen (a cairn stands to mark the strike), and evidently the lucky miners were not too secretive with their good fortune. News swept the surrounding district and within weeks thousands had converged on the new diggings.
Originally termed the Wahgunyah Rush, the mining camp would soon be called Barkly, after the governor of the time Sir Henry Barkly. However this name would also prove short-lived. Where flows gold, soon flows ale, and it happened that John ‘Seven Star’ Wallace arrived shortly after the initial rush to quench the thirst of the luckily, and drown the sorrows of the not-so-lucky. Wallace’s Star Hotel was established in a commanding position east of the initial strike, one of a chain of Star Hotels Wallace would own throughout the north-east. Local DG Hamilton (later to establish Clydeside Cellars) proposed that ‘Seven Star’ shout the bar and he could name the town after his hometown. Wallace was native of Rutherglen, Scotland, and so for the price of a few beers Rutherglen, Victoria was born.
In the months following the initial strike nearly twenty deep leads and seven reefs were found. The initial strike would sweep 20000 people into the district, and a second rush would swell that number further to 30000. At its peak the Wahgunyah/Rutherglen rush was considered second only to Ballarat in terms of scale. The town grew, up to 28 hotels operated at any one time and all of the civil, municipal and judicial requirements of a growing town would follow.
Gold was the making of Rutherglen, and beyond the fervour of the initial strike mining remained a feature of the Rutherglen landscape well into the new century. As history tells us the origins of the winemaking in the district stretch back just as far as gold, and wine has certainly proven the more sustainable commodity. The history of the wine industry in and around Rutherglen can be found here.
Excepts of this history have been taken from ‘Rutherglen – Wine Centre of North-East Victoria’ by Brian Lloyd and John Kennedy, also ‘Big Camp Wahgunyah’ by Muriel McGivern