The earliest inhabitants of Port Stephens were the Aborigines of the Worimi Tribe whom Charles Grimes referred to as a taller, stouter race of people than those about Sydney with a completely different language.
At the time of white settlement there were about 400 Aborigines living around the estuary of Port Stephens. The tribe had only 50 members in 1873. By 1900 there were very few tribal Aborigines left. White observers at that time left some descriptions of a lifestyle now mostly gone.
There are numerous Aboriginal relic sites in the area, the most obvious being the "Canoe Trees" at Little Beach. The exact location of the various sites is restricted information. In the area stretching from Wallis lakes to Newcastle there are 37 recorded Ceremonial Sites (stone arrangements, bora grounds, carved trees and burial sites), 115 recorded campsites (mia mia, scarred tree, open campsite, shelter with deposit, well, fish trap, abraded grooves and quarries) and 97 middens. Four middens and a burial site are located at the base of Yacaaba Head. Middens are located at Fingal Spit, Anna Bay, Schnapper Point, Boat Harbour, Skate Bay and Fishermans Bay. There is a burial site at Skate Bay and grinding grooves at Morna Point.
Port Stephens was first noted by Europeans in May 1770 when Captain James Cook referred to Port Stephens in his log as "an opening forming a bay". He went on to describe; "Wind southerly in the day and in the night westerly, a gentle breeze and clear weather. At 4pm past at a distance of one mile a low rocky point which I named Point Stephens... on the north side of this point is an inlet which I called Port Stephens that appears from the masthead to be sheltered from all winds".
Henry Blackford was the first settler on the Tilligerry Peninsula which forms part of the southern shoreline of Port Stephens. In the broader picture, he was part of the influx of immigrants who came by choice to Australia, which began about 1800 and continues to this day. The Blackford family migrated as a result of Henry, a butcher by trade, signing a contract to work for the Australian Agricultural Company which had been given an entitlement to 1,000, 000 acres of land. They arrived in Sydney in 1825 but soon after moved to the north side of Port Stephens which the Company had chosen as the location of its land.
Having received an early release from his contract, Henry successfully applied for a land grant and received an entitlement to 320 acres. He chose the site of his grant to be on the tip of the Tilligerry Peninsula in an area now known as Lemon Tree Passage. He was subsequently granted a further 320 acres. Henry’s attempts to grow wheat and raise cattle were unsuccessful. As a result he applied to exchange his original grant for better land elsewhere and chose West Bargo as the location of his new grant. For some years Henry successfully raised cattle but when a severe drought created an economic recession and a drop in cattle prices, Henry and his family moved to Sydney in 1842.
His story is interesting and inextricably linked to the history of the Tilligerry Peninsula and in particular Lemon Tree Passage.No one knows with absolute certainty the origin of the name “Lemon Tree Passage”. It is widely believed, and it would seem logical to do so, that the name derived from a distinctive lemon tree which once grew there. It is also widely believed that this tree was one planted by the Blanche family who settled in the area in the 1870’s and had an orchard, but this rests on the assumption that they were the first to do so. It is equally plausible to suggest that the tree was planted by Henry Blackford, and that while nothing else remains to suggest he once settled there, he inadvertently gave the name of Lemon Tree Passage to the land he once owned.
For the full story on Henry Blackford and an interesting history of his time on the Tilligerry Peninsula, download the PDF: