Aboriginal History

The Worimi are the traditional owners of the Port Stephens area.

The area remains important for the Worimi people and traditional sites provide important information about their relationship and special connection with the lands. The Worimi nation, which envelops the Port Stephens local government area, extends from the Hunter River in the south to Forster in the north and as far west as the Barrington Tops and Maitland. The Worimi people spoke the Gathang language.

The landscape includes an extraordinary number of Aboriginal cultural sites that pre-date the arrival of non-Aboriginal people to the area. Port Stephens and the wider region is home to numerous sites of deep cultural significance, from the area now known as the Worimi Conservation Lands of the Stockton Bight to significant relic sites, including canoe trees at Little Beach. In the area stretching from Wallis Lake 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.

The local environment was favourable for hunter-gatherer living. The Worimi's non-destructive lifestyle was in such sympathy with the environment that it had already lasted tens of thousands of years and would have continued long into the future if the white invasion had not taken place.

Their knowledge of plants and animals has not been surpassed. Canoes were made from the bark of the Stringybark tree (Punnah) E. obliqua or She Oak. The ends were plugged with clay and when in use a fire always burned on a bed of clay at the back. Paddles made of seasoned hardwood were shaped like a large spoon and these paddles were used in a kneeling position from the middle of the 4.5m canoe. Fishing lines were made from the inner bark of young Kurrajong trees or Sally Wattle twisted, and rendered watertight by soaking in the sap of the Bloodwood tree. Women of the tribe had the first joint of their little finger removed to be dropped in the fishing grounds so that fish would be attracted to that hand. It was forbidden to fish if you had just eaten fruit.

Fishing spears were made from the flowering stem of the Gymea Lily or the Grass Tree and tipped with 4 prongs of ironbark, the lot was held together with yellowgum (grass tree). Boomerangs were made from wild Myrtle. The young flowering spikes of the Gymea Lily were roasted in the fire after a long soaking in water. The wild Cape Gooseberries that grew on Cabbage Tree Island were highly sought after. Fern root and daisy yam were eaten when fish were scarce.

The traditional owners of the Port Stephens area were first encountered by Europeans in late 1790, when a group of escaped Second Fleet convicts were taken in by the Worimi following a sea passage from Sydney Harbour. Four of the five convicts spent almost five years living in the area, with one, John Sutton, dying during that time. In the year 1795, Captain W.R. Broughton (after whom Broughton Island is named) on HM Providence was driven by bad weather past his destination of Port Jackson into Port Stephens for shelter. He was amazed to discover the survivors living among the Worimi, and proceeded to recapture them.

At the time of white settlement there was thought to have been a population of about 400 Worimi living around the estuary of Port Stephens. By 1873, only 50 remained and by 1900 there were very few tribal Worimi left.

Today, Worimi culture is preserved through the work of numerous individuals as well as the Worimi Local Aboriginal Land Council, the Karuah Local Aboriginal Land Council, and the Worimi Conservation Lands Board. Port Stephens Council works to foster a strong relationship with Worimi people through its Aboriginal Strategic Committee.