In 1921 two returned servicemen, Leonard Overheu and Frederick Hay, applied for a grant under the War Service Land Settlement Scheme. Nulla Nulla station was excised from the Marndoc Aboriginal reserve with the traditional owners, the King River Aborigines, removed and forced to live on the outskirts of Wyndham. The two men planted cotton, peanuts and kept a small herd of cattle. Hay, along with his friend James Dunnett ran the station while Overheu worked as a bookkeeper in Wyndham to provide cash flow. The first mention of Hay in the Forrest River Mission (later renamed Oombulgurri) diary was 27 May 1923 when an Aborigine reported that Hay had ambushed him and stabbed him repeatedly in the buttocks. The Rev. Ernest Gribble was later forced to assign guards whenever Hay visited the mission to prevent him from molesting the women and he wrote several complaints to the Protector of Aborigines A. O. Neville over Hay's behaviour. Another concern was that Hay had trained his dog to attack Aborigines. In January 1924 Hay seriously injured an Aborigine after hitting him over the head with his rifle butt. On 4 March he forcibly took Angelina from her husband and two weeks later mission staff informed Gribble that she was being forced to have sex with both Hay and Dunnett.
Gribble argued with Nulla Nulla over a number of issues which resulted in Sergeant Buckland arbitrating. Buckland found nothing wrong with the situation and Neville accused Gribble of being an over-protective missionary. In late 1924, Sergeant Buckland refused to renew Nulla Nulla's permit to employ Aborigines due to the "continued interference of the women" with Neville later approving the cancellation and adding a memo that, should Dunnett be employed by any other station, they would also have their permits cancelled.
Hay and Overheu had been complaining about the spearing of their cattle, claiming it was "part of a conspiracy" against Nulla Nulla by Gribble. In response, Sergeant Buckland had the station declared a prohibited area under the 1905 Aborigines Act preventing Aborigines from entering or crossing it to reach other areas.
By late 1925 the Kimberley’s had suffered two years of severe drought. Heavy rains in early 1926 filled the waterholes, which resulted in large groups of Aborigines entering the Marndoc reserve, killing the Forrest River Missions cattle for food. Gribble monitored the situation and when told that Aborigines were beginning to move south towards Nulla Nulla he sent Ernest Unbah to contact as many as possible and to urge them to turn back. Before he could make contact Unbah was arrested by police constable St Jack for entering the prohibited area. On 18 May, Overheu made a formal complaint that a large mob of Aborigines were spearing cattle on the station and along with Tommy Doort, his wife Lyddie and two stock boys camped on the lower Pentecost River to await the arrival of police. Constable St Jack, trackers Jacob and Windie Joe and with Unbah still in chains arrived on 20 May and the group moved to Durragee Hill where they camped for the night, close to where a mob of 250-300 Aborigines were holding a ceremony on an island in the river. At dawn on 24 May, St Jack, against regulations, armed Windie, Jacob and Tommy with shotguns and the patrol rushed the camp to disperse the Aborigines. Gribble entered a note into the mission log dated 27 May, reporting hearing "news" that Tommy and Windie Joe had killed Blui-Nua. An old man named Umbillie was reported killed by blows to the head by unknown persons. An Aboriginal eyewitness, Aldoa, claimed that St Jack and Overheu were present when Umbillie was killed and historian Dr Neville Green argues that the injuries reported on Umbillie suggest that he had been run down by a horse and killed by being beaten over the head with a stirrup iron or a rifle butt. At this point it was not known that any Aborigines had been shot, only that several had been beaten to death and their bodies recovered for burial. At the Royal Commission St Jack testified that he had shot 31 dogs and admitted hearing Tommy and Windie Joe firing their shotguns but denied seeing any Aborigines wounded or killed. Overheu testified that he did not hear any shots fired at all and that none could have been fired without his knowledge. St Jack was unable to account for how many shots were or were not fired as required by regulations as he claimed Windie Joe had lost the ammunition bag while fording the Pentecost River. Witnesses described people being wounded by both bullets and shotgun pellets implicating Overheu and St Jack as they were the only ones with rifles and pistols.
After the dispersal of the Aborigines, the patrol continued to the Nulla Nulla Homestead arriving after dark to find Hay missing. The next morning Windie and Tommy were sent to find Hay returning by midday with Hay's horse. The patrol then set out, with Unbah following in chains, backtracking the horses track until they found Hays body in the late afternoon 12 km (7.5 mi) north/east of the homestead.
On 23 May 1926, while riding the boundary of Nulla Nulla station, Fred Hay attacked an Aboriginal man by the name of Lumbia. Hay flogged Lumbia 20-30 times with his stockwhip and as he rode off was stabbed in the back with a spear and killed by Lumbia. The reasons for the assaults remain unclear. Several native accounts exist as reported by interpreters. All the various accounts given before Lumbias trial share a common thread, the rape of one or both of Lumbia's wives.
Historian Neville Green gives the following account, based on a 1934 memoir written by the Rev. Ernest Gribble, who reported that, according to Lumbia, he and his child-wives, Anulgoo and Goolool, were resting at Johnson Billabong north of Nulla Nulla when Hay rode up and demanded sex with Anulgoo. Hay then stripped down to his boots and raped her in front of Lumbia before indicating an intention to take her back to the Nulla Nulla with him. When Lumbia objected Hay attacked him with his stock-whip then broke his spears. Without bothering to dress Hay gathered his clothes, mounted his horse and began to ride off but Lumbia grabbed a broken shovel spear and stabbed him in the back with it. The Aborigines then headed north to the Lyne River. At the preliminary hearing at the Dorriman Creek Court on 5 July 1926, Lumbia and the two girls were interviewed with Angelina Noble as interpreter, with the two girls confirming Lumbia's story, though adding one further detail. Anulgoo stated that Hay had also assaulted her and showed Angelina distinct scars on her head and face. Lilly Johnson also spoke to the two girls later in July and Anulgoo added that, during the argument, Hay had shot at Lumbia, and the bullet grazed his head. Green adds that this fact would explain why Hay's pistol was found to have a spent cartridge in the chamber.
When Hay's body was found by the search party led by Constable St Jack, it had been largely consumed by predators and initially it could not be determined whether the remains were those of a white man or an Aborigine. According to oral lore among the local Aboriginal communities, the only way the body could be identified was from the exposed white skin under a gum leaf that crows had eaten around. According to the police report the body still wore boots when found, which revealed white skin when removed. Dr Adams arrived from Wyndham two days later to conduct Hays autopsy following which, due to the advanced state of decomposition, was buried at the spot.
Tommy Doort, who was acting as a tracker for the search party, found only the tracks of a man and two women around Hays body but when the search was expanded found evidence that a large mob belonging to the Numla tribe had been camped at the lagoon. Unbah supported Tommy's interpretation of the tracks and told the police that the Numla had been killing cattle in the area. No one asked the trackers how long ago the mob were there, or more importantly, if they were on the day of Hay's death and the police assumed that the mob were also responsible for Hay's murder. On hearing of Hay's death Gribble rushed to Wyndham where he swore in Richard Jolly and Bernard O'Leary as special constables under the supervision of Constable Regan and tasked them with finding Hay's killer. Historian Green has criticised Gribble over this as Gribble had already been told that Lumbia was responsible but did not pass the information on. Had he done so, Sergeant Buckland may have restricted the patrol to arresting Lumbia rather than searching for unknown assailants and the massacres may not have taken place.
Regan's patrol left Wyndham on 1 June, to hunt for Hay's unknown killer, meeting up with St Jack's patrol at Jowa. The police patrol now consisted of four whites, one of them Fred Hay's partner Leopold Overheu, two settlers specially sworn in by Gribble as policemen, seven Aboriginal trackers, 42 pack horses/mules and led by Constables James St Jack and Denis Regan. On 19 June Murnane returned to Wyndham and it is alleged that he told Mr Banks of the Wyndham meatworks "it was worse than the war" and that he "had enough of it", statements that both he and Banks later denied. Whatever he told the sergeant, Buckland decided to recall the patrol and he left to rendezvous with them at the mission. That Buckland felt the situation was serious can be seen by his decision to go himself rather than send Constable Donaldson, the elderly Buckland was close to retirement and suffered from ill health, this was to be the first time he had gone on a patrol for several years.
It was still believed at the time that a group of Aborigines who had killed a cow several days earlier must have been responsible. The patrol reached the Forrest River Mission (later renamed Oombulgurri) on 21 June, and reported that their search party had not turned up any Aborigines at all. St Jack later admitted that this was a lie. The Rev. Ernest Gribble, who had already heard reports that the patrol had killed several Aborigines and was worried that other innocent Aborigines might be killed, informed the patrol that he had been told that Lumbia had killed Hay and informed them where to find him. At the Royal Commission, St Jack testified that he was not told about Lumbia by Gribble but an entry in his diary contradicted this claim. The Aboriginal community supported the arrest of Lumbia and Gribble supplied two Aboriginal men from the mission who knew Lumbia to escort the patrol, now split into two parties, to help with the search. Buckland arrived on 24 June but as the police were now searching for a specific suspect allowed the patrol to continue, albeit he did take Jolly back to Wyndham with him. On 4 July, the patrol returned to Forrest River station with some 30 Aboriginal men in chains, among them Lumbia, who, when questioned through an interpreter, confessed to having killed Hay. Over the following weeks several Aboriginal women attended the mission to have bullet wounds treated and it was claimed that the sister of another woman had been shot dead by the patrol and her baby bashed to death. In the months that followed, rumours circulated of a massacre by the police party. Attempts by the sergeant of police at Wyndham to investigate the rumours were met by refusals by those implicated to cooperate or answer claims they were involved. Rev. Gribble alleged that 30 men and women were missing who he suspected had been killed by the police party. Local Aborigines claimed up to 100 men women and children had been killed. Two years later Professor A. P. Elkin visited the area and estimated 20 had been killed. In 1968, Charles Overheu went on record as saying that his brother Leopold, who was a member of the police patrol, had told him that the patrol had killed at least 300.
Members of the police patrol 20 May—4 July.
Constable Dennis Hastings Regan. Turkey Creek. Leader of the patrol. Regan was inexperienced and this was his first patrol.
Constable James Graham St Jack. Wyndham.
Special constable Bernard Patrick O'Leary. Pastoralist Gallway Valley Station.
Special constable Richard John Jolly. Unemployed labourer. (Returned to Wyndham 24 June)
Leopold Rupert Overheu. Part owner of Nulla Nulla.
Daniel Murnane. Veterinary Surgeon visiting from Victoria. (Returned to Wyndham 19 June)
Jim McDonald (Mulga Jim) Police tracker born in Northern Territory.
Frank. Police tracker from Turkey Creek.
Jacob. Police tracker from Wyndham.
Charlie. Aboriginal employee of O'Leary.
Windie. Special police tracker.
Sulieman. Afghan/Aboriginal special tracker.
Tommy Doort. Employee of Overheu.
Lyddie Goolara. Wife of Tommy and employee of Overheu.
All members with the exception of Lyddie were armed with .44 Winchester rifles. Additionally all the whites carried sidearms and the Aborigines were also given shotguns to replace their rifles when raiding camps. The patrol took 500 rounds of ammunition and were later supplied with a further 350 rounds (seven empty ammunition boxes were later found at one of the police camps). Although Regan was required to supply a written report accounting for every shot fired and to collect and return all used shell casings as proof, he never did so.
Leopold Overheu’s house boy Tommy, who accompanied him on the police patrol, was the first to talk about the massacres after speaking to some bush Aborigines who passed on the story to Gribble. On 16 July, Gribble sent two Aborigines to secretly meet with Tommy to find out more details. Overheu found out and according to Tommy’s wife Lyddie, rushed in with a drawn pistol. Tommy fled to hide in the bush while Overheu, fearing for his own safety, moved to Six Mile and set up a camp there.
As Tommy had given information about where the massacres occurred, Inspector Mitchell realised his importance as a witness and called on the Chief Protector to invoke section 12 of the Aborigines Act that would effectively put him in protective custody at the Forrest River Mission. Tommy was in a dilemma: as well as having described the massacres, he had been accused of killing Blui-nua at the Pentecost River, and word had been brought to the mission that he and Windie Joe had murdered Minnie-walla and her baby near Nulla Nulla. If he were to be taken into protective custody he would certainly be speared by the victims' relatives. If he returned to Nulla Nulla he feared he would be silenced by Overheu. On 30 August, Wyndham constables led by St Jack were ordered to find Tommy to take down his statement and persuade him to return to testify before the commission. This meant that St Jack was charged with taking into protective custody the very witness who, if found, might testify against him. On 4 September, James Kitson issued a warrant in Broome to take Tommy into protective custody at Forrest River. The warrant was forwarded to Inspector Leen for redirection to Wyndham but Leen didn’t do so until 27 September when he sent it on to Sergeant Buckland. When questioned over why it took so long he replied that no one realised Tommy was an important witness or that it was supposed to be redirected. Sergeant Buckland, who was told to expect the warrant, was asked why he didn’t contact Broome when it failed to arrive. He replied that he didn’t bother because he was told that Tommy had died. The delay almost certainly resulted in Tommy's murder on 24 September.
On 23 September, Inspector Douglas prepared a report for the police commissioner indicating that Overheu’s boy Tommy and the only white members of the patrol who had not taken part in any of the later killings, Daniel Murname and Special Constable Richard Jolly, would be witnesses for the Royal Commission. But Jolly and Murname both left the Kimberleys to avoid testifying. That same day Overheu had Lyddie brought to the Six Mile camp and Tommy came out of hiding to join her. Overheu gave him new clothes and asked Tommy to meet him the following morning to help find some horses that had strayed. Overheu and Tommy left together with Overheu returning a few hours later alone, leading Tommy’s horse. He claimed they had separated and after finding the horse grazing he was unable to find Tommy. One of the station servants, Jacky, claimed the saddle had blood on it but Overheu stated that if Tommy was dead he was likely to have been killed by Jacky himself. Overheu later testified he had no knowledge of the rumours about the police killings or that Tommy had spoken to anyone about the killings until after he had disappeared. However Inspector Douglas had interviewed Overheu extensively on this very subject in early September.
On 12 August Rev. Gribble, accompanied by Inspector E. C. Mitchell of the Western Australian Aborigines Department in Wyndham, visited two of the alleged massacre sites identified by Tommy Doort, Mowerie and Gotegotemerrie. Mitchell reported that he found considerable evidence of attempts to clean up the site, which included the chipping away of stone to remove dark stains from a rock ledge, and that he had recovered a quantity of intact human teeth and skull fragments from the ashes of a large fire nearby. Mitchell sent a telegram to the Chief Protector, A.O. Neville: "Shocking revelations, saw place Forrest River, rocky higher bed where natives chained small tree killed there then bodies burnt improvised oven". Two weeks later Chief Inspector Douglas visited both sites and noted finding dark stains that had human hairs attached on a rock slab behind a tree near where the fire had been. In September Douglas returned with Sulieman, a tracker who had ridden with the patrol. Following tracks from Mowerie and Gotegotemerrie to police camp 3 Sulieman pointed out the remains of a fire. He claimed that the Aboriginal trackers had been sent to destroy another police camp while St Jack and O'Leary remained with six chained prisoners, and that, on returning the next morning, they found Constable St Jack and O'Leary at a large fire. He did not see any of the prisoners killed, but "knew that the bodies were in the fire". Arriving at camp 3 Sulieman stated that Regan, O'Leary and Murnane led nine prisoners in chains into a ravine, returning the next morning alone. Douglas followed tracks from camp 3 into the ravine where he "found the remains of a large fire and some thousands of fragments of bone in the ashes". Douglas' report to the police commissioner stated: "sixteen natives were burned in three lots; one, six and nine; only fragments (of) bone not larger than one inch remain".
On the recommendation of the police commissioner a Royal Commission, conducted by G. T. Wood, sent an evidence-gathering party and heard evidence regarding Gribble's allegations. The 1927 Wood Royal Commission was tasked with investigating the disappearance of key witness Tommy, one of the patrols trackers who had vanished after meeting with Leopold Overheu and the investigation of three particular sites (Gotegotemerrie, Mowerie and Dala) in the vicinity of the Forrest River Mission where it was alleged the massacres had taken place. Many witnesses retracted statements, refused to testify or simply disappeared and several key Aboriginal witnesses to the killings "escaped" from custody at Wyndham before they could give evidence to the Commission. None of the Aborigines named to the Commission who had witnessed the massacres or who had relatives killed were called to testify. As a result, Gribble was the only witness for the massacres. The Royal Commission found that 11 people had been murdered and the bodies burned.
The local white community had funded the patrol's defence and as a result of public sympathy for the accused, only two police officers, Constables St Jack and Regan were subsequently charged in May 1927 with the murder of one Boondung at Dala. However, at a preliminary hearing, the case against St Jack and Regan was dismissed by Magistrate Kidson as the evidence was "insufficient to justify its being placed before a jury". The two constables were promoted and transferred out of the region. Subsequent death threats and attacks on the credibility of Gribble led to his departure from the region.
Historian Neville Green described the massacres as the culmination of years of violence by police and pastoralists against Aboriginal people in the Kimberleys and not an aberration, but part of a culture of decades of violence.
After being arrested, Lumbia was brought back for trial via the Forrest River Mission. There, the Rev. Gribble, who was both the local Protector of Aborigines and Justice of the Peace, insisted on a preliminary hearing. Mrs Angelina Noble, wife of Aboriginal deacon James Noble and an expert in a number of the local Aboriginal dialects, acted as interpreter. Lumbia and several other witnesses were ordered detained and the rest of the Aborigines brought in with them were released. Mrs Noble also acted as interpreter at a later coroner's inquest. There, one of Lumbia's child-wives, Anulgoo, testified that Hay had ridden up shouting, had struck Lumbia with a whip and Lumbia had speared him. She also testified that "the other natives killed the bullock."
On 28 October, at the trial for the murder of Hay, Lumbia had neither legal representation nor a translator. While in the dock he slipped his chains and fled but was recaptured in the street where he was chained to a post. The trial continued and the verdict delivered in his absence. Historian Neville Green claimed that the Kimberley prosecutor refused to mention Lumbia's defence as, with the exception of the Rev. Gribble, no one wanted it known that Hay had raped a child. The prosecutor presented the situation to the court as a settler murdered while protecting his stock from a cattle killer. Green also claimed, based on Gribble's 1934 memoir, that Gribble had expected the Inspector of Aborigines, E. C. Mitchell, to give the court Lumbia's account of the rape of Anulgoo on his behalf but he too had decided, along with the prosecutor, to suppress the claim stating to another missionary that he would keep anything unpleasant out of the evidence "for the sake of the fair name of my native state". This exchange was referred to in the final report of the Royal Commission and Mitchell made several unsuccessful attempts to have the report recalled and the references removed.
The initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after it was successfully argued that Hay had provoked the attack.
Lumbia was imprisoned on Rottnest Island until the prison was closed in 1929 when he was transferred to the Broome Regional Prison. In 1935 he was sent to the Moola Bulla settlement near Halls Creek. In 1936 he walked 270 mi (430 km) to the Forrest River Mission and no attempts were made to return him to finish his sentence. In December 1944 Lumbia killed his second wife, Waldjanurri, and was sentenced to death for murder the following year; he escaped and was recaptured but was determined to have been wrongly convicted and was released after serving two weeks for the escape. Sent back to Moola Bulla he contracted leprosy and returned to Forrest River where he died in 1950.
The massacres caused a serious disruption in the region's mortuary customs as a large number of people were missing and without bodies the customary funeral ceremonies could not be held. To satisfy traditional customs of responsibility, a series of tribal investigations followed.
It was found that Hay's desire for Anulgoo contributed to Lumbia's arrest and the resulting massacres, and Anulgoo was speared to death in August 1927. Aldoa, whom Gribble had assigned to help find Lumbia was sentenced to death for helping the patrol bring in the victims. Ernest Unbah who was under arrest when St Jack found Hay's body was sentenced to tribal punishment for confirming Tommy Doort's interpretation of the tracks at the scene. Matthew Munjara was likewise sentenced for giving evidence before the Royal Commission. All three took refuge at the mission where tribal justice was forbidden. In April 1928 Unbah and Munjara led Stuart Wajimol into the bush where Aldoa killed him. The traditional lawmen had offered Aldoa a pardon in exchange for the murder of Wajimol who was under sentence of death for coveting Eura's wife (Eura had died of influenza and, as he had eloped with Eura's wife who by tradition was to marry Eura's brother, Wajimol was held responsible for his death). Gribble held a full enquiry and sent the report to Neville who refused to hand it over to the police. Aldoa, Unbah and Munjara were arrested but the Aborigines, mission and Neville refused to cooperate and the three were acquitted.
In January 1968, Dr Neville Green interviewed on audiotape Charles Overheu, the brother of Hay's partner and co-owner of Nulla Nulla station Leopold Overheu:
They all got together up there and there was a bloody massacre because I think they shot about three hundred natives all in one hit and there was a hell of a row over it. It was all published in the papers and somebody let the cat out of the bag and anyhow the government and the judges in those times they realised what the trouble was and the whole thing was hushed up you see.
In the same year, Forrest River Aborigines specified that the massacres had taken place at five different sites, and a German scholar, Dr Helmut Reim, from interviews with three Aboriginal elders, concluded that between 80 and 100 Aborigines had been killed in the massacres on the Marndoc Reserve, of which the Forrest River Mission was a small part.
In 1999, journalist Rod Moran published a book Massacre Myth which reviewed the evidence arguing that there was no credible evidence that there had been any massacres and that Gribble had promoted and spread rumours of the alleged massacres. Moran argues that many of the stories surrounding the events were fabrications by Gribble.
Geoffrey Bolton, historian, wrote about Moran’s “book Massacre Myth, which put the view that there was no evidence that anyone at all had been killed by the police party. This contradicted the view previously taken by most historians, including Henry Reynolds, Neville Green and myself, that on the evidence before him the royal commissioner had probably got it right in assessing the death toll at around a dozen. Careful analysis of Massacre Myth suggested that the evidence for the killings was less substantial than we had supposed, and depended a good deal on the say-so of the missionary Ernest Gribble, who by 1926 was a psychologically troubled man.”
David Day, historian, wrote “… as has recently been argued by Rod Moran, the massacre may have been invented by the mentally disturbed missionary.”
Josephine Flood, archaeologist, wrote: "Moran's disassembly of evidence establishes that Wood's findings were a travesty. ... However, the myth of a Forrest River massacre lives on ... The extent of the violence in this region is uncertain, pending detailed studies but Moran's research on this and two other alleged massacres shows it may have been exaggerated."
Frontier historian Noel Loos has replied that Moran simply reargued the same case made by the pastoralists' defence lawyer, Walter Nairn, in 1927, believing the police evidence while repeating Nairn's attempt to discredit the evidence and character of the main witness, Ernest Gribble, who had been impugned before the Royal Commission by Walter Nairn, for treating the Aborigines "as the equal of whites,"
Most historians agree with the general conclusions of the Royal Commission, though without committing themselves to a specific number of victims. In 2003 Neville Green wrote: "The guilt or innocence of the police party accused of murder at Forrest River could not be proven in court and cannot be proven now. In The Forrest River Massacres (1995), I tried to show that given the violent history of the Kimberley the massacre was probable."