The Skeleton in the Dunes

A report reached here by last night’s mail that the skeleton of a man has been found on the coast near the Donnelly River by Mr. G. Giblett. The body is supposed to have been there some time.

20 October 1892

While no doubt shocking, finding a skeleton was not an altogether unusual occurrence in Australia. People often headed out into the bush or the outback and, if they did not have adequate experience in such environments, soon found themselves lost and often succumbed to the elements. What makes this case interesting is the age of the bones, the sheer amount and variety of objects found nearby and the mystery of who exactly the individual was.

On 13 October 1892, George Giblett, a farmer at Balbarrup (north east of Manjimup) was likely working near his family’s coastal property when he came across a skeleton in the sand dunes.

SRO Map
A map (undated) showing the Warren River and the Giblett family property located on the eastern side. Courtesy of the State Records Office of WA.

The sand dunes (located west of the Warren River) are today known as Yeagarup Dunes and are part of the D’Entrecasteaux National Park. While the exact location of the remains was not pinpointed in the records, there was a fairly detailed description in The Inquirer and Commercial News which stated they were found “about six miles from the Donnelly River (on the Warren side), and about 300 yards above high-water mark, nearly opposite a place called Silver Mount.

Map
Silver Mount, Yeagarup Dunes and the Warren River. Courtesy of Google Maps.

Two days later George wrote to the Resident Magistrate of the Vasse district, Dr Lepper, who then relayed the information to the Police. Corporal John Hogan, in charge of the Vasse Police Station (located in Busselton) received the news on the 18th October and immediately sent a telegram to Sergeant John Connor at the Bunbury Police Station. Sergeant Connor then forwarded it to the Police Department Chief Office in Perth.

Having advised the head office of the discovery, Corporal Hogan soon departed Busselton and rode southeast (over 100 km) to the location where the remains were found.

I have to report for the information of the Commissioner of Police, that on the 22nd inst. I arrived at the coast, near the Donnelly River, and examined the human skeleton, found there by George Giblett on the 13th inst.

Corporal John Hogan, 26 October 1892

Accompanied by George Giblett and William Scott, Corporal Hogan examined the skeleton and the surroundings. He noted that the bones were old and estimated that they may have been there for fifty or sixty years, giving an indication that death took place sometime between 1830 and 1840. It also appeared that the remains of the individual had been undisturbed. The bones were in all intact and the person had been laying on their stomach with their right arm bent under their head and the left arm stretched out; a position indicating rest, sleep or perhaps exhaustion.

The person had been wearing clothes at the time of death as Corporal Hogan found remnants of what appeared to be the waistband of trousers, wristbands of a shirt, a variety of buttons as well as the rusted shape of a brass buckle in the sand. He estimated that the person had been of medium height and weight and counted 28 undamaged teeth in the skull. The presence of the teeth led him to believe that the remains had belonged to a “youngish person“.

While careful not to assume the sex of the individual at the start of his report, Corporal Hogan eventually started using the word ‘he’. It was highly probable that the remains were of a young man.

According to the Department of Parks and Wildlife, the dunes in this area are “…the largest land-locked mobile dune system in the southern hemisphere…” and are moving four metres inland each year. They have been moving for hundreds if not thousands of years and this fact was not lost on Corporal Hogan in 1892.

no doubt at the time of his death where he laid was a sand hill, under which he had taken shelter and the sand drifting at the time covered him up at once… The sand drift in that locality is very great. I saw one place myself about a mile from the skeleton where it was working its way inland like a high wall, covering up trees fifty or sixty feet high.

Having investigated the skeleton Corporal Hogan turned his attention to the objects found nearby. George Giblett had uncovered what remained of a tin cash box and found within it thirteen sovereigns wrapped up in a piece of blue cloth (dates ranging from 1817 to 1830), ten Spanish dollars (dates ranging from 1782 to 1821), two crowns (both dated 1819) and one shilling (dated 1826).

Along with the money they also found a variety of objects which were listed in Corporal Hogan’s report. They included:

  • Three separate type letters: a large ‘W’, a large ‘B’ and a small ‘o’
  • A brass button with a crown and anchor on it
  • Six lead sinkers for fishing lines
  • Four large and one small pocket knife with bone handles
  • Two butcher’s knives with wooden handles
  • Two steel knives with horn handles
  • The back of a clothes brush
  • A piece of glass similar to a bulls eye for a lantern
  • The copper top of a shot pouch
  • A pint tin pannikin
  • A three quart iron kettle
  • A piece of flint
  • A small white bottle
  • Bottom part of a tumbler
  • Part of a large black bottle
  • A seven pointed star brooch
  • A piece of clothing much like blue flannel
  • A piece of red ochre
  • A little rock brimstone, and
  • Metal clothes buttons

The cash box and knives were “nothing but a mass of rust” while the pannikin and kettle contained sand which was as hard as rock and looked like ironstone. There was no clue which could help identify the remains.

The three men dug all around the skeleton to see if there was anything else buried in the sand but found nothing. Resigned that they had done all they could, they collected the bones of the man, placed them in a box, and buried them in the spot where they were found. In a touching show of compassion, their final act was to erect a cross over the man’s grave.

Corporal Hogan continued investigating and interviewed several of the old settlers in the district. No one could shed any light as to the identity of the mystery man however some recounted that there was a man who left a whaling ship over 40 years ago. He had supposedly departed from Augusta and was never seen again. On the other hand, there was also a story of a botanist who was lost in the southwest many years ago and, likewise, was never seen again. Neither story was substantial enough to indicate a connection to the man in the sand dunes.

Most of the objects at the scene (the majority broken or disintegrated) were considered worthless. Corporal Hogan took charge of the property deemed salvageable and returned to the Vasse Police Station. On 26 October 1892 he wrote his report and submitted it to the Commissioner of Police, George Phillips, in Perth. At the end he asked, “I beg to be informed what I am to do with the money.

Over two weeks later the Commissioner advised Corporal Hogan to “…forward to Chief Office the Coin and other articles in his possession.” These were duly sent on 20 November 1892 and were received in Perth three days later.

With the objects now in his possession, the Commissioner also wondered what exactly he should do with them. He wrote to The Colonial Secretary, Octavius Burt, and stated that “…there is no probability of the remains being identified or of the articles being claimed…” He sought guidance as to the disposal of the property and received in response the suggestion that they be dealt with by the Curator of Intestates’ Estates. The items were subsequently sent to the Curator, Harry Wainscot, who soon advised that he thought they were valueless. With enquiries as to the legal beneficiary considered pointless, he too sought direction. He contacted the Attorney General, Septimus Burt.

Enquiries were seemingly sent everywhere and soon reached the Premier, John Forrest, when the Attorney General sent a note with his suggestion as to the disposal of the property.

I think we should put these coins in the museum & give the finder, say, £2 for them.

John Forrest agreed but felt that £2 was far too small for a reward. He suggested George Giblett be given £5; a larger sum than the original offer but nevertheless not equal to the value of the coins.

By mid December 1892 the reward for Mr Giblett was approved by all Government Ministers and was sent to him. The coins, the bottom of the tin cash box, three lead sinkers, two pocket knives, part of a butcher’s knife and one steel knife were sent to Bernard Woodward who was the Curator of the Museum.

Note
“The Curator of Intestates’ Estates. Received the articles ticked in red ink as per list herewith. Bernard H Woodward.”

By all appearances the boxes had been ticked and the Government officials most likely assumed that that would be the end of the matter. Not quite. Back in Balbarrup George Giblett had not forgotten about the coins that he had found in the dunes. Three years later, on 7 June 1895, he wrote a letter to the Premier, John Forrest. Declaring himself to be the rightful owner, he requested the coins be returned to him.

The law relative to property found in this Colony “I have allways been led to believe” that at the expiration of Twelve Months, that the property found, and no claimant coming forward, the property so found, and delivered to the Police would be returned to the finder.

His belief with regards to the finding of property was correct and even the Commissioner of Police admitted that he may have a case. Also on his side was Octavius Burt who bluntly stated, “I don’t think W Giblett has been very generously treated.” He further suggested that George be paid the full value of the find and went on to assert, “W. Giblett’s mistake apparently was in handing these sovereigns & old coins over to the police.

It was no good. Octavius’s brother, Septimus (the Attorney General) was concerned about the possibility of next of kin turning up some time in the future. If they did and they made a claim for the property, the Government would be liable to pay if they had handed it over to George. Septimus Burt was fairly direct in his advice to John Forrest.

W Giblett has no right whatever to any of it.

One last push from Octavius (questioning whether people in the future would hand in what they find if they knew the Government would benefit from it) sent it before the Ministers. They too rejected it. George Giblett was advised via letter that he had no claim to the money.

With all the toing and froing and constant notes passed between officials concerning the property, I can’t help but feel for the individual whose identity was lost when he died in such a remote location and lost again as he became unimportant and forgotten in a myriad of paperwork. Thankfully, not everyone had forgotten about the man found in the dunes.

Five years later, on 12 April 1900, Henry Prinsep wrote a letter. He had known Dr Alfred Green (a Colonial Surgeon) who was stationed at Augusta during the early 1830s. Dr Green passed away in Northam in 1895 however several years before his death he told Mr Prinsep about a man who used to travel from Fremantle to Augusta to sell various goods to the settlers in the area.

slwa_b1979528_3
Landing goods at Augusta in the 1830s. Painted by Thomas Turner. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

Augusta was a very isolated spot in those early days & a man named Cass occasionally came down from Fremantle in a small coasting cutter – loaded up with draperies, hardware & other useful things which he sold at the Augusta settlement – waiting till he had disposed of most of his cargo before returning to Fremantle.

According to Mr Prinsep’s letter Dr Green saw Cass the night before he was due to sail back to Fremantle. The weather was rough and stormy and he asked whether he would still sail in the morning as planned. Cass intimated that he would and the next day left Augusta in a south-easterly direction, tacking the cutter with the intention of rounding Cape Leeuwin. He was not alone and was accompanied by a sailor who assisted him. After he left, “Neither the boat nor Cass were ever seen again.

Dr Green believed that the ship may not have been able to round the Cape, was pushed by the wind in an easterly direction and was wrecked in the vicinity of the Warren River.

Cass might have got ashore, perhaps he might have been able to get some things either off the wrecked boat or floating ashore – but nothing was ever known.

As noted in the last few words, nothing was ever known. What is curious is that it was Henry Prinsep who wrote the letter, five years after Dr Green’s death and eight years after the skeleton was discovered. What prompted him to write the letter when he did? Why didn’t Dr Green advise the authorities of his knowledge of Cass at an earlier time? Regardless of the questions it is nevertheless a name and a clue and worthwhile researching.

During the 1830s there was only one Cass family in Western Australia. Charles Cass Senior (48), his son, Charles Cass Junior (18) and his younger brother, William Bowles Cass sailed on the ship Protector and arrived in Western Australia on 26 February 1830. They emigrated under Colonel Peter Latour’s scheme and were indentured to him as fellmongers, wool staplers and tanners (Charles Junior and William were apprentices). Not long after arriving they discovered that the Colonel’s scheme was a complete failure. It would have been incredibly disappointing news for a family who had travelled so far. Six months later Charles wrote to the Colonial Secretary and requested release from Latour’s service as well as permission to leave the colony.

Fremantle
5 August 1830

D[ear] Sir

The undersigned having engaged himself to Lieut Col Latour for the term of seven years as a Fellmonger and Wool Stapler is under the necessity of leaving the Colony (you being well aware the Establishment having failed). I now Sir request that I may receive an answer from you with permission (on success of this) to the above request as the Ship will Sail on Saturday.

I am
Sir
Your most respectfully

Charles Cass

Charles was discharged from Latour’s service but did not end up leaving the colony. The Cass family remained and for the following years struggled. During 1831 there are records of Charles requesting a loan and asking for assistance from the Government while Charles Junior (who was happy to work anywhere) wrote requesting employment.

Cass Letter
Charles Cass Junior’s letter written on 1 October 1831. “Being at present out of a situation, and not being able to obtain a situation in any of the Stores at Fremantle or Perth. I have taken the liberty of applying to you, and should there be any vacancy to which his Excellency would be pleased to appoint me I should be particularly obliged.”

Their requests went unheeded. While Charles Cass Senior was granted a loan to start his business he could not find a suitable plot of land in Perth to conduct it. Charles Junior wrote twice and was rejected both times; there was no vacancy anywhere. On the 31 December 1831 Charles Junior wrote a letter on behalf of his father. The final sentence, though polite, shows just how discouraged he was feeling.

Your speedy answer will greatly oblige, having been out of employment a long time, my finances are near exhausted waiting.

Two years later William decided to leave. On 24 January 1833 he sailed on the Governor Bourke for Sydney. He was not simply moving to another part of the country; he arrived at the end of February, remained for two months and departed for London on the Edward Lombe. William’s stint in Australia came to an end.

Charles and Charles Junior remained in Western Australia and continued to eke out a living. They resided in Fremantle and, according to the Western Australian Biographical Index, worked as shipwrights. While I have not come across any evidence that they built or repaired ships I have however found that Charles Junior was employed by Thomas Carter (a merchant and landowner) on 23 April 1833 for a trip to Batavia (today’s Jakarta). Sailing on the schooner Auranza he departed on 13 May. The journey took five months. He was back by October and in January 1834 he and his father signed a congratulatory address for Sir James Stirling’s return.

Everything appeared to be going well for Charles Junior. Not only had he received employment with Carter, he was also granted property. Before departing for Batavia, on 25 April 1833, he was allocated Town Lot 50 which was located on Mouat Street in Fremantle.

Fremantle Map
An early map of Fremantle showing the town lot numbers. The Roundhouse (labelled jail) is on the left with Mouat Street the second street off High Street. Number 50 is just over half way on the right. Courtesy of the Fremantle History Centre.

It may well be that working with Thomas Carter inspired Charles Junior to work in the merchant trade himself. There was a need for produce in the colony (especially in country areas) and perhaps he saw an opportunity and began selling goods to the settlers. Unfortunately evidence of his whereabouts post 1833 is scarce. There is however the tiniest of clues printed with respect to a court case in June 1835.

Cass Witness

The above snippet from a larger newspaper article essentially confirms Dr Green’s story of a man named Cass who used to visit Augusta. The only issue is the use of the name ‘John’ however this could have been a mistake. As far as I can tell there was no John Cass in Western Australia at that time. Taking that into account as well as Charles Junior’s experience working with Carter, it is highly likely that the Cass who sold goods at Augusta was Charles Junior.

This was the last time he was mentioned (assuming the name John was incorrect) in the context of him still living in Western Australia. There was no notice of him having returned to Fremantle. There was no notice of him having struck tragedy. There wasApprehensions simply silence. The only slight clues are the shipping articles which indicate there was some fault with the Fanny in 1835 and that on two occasions she was away longer than expected. The article on the right shows the mounting concern that something had befallen the cutter during the months of August and September 1835. It also mentions that the colony had experienced “boisterous weather” which further confirms Dr Green’s account of inclement weather in Augusta when Cass was due to sail.

Four years passed before Charles Junior appeared in the paper. On 21 June 1839 his name and the details of his town allotment in Fremantle were printed in an advertisement placed by the Colonial Secretary’s Office. He was recorded as being an ‘Absentee’ from the colony who had not made the required improvements on his land. This meant he was no longer in Western Australia and as a result his land was resumed by the Government.

What happened to Charles Cass Junior during that period of time? Did he leave Western Australia? If that was the case, why would he leave his father behind? Unfortunately this story has a lot of missing pieces however there are numerous points which raise the possibility that the skeleton and Charles Junior are one and the same.

Judging by the teeth, the skeleton was thought to be a young man, a similar age to Charles Junior who would have been about 23. We know that Charles likely frequented Augusta, was there in June 1835 and that it was quite possibly the last place he was seen before he disappeared. Dr Green’s story further confirms that there was a man named Cass who sold goods to the settlers, an occupation Charles may have embarked upon in 1833.

The sheer amount and variety of objects found with the skeleton is also fascinating. The man who died may well have been a whaler or botanist however I cannot marry up the objects to either of these occupations. Why would a whaler or botanist carry over half a dozen knives of varying types? There is also the factor of the money found in the tin cash box. Would a whaler be that wealthy and would a botanist carry that many coins? It is reasonable to assume that the random collection of objects and the tin cash box full of coins formed part of a merchant’s stock.

Assuming that the skeleton and Cass are one and the same, the next question to consider is how did he end up in the sand dunes? Research indicates that the Fanny returned in 1835 and continued sailing up and down the coast in 1836. Knowing this, did he travel on the Fanny at the time mentioned and somehow fell overboard along with a box of goods? A somewhat unlikely (and unlucky) scenario. Did something of a terrible nature occur on the Fanny which resulted in him being left behind on the coast? Or, for some reason or another, did he attempt to walk from Albany to Augusta (or vice versa) and succumbed to the elements as many often did.

Of course there is also the likelihood that Charles Junior was not on board the Fanny at all. Perhaps he returned in 1835 and then went about obtaining his own ship so he could sail on his own terms. Perhaps it was on a different ship that he ended up wrecked and washed ashore with some of his goods.

Adding weight to this argument are the words in Henry Prinsep’s letter that “Neither the boat nor Cass were ever seen again”. This means that not only did Cass disappear but the boat disappeared too. 

There are a multitude of stories and theories which could be constructed and imagined however whatever the circumstances, the fact is, after 1835 Charles Cass Junior was never heard of again in Western Australia.

The only Cass left, Charles Senior, remained in Fremantle. The newspapers never published any details of his son being missing which makes one wonder if he actually was. Or, if something had happened, perhaps Charles simply accepted the circumstances. His health however declined in the years following 1835 and on 18 May 1840 he died in Fremantle Hospital.

The man found in the Yeagarup Dunes is most likely still there, buried somewhere beneath the ever-shifting sand. While it is possible he was Charles Cass Junior, it is also possible that he was not. Many of the common attributes between the two has me intrigued enough to consider they most certainly could be one and the same, however I am realistic enough to admit that there simply is not enough evidence to declare it as such. I can only form a theory and this theory is speculative. Like many of the mysteries I tend to be drawn to, the power of the story lies in not knowing the answer; in the research; in the discovery; in the endless questions of, could it be…?

Sources:

  • State Records Office of WA; Skeleton of human being and remains of swag found near the Donnelly River South Coast – Corporal Hogan; AU WA S675- cons527 1892/1894
  • State Records Office of WA; Report on skeleton and remains near Donnelly River.; AU WA S2381- cons129 U17
  • State Records Office of WA; Colonial Secretary’s Office; Inwards Correspondence; Acc 36; Volume 8; Items 62 & 63. Record details obtained via the Western Australian Genealogical Society’s CSO Inward Correspondence Index.
  • State Records Office of WA; Colonial Secretary’s Office; Inwards Correspondence; Acc 36; Volume 17; Items 71 & 72. Record details obtained via the Western Australian Genealogical Society’s CSO Inward Correspondence Index.
  • State Records Office of WA; Colonial Secretary’s Office; Inwards Correspondence; Acc 36; Volume 18; Item 56. Record details obtained via the Western Australian Genealogical Society’s CSO Inward Correspondence Index.
  • State Records Office of WA; Colonial Secretary’s Office; Inwards Correspondence; Acc 36; Volume 19; Items 5, 46, 77 & 175. Record details obtained via the Western Australian Genealogical Society’s CSO Inward Correspondence Index.
  • State Records Office of WA; Colonial Secretary’s Office; Inwards Correspondence; Acc 36; Volume 27; Items 57 & 58. Record details obtained via the Western Australian Genealogical Society’s CSO Inward Correspondence Index.
  • The map of the town allotments in Fremantle courtesy of the Fremantle History Centre.
  • Dictionary of Western Australians 1829-1914; Volume 1; Early Settlers 1829-1850; Page 50; Compiled by Pamela Statham. Courtesy of the Fremantle History Centre.
  • Image of Augusta painted by Thomas Turner courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia; Call Number: 4001B/1 (http://purl.slwa.wa.gov.au/slwa_b1979528_3).
  • 1892 ‘PROVINCIAL TELEGRAMS.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 20 October, p. 2. , viewed 13 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77382270
  • 1892 ‘VASSE.’, Southern Times (Bunbury, WA : 1888 – 1916), 26 October, p. 3. , viewed 14 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article167580981
  • 1892 ‘DISCOVERY OF REMAINS IN THE VASSE DISTRICT.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 15 November, p. 5. , viewed 15 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3042081
  • Information about the history of D’Entrecasteaux National Park and the Yeagarup Dunes courtesy of the Department of Parks and Wildlife Service (https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/dentrecasteaux?sid=6104).
  • State Records Office of WA; Item Nelson 04 – Nelson 1 [Tally No. 506206, undated]; AU WA S978- cons4923 Nelson 04; https://archive.sro.wa.gov.au/index.php/nelson-1-tally-no-506206-undated-nelson-04
  • The map of Silver Mount, Yeagarup Dunes and the Warren River courtesy of Google Maps.
  • 1892 ‘OUR VASSE LETTER.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 12 November, p. 7. , viewed 22 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66309461
  • 1892 ‘PROVINCIAL TELEGRAMS.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 27 October, p. 3. , viewed 23 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77382481
  • 1892 ‘OUR VASSE LETTER.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 12 November, p. 7. , viewed 23 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66309461
  • 1833 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 26 January, p. 14. , viewed 29 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article642246
  • 1833 ‘Shipping Intelligence.’, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), 16 April, p. 2. , viewed 30 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2211621
  • 1833 ‘GOVERNMENT NOTICE.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 27 April, p. 66. , viewed 30 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article642104
  • 1835 ‘CIVIL COURT.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 20 June, p. 515. , viewed 30 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article640883
  • 1835 ‘SHIPPING INTELLIGENCE.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 18 April, p. 478. , viewed 30 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article640980
  • 1835 ‘THE WESTERN AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL.’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 26 September, p. 570. , viewed 30 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article640733
  • 1839 ‘Classified Advertising’, The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal (WA : 1833 – 1847), 22 June, p. 98. , viewed 30 Nov 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article639060
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14 thoughts on “The Skeleton in the Dunes

  1. Great story Jess, I believe you have solved the riddle. Lt Preston and crew were shipwrecked on the same coast in a whale boat around the same time. They all survived and walked to Augusta, boat was usable but the waves make it impossible to launch.

    Like

    1. Thank you for the additional information, Scott! I was looking for other references to wrecks in the area but never saw anything about Lt Preston. What a fascinating story!

      Like

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