The Dog's Grave

Dog's Grave PortraitDog's Grave Portrait

From the mid 1800s the Dog's Grave became a well-known overnight stop for stockmen and their cattle dogs when they drove the herds to the markets further south through Victoria's inhospitable High Country. In 1975 a headstone was placed near an actual Dog's Grave as a tribute to the Australian pioneering cattlemen and their dogs who first settled this isolated mountainous area.

From Sydney Southwards

Sheepdogs c 1800Sheepdogs c 1800

In 1788 the first British Fleet landed in Sydney, Australia bringing four cows, one bull and one bull calf, but no cattle dogs[1]. In those days, people rather than dogs shepherded cattle. Over the next few decades, immigrants arrived in vast numbers bringing more cattle accompanied by some dogs. In the early 1800's the Shepherds' and Drovers' dogs of Britain came in various shapes and sizes like those illustrated. So it is most likely that these were the types of dogs that accompanied these early arrivals of cattle. Squatters spread inland from Sydney in all directions, grabbing land.

On his property north of Sydney Thomas Hall experimented with mixing some of these different types of Shepherds' and Drovers' dogs with dingoes. By 1835 he had produced the 'Halls Heeler', a type of dog which became well known as being able to cope with Australia's unforgiving countryside[2]. With the aid of these dogs, drovers explored south of Sydney and beyond, searching for new pastures.

Into Victoria's High Country

Map showing relevant areas and placesMap showing relevant areas and places

George Gray was one of these early settlers. He arrived in Australia in 1797 and at first worked on a cattle station in the Monaro district of NSW, south of Sydney. From there he travelled to an area now known as Wangaratta. By 1837 his son, George Gray II had become one of the first Victorian High Country cattlemen. By 1841 stockmen Jim Brown and Jack Wells had made Cobungra their home[3]. However the first lease was negotiated in 1851 by George Gray II, in the same year that a declaration was made by the Imperial Parliament in London separating Victoria from NSW. The lease on Cobungra required a rental of 10 pounds per annum with an additional 2 pounds ten shillings for every thousand (head of cattle) above 4,000. In 1852 this lease was transferred to John Meehan whose brother Peter Meehan was the subject of the Dog's Grave[4].

Cobungra Station

Travelling along Omeo Track 1880Travelling along Omeo Track 1880

How George Gray II with their families and cattle travelled for months on epic journeys over or even around the Victorian Alps from Wangaratta to settle Cobungra Station remains unclear[5]. As seen by the accompanying aerial map this country is extremely mountainous and steep. Before the days of roads and settlements one could only imagine what a remarkable achievement this was! Certainly the drovers' dogs would have been essential to the success of these long journeys. Then cattle bred on Cobungra Station were sold at markets situated several days drove further south to Dargo and beyond, involving more hazardous journeys.

Most drovers had several dogs which would drive these mobs of cattle without command. The dogs coped well with this work, travelling around five times the distance of the mob. These dogs would run up and down the sides of the mob or work behind them so the cattle moved freely and steadily. The cattle knew that should they break or stray, the dog would stick with them until they returned to the mob.

Although these wonderful dogs kept the mob of cattle together, these journeys were unbelievably hazardous for drovers, horses and the cattle. John Sadlier a contemporary writer of the 1850's said:

"Ascending from the river.... the horses went first and we hung on to their tails. We reached the top in a series of short scrambles, horses and men stopping every few yards to recover their wind. Few men would care to undertake alone the journey described". [3] 

The Actual Dog's Grave

The Dogs Grave 2002The Dogs Grave 2002

The link between drovers and their dogs was so strong that most were also the drovers' best mates as well as their cattle dogs. Yet of the thousands of dogs who assisted our pioneers, only 'Boney' is immortalized in stone. This is not just Boney's memorial. It is also a tribute to those who drove mobs of cattle along these hazardous routes.

The Dog's Grave is situated on the remote winding track that links Cobungra to Dargo. Originally a simple grave covered with local rocks neatly fenced with logs and a picket fence, it lay next to a holding paddock for stock. It remained a well-known landmark for over a hundred years, sparking conflicting stories about whose dog it actually was!

But what is certain is that John Giannarelli, a first generation Italian member of an Australian firm of Monumental Masons was prospecting in the Omeo-Dargo district with Jack Treasure, a grandson of one of these pioneer families. When Jack told John his version of the Dog's Grave, they agreed these early pioneers and their dogs should be immortalised in stone. So on John's return to Melbourne, he arranged for a monument to be constructed as a tribute to "Boney" the dog who belonged to Peter Meehan.

John engaged the services of an overseas artist who used a diamond pointed tool to engrave two portraits. The first is the drover Peter Meehan's dog 'Boney' and the second is a lonely bushman boiling his Billy while sorrowing for his dog inspired by Frederick McCubbin's well-known painting "Down on his Luck". Set in granite, this monument stands some four feet high on its base and was conveyed to a position beside the original Dog's Grave and unveiled on May 30, 1975[3].

The inscription on the headstone reads:

A Man's Best Friend
'BONEY'
Buried here about 1863
By Peter Meehan
His Master and his Friend
This mark was placed by
A Giannarelli & Sons
Monumental Masons of Fitzroy
As a Tribute to the Pioneers and Drovers
Of the Omeo-Dargo Track

The Memorial to the Pioneers

The Dargo River FlatsThe Dargo River Flats

To understand the importance of this memorial, the tough conditions under which these drovers worked must be considered further. With no huts at stopping places, at night drovers simply gathered wood and made a fire for warmth, cooking and keeping dingoes away. They snuggled with their dogs near the fire beneath cowhide skins or woollen blankets. The cattle grazed before dark so hopefully they would rest at night, chewing their cud.

Mustering was usually at sunrise. With the sure-footed pack horses saddled with evenly balanced packs, they followed the mob without being led, allowing them to judiciously judge the width of their load, manoeuvering it between trees and rocks.

Judging the weather was also critical for the survival of drovers, cattle, horses and dogs. Because of the altitude there could be some snow all year round. Heavy downpours of rain during summer thunderstorms together with melting snow caused rock falls and landslides, often making the usual routes impassable. Additionally high winds especially in the summer months in this heavily timbered area meant extreme fire risk with fallen trees blocking the track. So although experienced cattlemen and their dogs were able to move cattle off the beaten track, they also had to also keep an eye on changes in the weather. Hence this particular journey was usually taken in autumn, after the summer fire risks and before the heavy winter snow.

From Dogs Grave to Dargo

The steep Victorian AlpsThe steep Victorian Alps

For almost a century from the 1840s, these wonderful dogs helped drove mobs of 300 - 500 head of cattle south along mountain tracks for around 8 days from Dog's Grave to Dargo. To reach these markets, part of this track was ten miles along a bridle track approximately four and a half feet wide. In places the drop was sheer to the river some 2,000 feet below.The skill of the dogs was particularly evident considering part of it was single file for drovers and cattle. Trouble occurred if an aggressive beast turned to horn the animal that was pushing it from behind. The dogs and drovers had to stop the aggressor quickly or one or more of the cattle would be forced over the side, hurtling into the river below.

In order to prevent trouble, drovers endeavoured to split the mob evenly between them and with the aid of their wonderful dogs, keep the cattle on the move until they reached the river flats that led to Dargo.

John Sadlier, a contemporary of the 1850s wrote:

"The view down into those awful depths at one's feet, range rising upon range striped with snow even at this late season (February) took one's breath away. This track has to be seen to be believed - the cattle only went over once.

"Fearsome for man and beast was the deep descent to the River Dargo below. The track was too steep for rider to remain in the saddle yet it had the appearance of having been much used. It was only by hanging on to the reins that we could get the horses to follow. The fear was that should the horses not be able to check their descent, we and the horses would go over the side."[3] 

Dogs Grave Today

The Dog's Grave 2015The Dog's Grave 2015

Today, in 2015 Cobungra Station is still the largest cattle station in Victoria. But sadly it appears to be purely a commercial concern as we could not find any acknowledgement of its historically significant past. As from 1932 cattle have been driven to market by road in trucks, the days of long droves are now gone.

At Dogs Grave, instead of the old stock paddock there is now a camping area with toilet facilities and barbeques. So although visitors can still see the original grave, the headstone and accompanying granite slab with its inscribed poem, need restoration. Sadly, we found the portraits on the headstone indistinct and the inscriptions difficult to read.

But let's hope those who visit this peaceful spot will pause for a moment to remember the purpose of Dogs Grave. With just their wonderful dogs for company, our pioneers endured enormous hardships but in doing so, opened up this magnificent yet inhospitable part of Australia for us all to enjoy.

Epitaph

In rugged ranges where a loneliness prevailedIn rugged ranges where a loneliness prevailed

 High Country working dogs 1930 High Country working dogs 1930

On the separate slab of granite which stands beside the Dog's Grave headstone is an epitaph. Written in 1964 by the well known local resident and bush poet Jack Treasure, it is a tribute to our pioneers and their dogs. It reads:

He served none else but Peter Meehan
His master and his friend
A comradeship wave of the bush
To last unto the end.
Mute faith in one; a friendship bond,
in rugged ranges where
A loneliness prevailed the scene
Just man and dog to share.

They shared each other's humble way,
The ways of bush-lore treading
From dawn to dusk through wilderness
Where cattle pads went treading.
Beneath Australia's sunny skies
Beneath the tree-ferns bending
Along the ranges, by the stream,
A way of life transcending.

Until the end, the bitter end,
Though dumb in canine way,
He wove a story of the bush that
We respect today.
He served to mould a history, though
Little he was known.
He rests beside this mountain stream,
Beneath these slabs of stone.

References and Further Reading

[1] First Fleet Fellowship Inc "List of Provisions and Livestock"

[2] Noreen L Clarke 'A Dog Called Blue' Published by Writelight Pty Ltd for Noreen L Clarke PO Box 48 Wallacia NSW 2745 Australia Chapter 2 'The Hall's Heeler' page 11

[3] Flora Johns in collaboration with O.S. Green 'The Dog's Grave' written for the Stratford and District Historical Society in 1980. ISBN 0 596426 09

[4] John R Greville, 'The Extended Gray Family' - a Short Synopsis' written 4th November 1994

[5] Ian Stapleton, 'Apologies and Appendages' - a Final Tally of High Country Characters' Self-Published 2014 'Which Route Did the Parslows Take over the Mountains' Page 11

Acknowledgements

Thank you Denise Humphries (Ballarat) and the following residents of East Gippsland for their input into this story:

  • Beryl Lee, Bairnsdale
  • Bill Flannagan, Omeo
  • Kevin Worcester, Dargo
  • Brian Madigan, Dargo Museum, Dargo
  • Ian Stapleton, High Country
  • Susan Winnett, Mount Beauty

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