MacLeod moved to Gunaikurnai Country in the 1840s, with his father and brothers. They leased a range of stations across what became Gippsland. In May 1861, MacLeod was appointed Honorary Correspondent of the Central Board for watching the interests of the Aborigines. At this stage MacLeod was identified as living at Buchan River in Gipps Land. John Bulmer headed to Buchan when he came to Gippsland from Melbourne in 1861, guided by Brabralung man Tulaba. Guardian of the Aborigines, William Thomas, had determined a site near MacLeod’s station at Buchan River would be a good place for an Aboriginal reserve. However, Bulmer reported the local Brabralung people suggested Bulmer accompany them to Bung Yarnda where they were going fishing. It was here, at what became known as Lake Tyers, that Bulmer set up the Aboriginal reserve. Bulmer noted that MacLeod’s sister had taught local Brabralung women how to sew and that men were employed as stock riders by MacLeod.
By March 1862 MacLeod was at Orbost and continued as Honorary Correspondent. MacLeod first claimed the Orbost run in 1847 and moved between it and a run at Ensay and Buchan over the years. MacLeod and his brothers experienced violence on a number of fronts in these early years as settlers contested poorly acknowledged and formalised land claims and Gunaikurnai people resisted incursions by the settlers on their Country and retaliated against violence against their people. In 1861 an overseer at MacLeod’s run Ensay was shot and killed by a neighbour, accused of taking cattle from the neighbour’s property. Some time around 1850-1851, the cook at MacLeod’s Orbost station, Dan Moylan or Dan Dempsey, was killed by Krauatungulung people in retaliation for the abduction, and rape of a young female. Local settlers formed a group to seek out Aboriginal people in revenge and killed between 15 to 20 people in the vicinity of Brodribb River. Another settler remembered that John’s brother, Norman, gathered a group of settlers from Sale to retaliate an attack on himself as he attempted to mount his horse (where this attack happened is not identified, but given he went to Sale, it was most likely around that area). After the killing of Aboriginal people in retaliation for Dan the cook’s death, a surviving Aboriginal boy was brought to the Orbost station and raised there.
Historian Peter Gardner has written on and off over the past few decades about the history of Gippsland, with a particular focus on the shared history between settlers and Aboriginal people. His research and his regular revisiting of the materials to add and question the information and conclusions he has drawn is impressive. Gardner noted most recently regarding the MacLeods and massacres of Gunaikurnai in Gippsland, that there were two massacres that could be linked to the MacLeods – one at Mille or Milly creek on the Brodribb river and the ‘Slaughterhouse’ massacre north of Buchan. The University of Newcastle Colonial Frontiers mapping project links the Mille creek massacre with revenge for the death of Dan. The Slaughterhouse massacre resulted in around 15 to 20 Aboriginal people dead. Both sources note the secrecy over decades around these acts of violence, especially the Slaughterhouse massacre.
MacLeod was a friend of the Howitt’s from the 1860s, visiting them when they were living at Omeo. MacLeod’s encounter of his pursuing Aboriginal people for killing livestock does not describe a massacre, but does indicate the tensions that existed between Gunaikurnai and settlers and presents MacLeod as dogged in his pursuit of the Gunaikurnai.
Government Gazette’, The Age, 14 May 1861, p. 6, accessed 22 June 2020,