The oldest town in north-west Western Australia, Roebourne has an interesting and chequered history.
Although Roebourne is only 15km south of the historic town of Cossack and the ocean, you would never guess by looking at the main street. Roebourne could be plucked from its location and dropped squarely in the town of Kalgoorlie 1700km south and the architecture would integrate seamlessly. It's the rocky hills, red pindan and spinifex grass that betrays Roebourne as being part of the Pilbara.
The coast had been the sight of earlier seafaring expeditions but it was pioneers Padbury and Wellard followed by brave settlers John and Emma Withnell who opened up the country around Roebourne. The Withnell's arrived in 1864 accompanied by their children and a herd of sheep. Unusually they arrived by ship which had been pounded against rocks during a violent storm and returned to the safe harbour of Tien Tsin (later to be called Cossack). They lost many of their sheep as a result of the storm but pushed up the Harding River until they found fresh water and settled regardless.
More settlers arrived and in 1866 Roebourne was officially proclaimed a town. Cossack was essentially the port for Roebourne. Governor Frederick Weld visited in 1871 and changed the name of the port from Tien Tsin to Cossack after his ship. Presumably he couldn't contemplate having a Chinese name for such an important location. Cossack later became it's own municipality.
Roebourne has done an admirable job of preserving it's history. The old gaol serves as a museum and visitor centre. Built in 1896 it is an unusual decorative stone hexagon where prisoners were manacled to a ring in the central 'excersise' yard. There were different cells for black, white and female prisoners.
Early encounters with the white settlers were not always pleasant affairs for the local aborigines. The 1868 'Flying Foam' massacre was led by Alexander McRae and the first settler John Withnell. It is estimated that between 20 -150 members of the Yaburara people were killed in retaliation for the murders of two police constables and two settlers. By contrast Emma Withnell was known as 'The Medicine Woman' and is reputed to have helped the local indigenous people when they fell ill.
Roebourne is no longer the administrative centre of the shire. That honour goes to Karratha 40km away on the coast where the local library also holds a large collection of historical photographs and information on Roebourne and the surrounding district. Karratha is a shiny new mining town with a distinctly sterile feel. The nearby towns of Wickham and Dampier have much the same feel while Cossack has retained all it's old world charm and acts as an historical ghost town.
As we mentioned Roebourne has a unique outback ambience for a town so near the coast. The real treasures are to be found out the back of town at Harding Dam and further into the old camel train routes on the way to the Millstream Chichester National Park.
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