The tale of Mitchell, Kenniff Country and Sam Johnson

The signs around Mitchell say this is “Kenniff Country” and tourists are invited to follow the “Kenniff Trail”. Just as the passage of time has turned the Kelly Gang from murdering criminals to folk heroes, a similar process has happened for cattle thieves who murdered two men, including a policeman, twenty years after the Kelly gang roamed further south. The story of what happened in 1902 is fascinating and it was the first time white people were sentenced to death based solely on the testimony of an Aboriginal person.

Sam Johnson

Mitchell is 550km west of Brisbane and named for Sir Thomas Mitchell, the first white person to trudge this country. Mitchell called it “Champagne Country” but many of those that followed found life less bubbly and prosperous. The Kenniff brothers Patrick (b 1863) and James (b 1869) found out just how barren a beverage Champagne Country really was. The pair were sons of Irish-born James Kenniff and wife Mary. The Kenniffs lived near Dungog in NSW but the father and his two sons were convicted for stealing stock in northern NSW and they scampered north to escape justice. They established a property at Ralph near Augathella determined to live a straight life. They lived by bush work; they also raced horses and opened books on the local race meetings. Conditions were tough on the land and the 1890s depression left them penniless. It was too easy to return to old ways. With convicted cattle duffers Thomas Stapleton, John and Richard Riley and others, they launched what the Australian Dictionary of Biography called a reign of ‘mild terror’ stealing cleanskin and poorly branded cattle from Carnarvon and neighbouring stations.

In 1895 the brothers were charged in Roma courthouse with stealing or receiving stolen horses. Pat got a three year sentence and Jim got two. Both served time in St Helena Prison off the coast of Brisbane. When Jim was released he went back to the empty Ralph property. A year later Pat was released and also went back to Ralph. Pat returned to his thieving ways attracting the attention of Police Commissioner Parry-Ogden who sent a sergeant to investigate. A warrant was issued for their arrest after a daring raid on a police camp and Jim was captured at Ralph after a shootout.

Jim beat the charge in court which encouraged his brother to turn himself in. Pat was found guilty of another charge and sent back to St Helena for another three years. While he was away, local landholders agitated the Lands Department to terminate the lease at Ralph Block when it expired in 1899. A neighbour bought the next-door property and employed Albert Christian Dahlke to manage the properties. Dahlke and Jim Kenniff had a personal animosity that ran deep.

A new constable, George Doyle, arrived looking to set up a moveable police station. He chose Kenniff’s campsite on Ralph Block as the preferred site. Doyle and Aboriginal tracker Sam Johnson moved into what was called the Upper Warrego Police Station.

In November 1901, Pat returned from St Helena and was stunned to find a police station at his home. With the country in the middle of massive drought, the brothers plotted to steal horses and sell them in Roma. In January 1902 they rounded up 36 horses and took them to Mt Moffatt in the Carnarvon Ranges.

Doyle and Johnson were patrolling in the area and intercepted Pat Kenniff. They took him to Mitchell where he was fined £20. He was released to find the money. He caught up with his brothers and launched a spree of retaliation burning down an outstation, driving off horses and robbing workers.

On 25 March, Doyle received another arrest warrant for the Kenniffs. Dahlke was there when it arrived and volunteered to help carry out the arrests. On Good Friday 28 March, Doyle, Dahlke and Johnson set off to find the horse thieves; only Constable Doyle was armed.

On Easter Sunday they arrived in Lethbridge Pocket 10kms from Mt Moffat Homestead where they spotted Jim, Pat and a third brother Tom. Dalhke and Doyle followed Jim while Johnson set off in vain pursuit of the other two brothers.

When Johnson arrived back he found Jim Kenniff in their custody. Doyle told Johnson to ride 200 metres to their pack horse to get handcuffs. While Johnson was away he heard gunfire that sounded different from Doyle’s revolver. Johnson rushed back to see Pat and Jim riding towards him. Johnson took to the scrub and escaped. He raised the alarm and another man, Jim Burke accompanied Johnson back to the scene. They found two horses with blood stains but no sign of Doyle or Dalhke. They rode back to Mt Moffatt late on Easter Sunday to tell people the news.

Johnson rode through the night and all the following day to Mitchell and the nearest telegraph station. Others returned to the scene where they found more blood stains and belongings of the two missing men. On the Wednesday they found a third horse, Doyle’s mount. Inside its police pack bags were charcoal and burnt bones.

Police found the location where the bodies were burnt and a doctor confirmed the remains were of one or possibly two humans, recently deceased. Mt Moffatt became a murder scene and a large manhunt began for the Kenniffs. On 12 May a reward of £1000 was offered for Pat and Jim’s capture. Early on Monday 23 June, the pair were found at Back Creek (later renamed Arrest Creek) 7kms south of Mitchell. They were captured unharmed and taken to Brisbane for trial.

The trial took place in the Supreme Court in November 1902. Sam Johnson’s evidence was crucial for the prosecution. The defence was simple: neither Kenniff was there at the time of the murder. It was a landmark case. No white man had ever been convicted of murder on black testimony. The defence lawyer tried to discredit Johnson’s evidence. Johnson answered the derogatory questions in dignified fashion reinforcing his credibility.

Both Kenniffs were found guilty and sentenced to hang. A Full Court later commuted Jim’s sentence to life imprisonment. Pat Kenniff was hanged at Boggo Road Gaol on 12 January 1903. Jim was released in 1912. After working on cattle stations in the north-west he fossicked in the ranges north of Charters Towers and died of cancer on 8 October 1940, aged around 71.

Mitchell friends of the Kenniffs blamed Johnson for the conviction and threatened retribution. Even those who did not much admire the Kenniffs did not like the word of a blackfella convicting them. Johnson requested a transfer for his own safety. He moved to Longreach where he died in 1919 of influenza. Sam Johnson was buried in a forgotten, unmarked grave and to this day has no monument or memorial in his name.

UPDATE 2016: My good friend historian Peter Keegan of Roma has been working with the Queensland Police Museum to rectify Johnson’s unmarked grave. There is a now a memorial to him at Longreach Cemetery, almost a century later.

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3 thoughts on “The tale of Mitchell, Kenniff Country and Sam Johnson

  1. Wonderful stories about the Kenniffs have inspired me to do a series of paintings based on some of their exploits. They can be seen at an exhibition on the 8th to the 10th August at “The Lightspace”, 30 Light Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.

    I am keen to learn more about the Kenniffs so I can continue to paint their story.

    Susan McConnel

  2. I think the govt authorized the police to intercept any mail addressed to the Kenniffs while they were on the run. Their capture was fairly uneventful if I remember. It is interesting that about 1000 people gathered outside boggo road to protest Pat’s hanging. There was a feeling that the English establishment were persecuting Pat, a poor Irish farmer. Pat’s father died desperately trying to get a petition up to have Jim released; he became quite religious in the end too. After his release Jim tried his hand at gem prospecting I think but had no success. There is an ongoing question about whether they hanged the wrong brother.

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