top of page

Kudnarto makes 'herstory'

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

Kudnarto was a Kaurna woman who made South Australian legal history.

Published : August 1, 2022 6.05am in The Conversation by Peggy Brock,

Emeritus Professor of History, School of Arts and Humanities, Edith Cowan University

Kudnarto Adams formerly Padnaindi

Born about 1832 in Warrawarra (Crystal Brook) South Australia, Australia

Daughter of [father unknown] and [mother unknown]

[sibling(s) unknown]

Wife of Thomas Adams — married 27 Jan 1848 in Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Died 11 Feb 1855 at about age 23 in Skillogalee Creek, Watervale, South Australia, Australia

Kudnarto, a Kaurna woman, married shepherd Thomas Adams on 27 January 1848. Theirs was the first legal marriage between an Aboriginal woman and a colonist under colonial law in South Australia.

The occasion was recorded by The South Australian.

The bride, who took the name Mary Ann Adams, wore

a neat gown and low boots. She wore no bonnet, but her hair was carefully dressed; and her whole appearance denoted cleanliness and comfort.

She was deemed “remarkedly good looking”, hardworking and well-tempered. Her English as she repeated her vows was clear.

Kudnarto was able to apply for Aboriginal reserve land for farming purposes under colonial law, so after their marriage Thomas put in an application for land on Skylogolee (Skillogalee) Creek, near Auburn in the Clare Valley.

In May 1848, Kudnarto (now Mary Ann Adams) acquired a license to occupy this land during her lifetime. This marriage set a precedent for other colonists to apply for Aboriginal reserve land on marrying an Aboriginal woman.

Kudnarto was given a license to occupy and farm land near Auburn in the Clare Valley (pictured, as it is today).Mark Smith/Flickr, CC BY

Who was Kudnarto?

Who was Kudnarto, this woman who made legal history? Unfortunately we know very little about her, other than a couple of newspaper reports and her husband’s attempts to secure the land he occupied in her name.

Her life is also remembered in a memoir, And the Clock Struck Thirteen, by her great-great grandson, Lewis Yerloburka O'Brien.

She was a Kaurna woman from the area around Crystal Brook, the northernmost region of Kaurna land, which extended across the Adelaide Plains to Fleurieu Peninsula in the south.

All that we know of Kudnarto’s Aboriginal family is that her name indicates she was the third-born child. Her father was probably a Ngadjuri man: the one written record of this is in the journal of anthropologist Norman Tindale. Lewis O'Brien says, “I’ve always known, however, that we’ve got Ngadjuri connections because everyone in the family used to talk about them.”

Kudnarto’s descendants include many prominent Kaurna community members, including Gladys Elphick, best known as the founding president of the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia, the first Aboriginal women’s body to be formed in Australia – as well as Josie Agius, one of South Australia’s first Aboriginal health workers, and AFL footballer Michael O'Loughlin.

A historic marriage

Kudnarto had spent her childhood on a settler’s property, where she gained some European education. As a young teenager she met Adams, 20 years her senior, and began living with him.

After they had lived together for about 18 months, Adams gave notice to the Deputy Registrar’s Office that he wished to marry Kudnarto. But first they needed the approval of the Protector of Aborigines, Matthew Moorhouse.

He visited Kudnarto several times to find out if she was fond of Adams and wanted to marry him. Moorhouse also instructed her on her marital obligations under British law.

He reported to the Colonial Secretary that “she likes him better than the black men” and gave his approval for the marriage, subject to the authorisation of the Lieutenant Governor for the marriage of an underage girl, which was immediately forthcoming.

The local newspaper reported on the upcoming nuptials in an ironically disparaging tone, giving us one of the few descriptions of Kudnarto, a personable woman: her “fidelity, amiability of disposition, and aptitude to learn, are very remarkable, if not unprecedented.”

There was one last hurdle to overcome: it was a condition of the marriage that Kudnarto go to the Aboriginal school in Adelaide, to be trained in domestic duties and build on the education she had already received.

Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O'Brien

Kudnarto’s great-great grandson, Kaurna elder and educator Lewis Yerloburka O'Brien, devotes a chapter to her in his memoir.Provided by Wakefield Press

Kudnarto’s land

Since the inception of the colony, sections of land in South Australia had been set aside as Aboriginal reserves, where it was anticipated Aboriginal people would farm the land. But there were continual pressures on the government to make the land available for colonists and many were leased out to them.

After the wedding, Adams wrote to the Protector of Aborigines, Moorhouse, requesting access to some of this land. His application was approved and sent on to Governor Robe. Moorhouse emphasised that he was representing Adams’ wife’s interests:

I would therefore respectfully ask on her behalf, that she may be allowed to settle on the Section in the Skylogolee Creek and have His Excellency promise that she be allowed to remain there so long as she lives upon the Section.

The Adams struggled to establish a farming enterprise. Thomas seems to have been a heavy drinker, with little training or experience managing property and he feared local people would shun him. Was he shunned because of his drinking, poverty or his Aboriginal wife?

After the birth of his first son Thomas (junior) in 1849, Adams wanted to find out whether Kudnarto’s children would inherit the land when she died. He was told that the original conditions for access to the land were to protect Kudnarto from desertion by her husband “with the understanding that there might be a renewal in favour of her children in case of her death”.

A second son, Tim, was born in 1852. Kudnarto, taught her sons “as much as she could” before she died.

We have very little subsequent information about Kudnarto. Her husband did illegally lease out the land while he sought work on other properties, but we do not know if Kudnarto and the children went with him, or where they lived.

Lewis O'Brien suggests

Kudnarto was still getting used to living in new circumstances without her family around and no game to hunt nearby. She had to live in the confines of a house with all these strangers passing across her land - it would have been difficult for her.

Kudnarto is still remembered today. South Australian History Festival

Witnesses to murder

In August 1850, Kudnarto and Thomas Adams were called as witnesses in a murder trial. As in the reports of her marriage, Kudnarto was treated as a test case for “civilising the natives”.

Her appearance and demeanour were of note. Describing her clothes and hair, it’s reported that “she certainly appeared to considerable advantage”.

She spoke clearly, although “in the idiom of her tribe” and her emotional responses to the crime were noted.

Family Troubles

On 11 October 1852 Kudnarto’s second child, Timothy, was born.

To make ends meet, Adams unlawfully leased Kudnarto’s land while he sought work on other properties; it is not known if Kudnarto and the children went with him.

On 11 February 1855, when she was in her early twenties, she ‘suddenly died’ (O’Brien 2007, 37); her husband and their two sons survived her.

Adams reported her death to Moorhouse, but there was no inquest and her cause of death is unknown. Despite the commissioner of crown land’s earlier advice, her husband and children lost the right to occupy Section 346 after her death.

Unable to look after Thomas (junior) and Timothy, Tom Adams took them to Poonindie Mission, near Port Lincoln, where they eventually raised large families of their own.

Both men were known to be excellent shearers and ploughers, contributing to the economic success of the community. They also played in the Poonindie cricket team.

Kudnarto’s sons continued to lodge claims for their land at Skillogalee Creek with assistance from their father who remained in the Port Lincoln district.

Numerous applications were made from the 1860s to the 1880s. They also applied, unsuccessfully, for sections of land at Poonindie, aspiring to be independent farmers.

Following many disputes over land with the superintendent at Poonindie, J. D. Bruce, the brothers moved their families to Point Pearce Mission Station, Yorke Peninsula, in 1888.

Their descendants continued to fight for independence and never forgot their birthright to land.

Kudnarto’s eldest grandchild, William Adams, gave evidence at the 1913 royal commission on the Aborigines in South Australia, calling on the government to give Aboriginal people greater opportunities and land, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.

Another grandson, Charlie Adams, continued laying claim to Section 346 at Skillogalee Creek until his death in 1949.


Lewis O'Brien reflects:

how many times do we have to own this country before we can say it’s ours? We’re the original owners. My great, great grandmother was given back a piece of her land, only for it to be taken away again from her family when she died.

There is an online Book named Kudnarto by Bill Woerlee:

here are links to the full text:

This site can be very slow to load, sometimes.

Chapter 1 ~ The Kaurna
Chapter 2 ~ Kudnarto
Chapter 5 ~ European Settlement
Chapter 8 ~ Thomas Adams
Chapter 9 ~ Adams’ Literacy
Chapter 12 ~ The Wedding
Chapter 13 ~ The Land Grant
Chapter 14 ~ Farming the Land
Chapter 15 ~ Burra Copper
Chapter 16 ~ Murder
Chapter 17 ~ The Trial
Chapter 18 ~ Back to Skilly Creek
Chapter 19 ~ Kudnarto's Death
Chapter 20 ~ Land Claim
Ch.21 ~ Epilogue

Here is the text of Chapter 14:

Kudnarto ~ Chapter 14 ~ Farming the Land

The Adams Family at Skillogalee

The House

After the Adams family finally settled upon their new licensed allotment land they set about building their residence. It was essential to do so quickly since they were occupying their land in the middle of winter. The location of Skillogolee Creek ensured that the area was swept with bitterly cold rain and wind.

In keeping with the times their first hut would have been quite primitive. They may have erected either a canvas tent or a wodli to provide temporary shelter and live in.

If their first place of residence was a tent, which is likely, they would have cut timber slabs and placed them outside the tent walls to give some protection against the elements. This would have served well until the proper hut had been constructed.

Since Adams was a carpenter, he was capable of devoting himself to constructing a solid hut. This he did. In the end, the hut they eventually built had pine log walls with the internal and external walls rendered with cement. This would have given the walls a strong, water proof quality.

Inside, the hut was divided into two rooms, a bedroom and a living area. [1] The floor was made of beaten earth elevated above the ground level to prevent flooding or ponding.

To break its austere appearances, they would have covered the earth with hessian bags. Internal walls would be covered with a wall paper made from old newspapers. Adams made the roof out of thatch which he gathered from hay grown around the area.

The house itself was rather small. Its dimensions were 3.42 metres wide and 7.25 metres long.

They sited the hut some 79 metres from the road, parallel to the creek on a North West to South East axis. [2]

The location was marvellous as they completed their hut near the waterfall. [3] The door was added more for keeping out the wind than any unfriendly people.

It was customary for the Adams family to keep the door open most of the time. [4]

... Inside the furniture would have been frugal but functional. Adams' wood working skills would have been sufficient to construct some of the items of furniture such as the bed.

Other items would have been purchased second hand. Items like the table and chairs would have come from second hand sources. At one side of the room, they bought a sofa that was big enough for a person to sleep on. [6]

By a side wall, opposite the door was a fire hearth. [7] The reason relates to the Aboriginal love of fireplaces. The best location within the hut for a traditional fire was the at the side. This gave plenty of room to lie around it.

Hanging on the ceiling were the few cast iron pots, pans and skillets.

Nearby would be a dresser with a mirror and a bucket for water. Since the creek was close by, there wasn't a great need to store large amounts of water. Put together, the hut gave the Adams family a comfortable place to live.

Since it was the middle of winter, planting crops would have been out of the question. They had missed the growing season for a year. Thus it would take two years before they would be able to harvest.

If he was diligent, he would have planted a vegetable garden. To supplement their protein and vegetable food resources, both Adams and Kudnarto would have foraged over the countryside.

They would have caught the occasional kangaroo, emu or goanna. Kudnarto's tracking skills would have assisted greatly in supplementing their food resources.

Who Gains?

At this time, the reality of occupation began to force itself upon Adams. He may well have understood that the occupation of the land was dependant upon Kudnarto but feeling it as a practical reality places it in a new dimension.

When no effort or emotion is expended, it is easy to agree to a situation. However, when an investment in sweat and love occurs, the proposition takes on a new meaning. So too did it do so for Adams.

Very soon after settling upon the land, Adams commenced brooding over his lot. His understanding of Kudnarto's role in securing the grant became only too apparent. Adams felt very resentful of this situation.

To discuss his feelings, Adams framed a letter to Mr Boyle Travis Finniss, the Colonial Treasurer and Registrar General, on 22 July 1848, [8] exploring the implications of Kudnarto's role in securing Section 346.

He used the example death.

Within his letter, he wished to know where he stood should Kudnarto pass away. In this enquiry, he mused about the recovery of any investment he placed in the land should he have no proper title over the land.

Finniss was very careful in framing his reply. Understanding the importance of his reply and its implications, Finniss restated the terms of the Licence.

Had he said anything else which gave Adams the impression that he may be able to inherit the land, the relative safety of Kudnarto would have to be questioned.

The tying of death with inheritance would give encouragement to a devious person to hasten the death of the Licensee.

Finniss' reply displays an understanding of this for he ignores the issues raised by Adams in relation to his personal investment. Finniss' reply implicitly told Adams that he was tied to Kudnarto regardless of his desires for outright ownership.

The writing of the letter raises suspicions as to the purpose of the enquiry. Since the speaking about death was taboo to an Aborigine, [9] it would be doubtful that Adams ever consulted Kudnarto about the letter and its contents.

It seems that Kudnarto also followed the traditional Aboriginal practice of women who defer to their husbands. Thus she would never have undertaken any action on her own behalf.

Farming Capital

Adams, in his letter, already foreshadowed the difficulty of clearing an allotment. The work was wearing him down.

It appears that he went into the enterprise without full knowledge of the enterprise nor did he understand the costs involved in farming.

On 3 September 1848 he was already complaining to Moorhouse and Finniss about the huge expense involved in establishing a farm.

Even though he had made a resolution to buy a "good outfit with his savings" [10] it appears that he was short of money after a few months farming.

Adams says:

Skylogolee creek 3 september 1848


I seake leberty of Agean Adressing you i receved your plan of The section And ham leving on it But i find it verry Expensiff To Me for The hiere of Bullaks And dray i was Thingen of sending To The New governer for sum Assistance if it wos onley The Lone of sum Bullaks And dray for A Time it wold Be A great help To me And if you would have the kindness To spake in Behalf of My wife i should Teake it as A great faver But however if i get No Assistance i Must leve The Section for i Must go where The work is you say in your Letter that i ham Not Aloud To Let Aney of it But it is Not My which to Let Aney of it if i can get on with out it But i have got A verey poor chance for it would choust Me seventy or Ehighty poinds To fence it in But i could do All the work My selief if i could get Bullaks And dray But if Aney Thing happened To My wife Acordng To your Letter gorvement could clame it Agen And propes Me get Nothing of it plese To drekit To Me kerconda Skyloglee creek.

i Reman yours obedent servent Thos Adamus

In his letter Adams stated that he wanted to erect a fence. The cost of using contractors was prohibitive.

The quotation he received from the contractors indicated that it would cost him £80. To resolve this matter, he wanted to procure bullocks and a dray since hiring them was very expensive.

Unfortunately he didn't have the money to effect the purchase and thus sought help from the Governor for financial assistance to buy the bullocks and dray.

In this manner, Adams reasoned, he could erect the fences himself. [11] His request appears rather ambitious and the inevitable reply of rejecting the request followed.

Reality sets in

However, in dealing with his commitment to being a cultivator of the soil on his own account, his letter is disturbing.

Adams states, in the first part of letter, that if he doesn't get assistance from the Governor, he will be forced to leave the land and obtain employment elsewhere and, "go where the work is.". [12]

A little further on in the letter he expresses reservations about investing any energy or time on this selection for he reasons that he would not benefit from it should his wife die. [13]

This displays an apparent churlish attitude towards the nature of his grant.

The conditions for him to settle on the land were spelled out in great detail by Moorhouse, and yet, only three months after settling upon the allotment, he complains that he will not benefit from any improvements that he put on the land.

Early in the piece, Adams was already showing a distinct disinterest in working for something that didn't give him an enduring benefit.

Again, as with his letter of 22 July 1848, in this letter, Adams raises the proposition about Kudnarto's death.

This constant repetition about a future death of Kudnarto causes a bit of unease about his thoughts concerning his wife.

It is a topic that keeps coming up in his writing to the various authorities. It is

difficult to understand this fixation considering Kudnarto was young and healthy.

In reply to this request, Moorhouse dealt only with the issue of the bullock dray rather than the other darker issues. He sent the following letter:

"In reply to your communication to be supplied with a team of bullocks by the government to enable you to fence the section upon which Mary Adams has permission to settle, I have to state that your application was duly forwarded to the Lieutenant Governor and His Excellency declined granting your request." [14]

Despite these dark thoughts, life for the Adams family fell into a normal rural rhythm.

Concurrent with Adams' last letter in the month of September, Kudnarto also became pregnant.

On 19 June 1849, Kudnarto gave birth to her first son to survive. There is no record of miscarriage or death on birth and thus it must be assumed that Thomas junior was the first child born to Kudnarto who survived.

In keeping with the age, there was a horrific attrition rate among children and thus it is not unreasonable to assume that Kudnarto may have had other children prior to the survival of Thomas junior. [15] They named him Tom after his father.

The process of giving birth for a Kaurna woman is well described by Meyer. He gives the following narration:

"When a woman is near her confinement she removes from the encampment with some of the women to assist her.

As soon as the child is born the information is conveyed to the father, who immediately goes to see the child and attends upon the mother, by carrying firewood, water &c." [16]

While there is no mention of a mid wife, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that her delivery was assisted by some Aboriginal women friends.


There was at least one woman in the region she befriended. This was the Aboriginal woman living with George Murray, a shepherd who lived not far away in Watervale.

Murray and Adams knew each other well enough. During the time the Adams lived at Skillogolee Murray married his defacto wife [17] on 14 May 1849. [18]

After the marriage, Murray sought to obtain a selection of land in her name.

Moorhouse, mindful of the friendship, suggested that he share the land around Skillogolee Creek implying that he would be close to the Adams family. [19]

Taking his cue from the approval of Moorhouse, Adams assisted Murray select Section 3055 of about 80 acres of land some three kilometres from his own land. [20]


After the birth of his new son, Adams again expressed great concern about his future and property should Kudnarto die. This time he used the services of a letter writer to write directly to the Governor. In the letter, he says:

Skillogolee Creek July 22/49

Your Excellency,

I beg to inform Your excellency that I have permission from Mr Moorhouse to settle on Section 346 in Skillogolee Creek during the natural life of my wife.

I have now one child by her which I beg to know within this section in my case my wife should die will fall to the children as I have no authority to occupy this section but for the term of her natural life and I wish to know from Your Excellency whether I have any permission to make any improvements on the section in case of her death. I wish to be informed whether I can still retain the same. [21]

In reply to this letter, BT Finniss wrote back to Adams [22] restating the nature of the lease when he said:

14 August 1849

Thomas Adams

Your letter of 22nd July, in which you enquire whether in the event of your wife's death the Aboriginal Reserve No. 346 which you are allowed to occupy during her life will fall to her children, having been laid before the Lieutenant Governor, I am directed to inform you in reply that the terms on which the licence to occupy the section in question was originally granted to you, will be adhered to - which terms were intended to protect your wife from chances of dessertion by you, and with the understanding that there might be a renewal in favour of her children in case of her death.

Again, Adams is expressing his morbid fixation. The exertions of farming did nothing to relieve his notion of Kudnarto's impending death.

Maybe her health wasn't the best and she seemed too fragile in stature to give confidence that she would survive for very long.

The Governor turned his request down [23] and the couple were forced to use whatever they had to farm the land. Despite this, life ground on.


1. Letter dated 18 August 1850, GRG 24/6, A (1850) 1858. Return to text

2. Lands and Survey, Field Book 1663, p. 3. Return to text

3. Lands and Survey, Hundred of Upper Wakefield, Map 48. Return to text

4. The South Australian Register, 5 August 1850. Return to text

5. The South Australian Register, 20 August 1850. Return to text

6. The South Australian Register, 20 August 1850. Return to text

7. Letter dated 18 August 1850, GRG 24/6, A(1850) 1858. Return to text

8. Letter dated 14 August 1848, GRG 24/4/8. Return to text

9. Wyatt, W., "The Adelaide Tribe", published in Wood, D., et. al., (1879), The Native Tribes of South Australia, E.S. Wigg & Son, Adelaide, p. 165. Return to text

10. The South Australian Register, 23 June 1847. Return to text

11. Letter dated 3 September 1848, GRG 24/6, A (1855) 1633. Return to text

12. Letter dated 3 September 1848, GRG 24/6, A (1855) 1633. Return to text

13. Letter dated 3 September 1848, GRG 24/6, A (1855) 1633. Return to text

14. Letter dated 13 September 1848, GRG 52/7, p. 216. Return to text

15. Birth Certificate, Thomas Adams, 19 June 1849. Return to text

16. Meyer, H.E.A., "Manners and Customs of the Aborigines of the Encounter Bay Tribe", published in Wood, D., et. al., (1879), The Native Tribes of South Australia, E.S. Wigg & Son, Adelaide, p. 186. Return to text

17. Letter dated 12 July 1849, GRG 26/6 A (1849) 1095. Return to text

18. Registrar of Births Deaths & Marriages, Certificate 0001/333. Return to text

19. Letter dated 18 July 1850, GRG 52/7/1, p. pp. 365 - 366. Return to text

20. Letter dated 31 March 1853, GRG 35/4, 1853. Return to text

21. Letter dated 22 July 1849, GRG 26/6, A (1849) 1357½ Return to text

22. Letter dated 14 August 1849, GRG 24/4, Q (1849) 1108, p. 426. Return to text

23. Letter dated 13 September 1848, GRG 52/7/1, p. 216. Return to text

51 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page