Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James, Jimmy (1925–1991)

by Tom Gara

This article was published online in 2014

Jimmy James (c.1925-1991), tracker, was born about 1925 near Ernabella, a sheep station in the Musgrave Ranges, north-west South Australia, son of Pitjantjatjara parents, Warlawurru and Kaarnka. His birth, like that of many Aboriginal children, was not officially recorded. In later life James usually gave his birth year as 1910 or 1913. His death certificate records his date of birth as 7 March 1910. At the time of his marriage in February 1947, however, he indicated that he had turned twenty-one at his last birthday, thus giving a birth year of 1925 or 1926. This date is supported by a photograph of James taken in 1945 in which he appears to be approximately twenty years of age (Holmes 2000, 13).

As a boy Jimmy trekked southwards with his parents to Ooldea siding, on the East-West Transcontinental Railway, arriving in time to participate in the corroboree arranged by Daisy Bates for the Duke of Gloucester’s brief visit in October 1934. Later Jimmy attended school at the non-denominational United Aborigines’ Mission (UAM) station at Ooldea, and was baptised there in 1944.

In early 1945 James and four other young Ooldea men were sent to work on Mount Dare station in the far north of the state. A few months later the five men were convicted of assaulting the station-owner, Rex Lowe. Subsequent police investigations revealed that Lowe had fabricated the charges. The men had resigned after Lowe refused to pay their wages, but when they tried to leave his property, Lowe assaulted them and left them chained up outside his homestead for several days. On 20 December 1945 Lowe was found guilty in the Oodnadatta court of seven counts of assault. In a widely reported judgment, the magistrate, W. C. Gillespie, warned other pastoralists that they faced imprisonment if they continued to treat their Aboriginal workers ‘as human chattels or beasts of burden’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1945, 6).

James moved to the new UAM station at Gerard on the Murray River in 1946. There, on 22 February 1947, he married Lilian Florrie Disher, the adopted daughter of the Aboriginal tracker Jimmy James; although they shared the same name, the two men were not related and had never met. The younger James had learned the art of tracking as a boy, hunting for food. Following his marriage, he did some minor tracking jobs for local police and residents around Gerard. He came to prominence when his remarkable skills—and those of his relatives Albert Anunga and Daniel Moodoo—proved invaluable in identifying the man responsible for the Sundown station murders in central Australia in 1957, and in the hunt for the killer of the manager of Pine Valley station in north-eastern South Australia in 1958.

In 1966 James and Moodoo were enlisted to help in the search for a nine-year-old girl, Wendy Pfeiffer, who had been abducted, assaulted, and left to die in the Mount Lofty Ranges. Numerous police and volunteers had searched the area and found no trace of her, but James and Moodoo picked up her tracks and followed them through thick scrub for twenty kilometres to find the girl alive near the Onkaparinga River. James came to public prominence again in 1982 when he tracked an escaped child-killer, James Smith, through the Riverland for six days, eventually leading the police to their quarry.

A quiet and humble man, James shunned the limelight. He remained a committed Christian all his life, as well as a passionate defender of Aboriginal culture and heritage. He was a respected elder and community leader at Gerard and served on the Gerard Community Council for many years. In 1983 he was named the inaugural South Australian Aborigine of the Year. He was awarded the OAM the following year. In 1985 the South Australian Police presented him with a plaque acknowledging the superb tracking skills he had displayed during thirty-seven years of service. His most prized possession, however, was the gold medal presented to him by Pfeiffer’s parents in 1966.

In 1983 James moved to live with relatives near Adelaide. A teetotaller since his late teens, he was deeply distressed by the deaths of his three adult children, all from alcohol-related problems, during the 1980s. He suffered several strokes in 1987 and was admitted to a nursing home at Salisbury South. Predeceased by his wife, daughter, and three sons, he died there on 27 October 1991 and was buried in the mission cemetery at Gerard. He is commemorated as one of ‘SA’s greats’ by a brass plaque on the Jubilee 150 Walk on North Terrace, Adelaide, and by a monument at Berri, near Gerard.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Donovan, Zac. ‘Memorial Service for Famous Tracker.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 29 October 1991, 6
  • Holmes, Robert. Lost and Found. The Life of Jimmy James: Black Tracker. Port Lincoln, SA: The Printing Press, 2000
  • Jones, Max. Tracks. Renmark, SA: S. M. Jones, c.1989
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Aborigines Chained: SA Farmer Fined.’ 21 December 1945, 6.

Citation details

Tom Gara, 'James, Jimmy (1925–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/james-jimmy-16324/text28278, published online 2014, accessed online 22 August 2017.

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