Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jimmy James (1902–1945)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Jimmy James (c.1902-1945), tracker, was born about 1902 near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, son of Jimmy Widgedy (also known as Thomas James), tracker. Mitamirri (meaning bandicoot) was of Arrernte descent and received both tribal and elementary education. He became a stockman and was later employed as a steward in coastal steamers. During the 1920s he worked for the police, tracking stolen cattle at Marree, South Australia, and in the Northern Territory, and breaking horses in Adelaide. Jimmy was 'a bit of a doer'. In the mid-1920s he moved to the United Aborigines' Mission reserve near Swan Reach where he supported himself by fishing. On 3 February 1930 in the local Congregational manse he married Alice Disher (d.1934). He raised his three daughters, but his son was placed in Colebrook Home for Aboriginal Children at Quorn. A photograph showed James as a lean, laughing young man in an open-necked shirt and trousers, sitting on a sugar-bag outside his pine-and-hessian shack, nursing two of his children.

He took up lay preaching and football, and demonstrated boomerang throwing at country shows and to tourists on paddle-steamers. From 1937 he and Jerry Mason built cottages for the mission's families; they were paid £1 each for every hut—only after four were completed. In March 1938 both men wrote letters requesting overdue wages. James resumed tracking for the police with no fixed rate of pay. On 7 June, near Berri, he traced a rapist and murderer after searchers had trampled the area for days and dust obliterated most of the evidence. Police claimed that not one in a thousand Aboriginal trackers had 'Jimmy's flair, intelligence and lightning deductive power'.

Now famous, he was invited to perform at the Northern Territory Exhibition in Melbourne Town Hall in July 1938. His travel and accommodation, however, were supervised by the police. He proved a star attraction and in interviews emphasized his reliance on God's help. James also preached in Lygon Street Methodist Church and spoke on radio 3DB: 'I never bend down low', he said, 'just walk slow round and round until I see more'. In the mission church at Swan Reach on 27 August that year he married with Lutheran forms Christina Hunter; they had an elaborate, European-style wedding. She soon deserted him and he was to divorce her in 1942. In 1939 he displayed his skills at a spring carnival in the Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne; he also performed on stage for a syndicate in Adelaide. He again captured the headlines in January 1940 by recovering a lost 3-year-old girl.

During World War II James moved to Kingston-on-Murray. He successfully pursued eight escapees from the Loveday internment camp by tracking over metal roads from the bumper bar of a car. He died of tuberculosis on 24 December 1945 in the Lady Weigall Hospital, Barmera, and was buried in the local cemetery. His Aboriginal friends and his children were neither allowed to see his body nor attend his funeral. Police Sergeant Ward said, `Jimmy was a Black man with a white heart'. The people of Barmera collected money to erect a gravestone in 1949. James's son-in-law had learned tracking from him and took his name; he was South Australian Aborigine of the Year (1983) and was awarded the O.A.M. (1984).

Select Bibliography

  • C. Mattingley and K. Hampton (eds), Survival in Our Own Land (Syd, 1988)
  • M. Jones, Tracks (Renmark, SA, 1989)
  • AFA Annual Review, 1938
  • United Aborigines' Messenger, 1 Feb 1945
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20, 23 July, 10 Sept 1938, 12 Feb 1982
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1938
  • Guide to Records Relating to Aboriginal People, Police Dept of South Australia (restricted), GRG 5/2/1938/1293, 1451, 1910 (State Records of South Australia)
  • photograph of J. James (M B44029, State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'James, Jimmy (1902–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mitamirri
  • Mitamirri
  • Widgedy, Jimmy

Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia


24 December, 1945 (aged ~ 43)
Barmera, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.