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Kudnarto (c. 1832–1855)

by Peggy Brock

This article was published:

Kudnarto (c. 1832–1855), Kaurna and Ngadjuri landholder, was the first Aboriginal woman to legally marry a colonist in South Australia and, consequently, became the first Aboriginal woman to be granted Aboriginal reserve land. She was born in the early 1830s near Crystal Brook, South Australia, the northernmost region of Kaurna lands that extend across the Adelaide Plains to Fleurieu Peninsula in the south. Her mother was Kaurna and her father was possibly Ngadjuri (north-eastern neighbours of the Kaurna). Kudnarto must have had two older sisters, as her name means ‘a girl who is third born’ (O’Brien 2007, 16) in Kaurna. She may have received some education in English on colonists’ properties where her family lived and worked. Very little is officially recorded of her early life.

When she was about fourteen Kudnarto met the colonist Thomas Adams and began living with him. Twenty years her senior, he worked as a shepherd on Peter Fergusson’s property near Crystal Brook. In 1847 Adams gave notice of his intention to marry Kudnarto. Before the marriage could proceed, permission had to be obtained from Protector of Aborigines Matthew Moorhouse. He visited Kudnarto several times to find out if she was fond of Adams and wanted to marry him, and to inform her of her marital obligations under British law. Finding that she was happy with the pending marriage, Moorhouse gave his approval subject to that of Lieutenant-Governor Frederick Robe, who also consented.

The first formal marriage between an Aboriginal woman and a colonist in South Australia, the intended nuptials brought Kudnarto to public attention. Reporting on this ‘singular marriage,’ the South Australian Register described the ‘future bride [as] rather personable’ (1847, 3). Prior to their marriage, Adams had arranged for Kudnarto to attend the Native School Establishment in Adelaide ‘for the purpose of … initiation into the arts of domestic life’ (South Australian Register 1847, 3). He praised her ‘fidelity, amiability of disposition, and aptitude to learn’ (South Australian Register 1847, 3), as she learned to read and write English in just three months.

Kudnarto and Adams were married on 27 January 1848 at the registry office, Adelaide. Protector Moorhouse gave the bride away. As she repeated her vows, Kudnarto’s English was apparently clear, yet she was given no voice in the reports of her ‘extraordinary’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1848, 2) marriage, which reached as far afield as Cornwall, England. Instead, indicating the interests of the colonists, attention was focused on her appearance and demeanour: ‘Her dress during the ceremony was a neat gown and low boots. She wore no bonnet, but her hair was carefully dressed; her whole appearance denoted cleanliness and comfort’ (South Australian 1848, 2). Kudnarto was deemed ‘remarkedly good looking’ and as having ‘a pleasing expression of countenance’ (South Australian 1848, 2). The South Australian reported that the ‘fortunate’ groom considered his new wife ‘good tempered and very hard working’ (1848, 2), which apparently was encouraging news for other colonists contemplating similar marriages. Following her marriage, Kudnarto became known as Mary Ann Adams.

The fight for land is central to Kudnarto and Thomas Adams’s story, particularly through family oral history. Sections of land in South Australia had been set aside as Aboriginal reserves since the inception of the colony. It was anticipated that Aboriginal people would farm these lands, but there were continual pressures on the government to make the land available for colonists and many sections were leased. In February 1848 Kudnarto’s husband requested a section on Skylligolee (Skillogalee) Creek near Auburn in the Clare Valley. Moorhouse supported Adams’s application and, on the condition that Kudnarto occupy and use the land, she was granted a licence to Section 346 comprising eighty-one acres. Adams was informed that he had no power to sell or lease the land, and that he would lose the right to live there if Kudnarto died. Loath to invest in the property, he struggled to establish a farming enterprise and tried various avenues for raising money, including asking the government for bullocks and a dray. Kudnarto is invisible in these negotiations; however, it is likely that she played a role in formulating the requests as she was more educated than her husband. On 19 June 1849 Kudnarto gave birth to a son, Thomas (junior), and this prompted Adams to enquire as to whether their child would inherit the land when Kudnarto died. The commissioner of crown lands replied that ‘there might be a renewal in favour of her children in case of her death’ (SRSA GRG24/4).

As there are few references to Kudnarto in the public record, those that remain have particular significance. In August 1850 she and Adams were called as witnesses in the trial of the shepherd James Yates for the alleged murder of the military pensioner and hut-keeper John Mansforth, known as ‘Old Sergeant.’ The accused had stayed at the Adams’s house on the night of the killing and the next day Kudnarto had discovered the victim’s body. According to the judge, Kudnarto was ‘not fit to be put on oath’ (South Australian Gazette and Mining Journal 1850, 2), as she was not a regular churchgoer; however, he allowed her to testify. She stated that Yates ‘looked plenty cross; me sure him kill the sergeant’ and described his fitful sleep that night: ‘He ask to lie down but him have but picaninny sleep, and swear in the night’ (South Australian Register 1850, 3). As in the reports of their marriage, Kudnarto’s appearance and demeanour at the trial were highlighted. Her neat dress and clear expression were likened to that of a ‘white woman of her class’ and presented as evidence of the ‘feasibility of civilising the natives’ (South Australian Register 1850, 3). Her testimony contributed to Yates’s conviction and later execution for the crime.

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, 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.

Many prominent Kaurna community members are descended from Kudnarto, including community leaders Gladys Elphick (1904–1988), Doris May Graham (1912–2004), and Georgina Williams (1940–); soldier Timothy Hughes (1919–1976); educator and author Lewis O’Brien (1930–); health worker Josie Agius (1934–2016); family and community historian Ali Abdullah-Highfold (1978–); and Australian Rules footballers Cecil Graham (1911–?), Michael O’Loughlin (1977–), and Chad Wingard (1993–). Despite historical upheaval and dispossession from their lands, Kudnarto’s descendants remember her legacy and stories of their family’s determined and persistent struggle for land rights, opportunity, and justice.


Peggy Brock consulted with Kudnarto’s descendants in researching and writing this article.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Brock, Peggy, and Doreen Kartinyeri. Poonindie: The Rise and Destruction of an Aboriginal Agricultural Community. Adelaide: Aboriginal Heritage Branch, 1989
  • O’Brien, Lewis Yerloburka. And the Clock Struck Thirteen: The Life and Thoughts of Kaurna Elder Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien as told to Mary-Anne Gale. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2007
  • South Australian. ‘Married.’ 28 January 1848, 2
  • South Australian Gazette and Mining Journal. ‘Supreme Court.’ 22 August 1850, 2
  • South Australian Register. ‘Local Intelligence.’ 23 June 1847, 3
  • South Australian Register. ‘Local Intelligence.’ 5 August 1850, 3
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG24/4, Letters sent – Colonial, later Chief Secretary’s Office
  • State Records of South Australia. GRG24/6, Correspondence files (‘CSO’ files) – Colonial, later Chief Secretary’s Office
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Marriage Extraordinary.’ 23 February 1848, 2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peggy Brock, 'Kudnarto (c. 1832–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 17 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Adams, Mary Ann

c. 1832
Crystal Brook, South Australia, Australia


11 February, 1855 (aged ~ 23)
Watervale, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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