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Pluto, Kitty (1877–1946)

by Galiina Ellwood

This article was published:

Altengen (1877–1946), gold miner and prospector, better known as Kitty Pluto, was born in 1877 on Kandju (Kaanju/Kaantju) Country in the vicinity of the Batavia (later Wenlock) River, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. Members of her family worked for the Aboriginal miner-prospector William Davis, better known as Pluto, in the early 1910s. Kitty tribally married Pluto sometime after 1910 and the pair chased gold together until Pluto’s death in 1916.

Aboriginal miners on Cape York Peninsula were able to work with minimal government interference during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Officials rarely visited the remote area and few white miners were willing to put up with the isolation, expense, and difficulties in obtaining supplies. Alluvial gold could be mined with cheap technology that was readily available to Aboriginal people, providing an income that enabled Aboriginal prospector-miners to avoid the grasping hands of the protectors appointed under the Queensland Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897.

Soon after Pluto’s death, in 1916 at Lower Camp, Kitty Pluto found what would prove to be the richest gold deposit on the Batavia (later Wenlock) goldfield. She had been carting gold-bearing wash from her late husband’s lead to the river when she came across a large nugget, triggering a new rush to the area. Like her entrepreneurial husband, she employed Aboriginal miners to work the find, many of them her own family. Among her Aboriginal employees were William (Billy/Willie) Fox, Tuesday Smith, and Friday Wilson.

Kitty Pluto’s gold discoveries brought more non-Aboriginal miners to the area, resulting in increased levels of government intervention and control. In 1921, she, her son Young Pluto, her new husband Jacky Flat, and fellow Aboriginal miner Friday Wilson were removed from the Batavia goldfield under the Act. Their destination was Yarrabah, an Anglican mission near Cairns. They were recorded as arriving at Laura, over 145 miles (234 km) from Batavia, but they never reached the mission and were soon back on the goldfield. It is possible that their value to the mining industry was recognised and the removal order rescinded. Certainly there was a belief among local whites that valuable miners like Friday Wilson and probably Kitty Pluto were ‘allowed to live outside the Aboriginal Act’ (Townsville Daily Bulletin 1950, 6), though there is no evidence to confirm this.

In 1932 there was another attempt to remove Kitty Pluto. On the morning of 24 December, Constable Alex Thies, a local protector, arrived at Batavia to round up and remove Aboriginal women suspected of having sexual relations with non-Aboriginal men. He assaulted several Aboriginal men in the camp and destroyed possessions before leaving with four women, one of whom was pregnant, and one child. Thies’s captives were neck chained and forced to walk in the tropical summer heat to Laura. A group of white miners from Batavia protested at the brutality of their treatment, and stories about the ‘chaining and flogging of natives’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1933, 13) also appeared in newspapers, resulting in an official investigation. According to the removal order, Kitty Pluto was supposed to be taken to Yarrabah or Palm Island, but once again she never arrived.

Kitty Pluto next appears in the records in 1933. (Sir) Raphael Cilento, director of tropical hygiene and chief quarantine officer, was sent to Cape York to survey the health of Aboriginal people and to examine cases of suspected venereal disease. On 23 October he examined Kitty Pluto, now fifty-five, who was found to be suffering from ‘old gleet,’ an infection caused by untreated gonorrhoea.

By 1939 Kitty Pluto was at Lockhart River mission, Cape York, and was reportedly ‘living on the pension provided by the Queensland Government’ (Courier-Mail 1939, 6). She attracted a flurry of newspaper interest in the late 1930s and 1940s for being ‘the only aboriginal woman to discover a goldfield’ (Chronicle 1940, 37). This was untrue, as an unnamed Aboriginal woman was credited with finding the Hodgkinson goldfield west of Cairns in 1876. Nevertheless, more than a dozen newspaper and magazine articles appeared celebrating Kitty Pluto’s achievements. Many of them, such as the Australian Woman’s Mirror’s romantic ‘Kitty Pluto of Batavia,’ were largely fanciful. Kitty Pluto died at Lockhart River in 1946. Wenlock goldfield, which she helped to discover and make famous, was listed on the Queensland Heritage Register in 2006.

 

Galiina Ellwood is a Quandamooka person and wrote this article on Yirriganji Bulmba.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Woman’s Mirror. ‘Kitty Pluto of Batavia.’ 14 February 1939, 7, 36
  • Chronicle (Adelaide). ‘Aborigines as Gold Miners.’ 18 July 1940, 37
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Brisbane Diary.’ 18 July 1939, 6
  • Ellwood, Galiina. ‘The Aboriginal Miners and Prospectors of Cape York Peninsula 1870 to ca. 1950s.’ Journal of Australasian Mining History 16 (October 2018): 75–92
  • Queensland State Archives. ID ITM337006, Register of removals
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Queensland Aborigines.’ 10 May 1933, 13
  • Telegraph (Brisbane). ‘Mining on Cape York Peninsula.’ 29 December 1931, 9
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin. ‘Aboriginal with a History.’ 13 October 1950, 6
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin. ‘Batavia River Gold.’ 14 November 1931, 9

Additional Resources

Citation details

Galiina Ellwood, 'Pluto, Kitty (1877–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pluto-kitty-31648/text39125, published online 2022, accessed online 1 February 2023.

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