19th Century Aboriginal population records

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectfully advised that our collection may contain images or names of deceased people in photographs or text. We acknowledge that language in the records referring to Aboriginal people may be confronting and in some instances would be considered offensive if used today.

This page is an overview of 19th century Aboriginal population records in the State Archives Collection.

Blanket lists and returns of Aboriginal people

Aboriginal people of the cooler southern parts of Australia traditionally wore cloaks made of animal skin. These were very warm but could take up to a year to make.

Governor Macquarie initiated several actions to encourage the ‘civilisation’ and cooperation of Sydney’s Aboriginal people, including an annual feast and distribution of supplies at Parramatta in 1814 (Paul Irish, Hidden in Plain View, p 29). Blankets were later distributed by local magistrates or the police in conjunction with the Queen’s Birthday on 1 May.

Local colonial authorities such as the magistrates and police were required to report to the Government on the distribution of blankets and on the conditions of Aboriginal people in their area. These reports, or returns, resulted in detailed lists of individuals and communities.

Why are the returns significant?

19th century returns of Aboriginal people are significant in many ways. They document interactions between the government of the day and Aboriginal people. The returns provide detailed information about individuals and their movements.

The returns are vital documents for family and local history research.

Where can I find returns of Aboriginal people?

Surviving records are broadly arranged by locality and include both Indigenous and European names for each person as well as their age.

  • Initially many blanket lists, or returns, are found amongst the Colonial Secretary’s papers.
  • Later some court houses and police stations kept records of their distribution of blankets.

Police also reported on the conditions of Aboriginal people in the districts, in some cases producing detailed returns on Aboriginal people and their communities.

Aborigines Welfare Board

NRS 17323, Returns of Aboriginal people, 25/02/1886-17/06/1887

This series consists of an undated listing of the numbers of Aboriginal peoples in each district of New South Wales, town by town (noting whether male, female, or child), "Aborigine or half caste" (this is the language as it is used in the record), and the number at school; a Government Stores Department Minute paper (No. 87/3147 of 17 June 1887) which encloses several returns of Aboriginal peoples in the Grafton sub-district 1886-87 giving numbers for various age groups; and a letter from the Police Officer, Grafton, dated 16 February 1887, enclosing a list of names of Aboriginal peoples recommended for clothing. This information was obtained when the Electoral Roll was being collected in the District.

Colonial Secretary

NRS 906, Special bundles:

These lists are digitised and can be viewed at the links below.

  • NRS-906-1-[4/7092]-4/7092
    Blankets for Aborigines
  • NRS-906-1-[4/6666B]-4/6666B.3
    Aborigines: Papers dealing with issue of blankets, etc, and including returns of the native population in the various districts, 1833-35
  • NRS-906-1-[4/1133]-4/1133.3
    Aborigines: Distribution of blankets, 1837-44 for the following districts: Berrima, Brisbane Water, Broulee, Dungog, Hartley, Liverpool, Parramatta, Paterson, Patrick's Plains (including Singleton, Glendon, Wollombi and Dulwich), Picton, Scone, Ulladulla & Wollongong, 1837-44

NRS 905, Main series of letters received, 1826-1982

  • Returns of Aboriginal people and blanket lists are filed amongst the papers of the Colonial Secretary.

See Records of 19th Century blanket lists and returns of Aboriginal people for a listing of those located.

  • Additional lists may be identified by searching the Joan Reese Index to Colonial Secretary’s In-Letters 1826-1895 and Colonial Secretary; NRS 922, Indexes and Registers of Letters received, 1826-1921.
  • See also the following bundles relating to Aboriginal people:
Item no
[4/2831.1] part 1 of 2
[4/1141.2] part 2 of 2

Department of Lands

NRS 7933, Letters received, 1856-1866

Included in this series are letters from Police Magistrates and Benches of Magistrates, chiefly concerning the annual distribution of blankets to Aboriginal peoples by the government.

Commissioner of Crown Lands, Gwydir District

NRS 1376, Letters received, 1850-1852 [2/7627]

These letters include: requisitions for blankets for Aborigines in the District of Gwydir dated 5 May 1852 and for blankets and tomahawks dated 1 December 1852.

Armidale Courts of Petty Sessions

NRS 2747, Register of issue of blankets to Aborigines, 1890-1904 [5/3769 (part)]

Bathurst Court of Petty Sessions

NRS 2786, Register of the issue of blankets to Aborigines, 1867-1888 [ML A3016]

This series is held by the Mitchell Library.

Brewarrina Police Station

NRS 21735, Extraneous duties book, 1900-1910

At front of this volume is a census of Aboriginal peoples in the Brewarrina district dated 13 October 1900. The list is on a single page divided into two tables according to "full-blood or half-caste" status (editorial note: this is the language as it is used in the record). Within each table there is a division according to male or female. Details include the persons' full name (including surname) and age.

Deniliquin Court of Petty Sessions

NRS 18501, Lists of blankets issued to Aborigines, 1867-1874

Gosford (Brisbane Water) Court of Petty Sessions

NRS 3016, Copies of letters sent [4/5525] p352

This volume includes an 1827 listing of ‘tribes’ from 1827, and the names of those receiving government ‘slops’ (shirts, dresses etc).

NRS 3026, Returns of Aboriginal blacks, 1838-1840. [4/5525 part] pp.130-31, 195, 247; microfilm copy SR Reel 895

This is a "Return of Aboriginal blacks" for the period 1838-1840 from the Gosford (Brisbane Water) Court of Petty Sessions. This is the title as on the record. This record relates to Aboriginal peoples in the Gosford (Brisbane Water) area.

Walgett Police Station

RNCG-5055, Record of clothing and rations issued to Aborigines, 1899-1940 [36/2572]

This item is closed to public access for 100 years.

Where else can I find returns of Aboriginal people?

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATIS). The AIATSIS library collection includes Blanket Distribution Lists, 1861-1876, call number: PMS 5802
  • Legislative Assembly Votes and Proceedings 1862 Vol 5.
    A return of blankets annually distributed amongst the Aborigines for the last five years, showing the names of the Police Districts, the dates when despatched from Sydney each year, and the dates of their arrival at their destination, 1857-1861. This source does not list the names of individuals.
  • National Library of Australia, Trove website. Newspapers of the day will sometimes report the distribution of blankets to Aboriginal people, for example the Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1850, page 2.
  • State Library of NSW, Gather, Blanket Lists

Further reading

Irish, Paul. Hidden in Plain View: The Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney. NewSouth Publishing, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2017

Michael Anthony Smithson, A Misunderstood Gift: the annual issue of blankets to Aborigines in New South Wales, 1826-48, The Push; A Journal of Early Australian Social History, No.30, 1992, pp.73-108

Smithson, Michael Anthony. The Annual Distribution of Blankets to Aborigines in New South Wales: A Guide to Associated Lists of Aboriginal People, 2020

Convict Sydney

Government blanket fragments

These fragments of a natural-coloured woollen cloth are thought to be from a government issue blanket, used by convicts in the Barracks sleeping wards

Records of 19th Century blanket lists and returns of Aboriginal people

The 19th century ‘blanket returns’ are lists of Aboriginal people who received blankets from the Colonial authorities. The records are broadly arranged by locality.

Four men on horseback

Aboriginal trackers & gaol photos

This webinar highlights records that Aboriginal people can access to discover more about their own family history on the colonial frontier

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A brief overview of the State archives that document the NSW government's interaction with Aboriginal people from 1788 until today