50 Treasures: James Cassady's Notebook

Our twenty-eighth treasure explores the harsh realities of life on the European frontier of north Queensland. From the Library Archives comes James Cassady's notebook.

Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui answers the question "why is this significant?"

What is the significance of this small, stained and frayed notebook with its broken lock? Ostensibly it is a diary written by pastoralist James Cassady for his son spanning the years 1864 to 1879. However, not all of the notebook is in his hand. A segment is written by his wife Maria to whom he was married for three short years. The faded ink and pencil written notebook is significant in that it provides a rare and intimate glimpse into life lived on the frontier of European settlement in north Queensland in the nineteenth century. Within its covers is condensed all of the travails besetting those who braved that frontier.

James Cassady's notebook. Photograph by Michael Marzik.
James was an Irish immigrant who migrated to Australia on an assisted passage with his family in 1849 as a teenager. After going first to the Wide-Bay Burnett district where he worked for others, he and his brother Charles headed north to take up land of their own in the early 1860s. By 1864 he had married Sydney girl Maria Cecilia Kelly whose brother had land on the Don River, north of Bowen. James began keeping the notebook after their marriage.

A year after the birth of their first child Francis (Frank) in 1865, in Bowen, they travelled by schooner, the Margaret and Mary, to Burketown—an arduous, long journey for a young mother with a baby. Unfortunately, the schooner carried disease and on arrival in Burketown, most of the schooner’s passengers and crew were struck down by fever and died, as did most of Burketown’s population. The little Cassady family survived and was able to travel on to James’s property on the Leichhardt River, near Burketown, where Maria’s younger sister Nora joined them. Within a year Maria was pregnant again and they returned to Sydney. James returned to the Gulf and Maria kept the notebook with her.
James Cassady at Mungalla, on the occasion of his sister's visit with her children, June 1895.  Source: Mitchell Library, State Library New South Wales [PXA 1572/Box 2]
Maria and Nora possibly contracted a fever on their earlier northern journey. It has been recently suggested that the fever that the Margaret and Mary was carrying was malaria rather than typhoid as formerly believed. The notebook however, gives a tantalizing clue: ‘[Doctor Cox] called again he said I was suffering from …ectic [illegible] fever and very low.’ Could he have diagnosed peripatetic or walking typhoid, a co-infection of which can be malaria? The walking typhoid diagnosis explains why Maria and Nora were able to go about their lives relatively normally in Sydney. Nevertheless, in James’s absence Maria, their baby Magdalene, and Nora would all die within weeks of each other in 1867. After Maria’s death James continued to write in the notebook, the first entry being backdated to July 19 where he wrote ‘baby born and died 26th same month.’

James never remarried. He came to the Herbert River district in around 1873, purchasing two properties, Fairview and later Mungalla. He was an avid horse breeder owning horses such as the stallion Stromboli, a past winner of the Sydney Cup. His notation of Nywaigi words contributed to Edward M. Curr’s record of Indigenous languages. In his years on the Herbert he actively campaigned on behalf of the Indigenous people to whom he gave safe haven on Mungalla. He died in Ingham in 1902 and was buried at Mungalla. Today the Indigenous owners of Mungalla, the Nywaigi people, traditional custodians of the lands around Ingham, venerate James’s memory.

A page from James Cassady's notebook. Photograph by Michael Marzik.

James’s notebook includes dated entries and a dictionary of Indigenous words. He recorded his comings and goings from the family’s properties and the Gilbert diggings, the Franco-Prussian War and the death of his mother and other family members. We read of the hazards of frontier life: horse-riding accidents, eye inflammation, sudden and lonely deaths, and confrontations with Indigenous people. His entries are dry despite the quaint expression, referring to himself in the third person as Papa, Maria as Mama and Francis as I. Though he lapses occasionally such as when he writes of his birthday as ‘my Birthday.’ Maria’s portion includes accounts, shopping lists and dated entries as she negotiated rentals in Sydney, the hiring of a servant from the Emancipation Depot, the illness of her sister Nora, her own declining health and her missing of James: ‘I was I think never so disappointed as I was this mail not hearing from James.’ Death dogs them even in Sydney and so just months before her own death she recorded that ‘Went shopping & bought Mourning for my dear brother’. The poignancy of her entries lies in her efforts to maintain normalcy for Frank, going to Sydney to buy him books, other times buying him clothes or cough syrup all while she is heavily pregnant and gravely ill. James had written when they arrived at North Shore ‘Mama very ill all the time’. The irony of James Cassady’s notebook is that the entries written by Maria were thankfully preserved for her ‘Frankie’ by James’s own intention to leave some record of Frank’s childhood for him. While most of the entries of the notebook are prosaic, what is clearly evident in both James and Maria’s entries, is the depth of family love and fortitude in the face of relentless death and loss.

Mr Frank Cassady, son of James Cassady. North Queensland Photographic Collection, NQID09224.
Over the course of 2020, JCU Library's Special Collections will be unveiling 50 Treasures from the collections to celebrate 50 years of James Cook University.

Author Biography
Bianka Vidonja Balanzategui is an historian and historical consultant. She graduated from James Cook University with an Honours degree and PhD in history and is presently a casual academic at JCU. She researches the sugar industry and migration history of tropical north Queensland, and her first book, published by JCU, Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade married those two themes. She also has a keen interest in the history of the Herbert River district where she has lived since her marriage. At present she is researching the role of women, in the plantation era.


Chris Parry said…
This notebook/diary shows poignantly the hardships of pioneer life in North Queensland. Perhaps it was the sadness of losing his wife and child so early that led to James Cassady actively campaigning against the inhumane treatment of Aboriginals and then giving safe haven to Aboriginals and South Sea Islanders on his property. Thank you JCU for making this document available online.

Deidre Pope said…
This was such a delight to find that James Cassadys notebook was one of the 50 treasures of JCU. And to read Biankas wonderful summary.As a great granddaughter of James Cassady’s Sister ( in the photo) I am so pleased to be able to show all the other descendants these hand written pages.
Unknown said…
As a great grandson of James Cassady and grandson of Francis (Frank), I am proud to learn that James Cassady's diary is featured in the JCU 50 Treasures Collection.
I am particularly pleased to see that James, and later Frank, have been recognised for the part they both played in providing a safe haven on Mungalla for the local indigenous people at a time when many others were being driven off their land in the interests of the sugar cane industry.
My mother, Rua Cassady grew up on Mungalla and would often tell me and my sisters wonderful stories of her early life there and how the local people were very much part of the family.
Around two years ago, my wife and I visited Mungalla for the first time and we were delighted to meet the new custodians of the property, Jacob Cassady and his family. Jacob manages the property on behalf of the Nywaigi People, and his charter is to improve the social and economic position of the traditional owners.
Jacob took us on a wonderfully nostalgic tour of Mungalla where we visited the site of the original homestead and also the beautifully maintained gravesite of James and Francis.
We are delighted that JCU maintains such a wonderful collection of Cassady memorabilia in recognition of the part the family played in the early history of Far North Queensland.
Michael Gillan
I am the author of the post and I am very gratified by your positive responses to the digitization of the notebook and the fact that it has been included in the 50 Treasures JCU. I have 'encountered' James Cassady many times on my historian's journey and it pleases me that me have the opportunity to 'hear his voice' through letters to the press and this notebook. It also pleases me just as much that we are also able to 'hear the voice' of his wife Maria. In frontier history accounts which are largely written by men, women are largely peripheral and their stories and contributions lost. This is the value of collections such as the JCU Special Collections - it preserves the 'voices' of those long lost to us.