Tommy Windich (Back row, second from left) with one of the Forrests’ exploring parties.
This article was originally written for the Esperance Tide. The 5 Minute History articles for the Tide focus on local Esperance History. Tommy Windich is a well-known name in Esperance, for good reason, although his story only briefly coincides with our town. Windich was one of the best-known explorers and Indigenous trackers of his time, and he contributed significantly to the early exploration of our state.
Tommy Windich is a familiar name to many people in Esperance. As an Indigenous guide and tracker, he was vital to the success of John and Alexander Forrest’s expeditions exploring huge areas of Western Australia. Tommy was a trusted friend to the Forrest brothers, with John Forrest declaring that he was the ‘…most experienced and best bushman in the colony.’
Tommy was born in 1840 near Mount Stirling, around 200 km east of Perth. His Indigenous name was Kungaitch, but to Europeans, he was known by his English name Tommy Windich. He belonged to the Kokar people and spoke their language Njaggi Njaggi, although he was also fluent in other Indigenous languages. Tommy grew up in the Bunbury area, probably due to an epidemic that went through his tribe in his childhood. He learnt many important bush skills growing up and also learnt how to ride and handle horses. In the early 1860s, Tommy began to work as a tracker for the police, and a native constable, and also began to help those seeking new land in the area around York. At the time, there were 35 Indigenous members of the police force in WA, employed as assistants and trackers, making up nearly a quarter of the police force of the colony.
In 1866, Tommy accompanied explorer Charles Hunt on an expedition east of York, heading towards the Kalgoorlie area, intent on opening up new grazing land and finding sources of water in the area. The expedition was cut short as Hunt became ill. Tommy was also involved in a hunt for Joseph Johns, a convict who escaped from prison multiple times. After one of these escapes, Johns was on the run for a month, and Tommy eventually helped the police track him down 37km east of York. The prison escapee Johns later became known as the bushranger Moondyne Joe. Tommy also helped the police track and capture some Indigenous men who were accused of killing settler Edward Clarkson. During this capture, Tommy was speared in the arm.
By this time, Tommy was already on good terms with the Forrest family, who were living in Picton, near Bunbury. John and Alexander Forrest were among the 10 children born to William and Margaret Forrest. Both John and Alexander became surveyors and explorers, undertaking many expeditions throughout WA. In 1869, due to Tommy’s reputation, John Forrest invited him to join his expedition to search for Ludwig Leichardt’s missing exploration party. The expedition, made up of six men, went as far inland as present-day Laverton, without finding a trace of Leichhardt’s missing party, which was never found. Later the same year, the Governor of Western Australia, Frederick Weld, proposed an expedition to survey the route from SA to WA that the explorer Eyre had undertaken 30 years earlier. No one had undertaken the same journey since then. The proposed expedition would survey the route taken, looking for suitable grazing land along the way. John and Alexander Forrest left in 1870, taking Tommy Windich, along with three other men. Along the way, the party spent a fortnight in Esperance, staying with the Dempsters. They completed the journey from Perth to Adelaide, along the coast, in six months, and arrived in good health, without losing a single horse. The same journey had taken Eyre twelve months.
In 1871, Tommy accompanied Alexander Forrest on an expedition to explore the land to the east of the Hampton Plains, near present-day Brookton. In 1874, Tommy accompanied John and Alexander Forrest on another expedition. This time, they left Geraldton, travelling east through the centre of WA, aiming for the telegraph line that went from Darwin to Adelaide. The group accomplished the journey, although they struggled severely to find water along the way and narrowly escaped death on several occasions. Tommy’s exceptional skills as a hunter and tracker had saved the life of the party several times. They arrived in Adelaide after six months. The journey had not discovered any new land that was suitable for farming or grazing, but it was still a significant journey, being the first expedition to go through the centre of the state. The men arrived back in Perth to a hero’s welcome. There were banquets and receptions held in their honour. Tommy Windich, along with the other Indigenous tracker who was part of the expedition, Tommy Pierre, were both honoured for their roles in the dangerous journey. On occasion, both men were asked to speak, but Tommy Windich was always too reticent to speak publicly. Tommy was given several small gifts in appreciation of his service, including a rifle engraved with his name, which became his treasured possession.
In 1876, Tommy began to work as a guide for the construction crew that was building the overland telegraph line in the Esperance area. He contracted pneumonia and was nursed by Esperance pioneer Caroline Hannett, but to no avail. Tommy died in Esperance in February 1876, at the age of thirty-six. At the time, explorers were considered to be celebrities, and Tommy was particularly well regarded because of his tracking and hunting skills, as well as his steady reliability. All three of the Perth newspapers of the time carried the news of his death. John and Alexander Forrest organised for a headstone to be erected over his grave, which read, ‘He was an aboriginal native of Western Australia, of great intelligence and fidelity, who accompanied them on exploring expeditions into the interior of Australia, two of which were from Perth to Adelaide.’
John Forrest, who later became Premier of WA, named Windich Springs, located east of Meekatharra, after Tommy. Windich Street in Esperance is also named in his honour, as is a cultivar of Barley bred by the WA Department of Agriculture. The site of his grave is now known as the Tommy Windich Cultural Precinct, with a small garden and replica headstone now marking the site of his grave. The original headstone, which was restored after it was vandalised in 1976, is now on display in the Esperance Museum.