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Coen is a small township located in far north Queensland. Historical records indicate that these are the traditional homelands of the Kaanju people[1]. Though the community falls within the boundaries of the Cook Shire, it is about 400km from the main centre of Cooktown, or about a 6.5 hour drive. The community is quite busy, particularly in the dry season, with all tourists and visitors travelling the Peninsula Development Road up to the tip of Cape York having to pass through the town.

History of Coen

European contact

The Coen district was first settled following the exploration of Cape York by William Hann in 1872. Hann’s exploration party discovered gold on the Palmer River, southwest of Cooktown. After hearing of the discovery, James Mulligan led an expedition to the Palmer River in 1873[2]. A government surveyor, A C Macmillan, with a group of engineers protected by a consignment of Native Police, blazed a track from Cooktown to the Palmer River goldfields in October 1873[3]

In 1876, Robert Sefton found gold at the Coen River after leading a prospecting party into the interior of Cape York. He built a log fort there for protection from any hostility from local Aboriginal groups and prospected for gold in the surrounding country. In 1878, there was a gold rush to Coen following Sefton’s return to Cooktown with 140 ounces of gold. About 500 miners flocked to the Coen field, but exploration further afield was not possible due to the danger of being attacked by local Aboriginal people. The alluvial gold was soon extracted and the miners began leaving, after the discovery of gold at Lukinville on the Lower Palmer River[4].

In 1879, geologist, Robert Logan Jack led a government-sponsored exploration of Cape York. Jack left Cooktown and travelled up the Coen track previously marked out by Sefton, where they encountered Aboriginal people in great numbers:

‘Most of them were frightened of the white men having, no doubt, learnt a few lessons at the muzzles of Snider rifles in the hands of the diggers travelling the Coen track’[5]

In 1880 it was reported that about 350 Chinese miners had returned to the Coen field[6]

Due to the fierce resistance of local Aboriginal people, settlement on the McIvor and Coen Rivers only took a tentative hold during the early 1880s. In 1881, the first settlers on these rivers had to retreat to Cooktown. A Cooktown newspaper correspondent reported that:

‘The McIvor country is now completely abandoned …I fear it will be some time before there is any attempt to stock the country again, as the blacks are likely to be very troublesome to the next party which goes out. I am informed that there are still two Europeans and ten Chinese prospecting about the Coen, but all the teams and cattle have come in’[7].

The Overland Telegraph to Cape York was built between 1883 and 1887 and European expansion and settlement accelerated. European settlement progressed into Cape York with the help of Native Police protection after a Native Police camp was established at McIvor in 1886 and at Coen in 1888[8]. The Aboriginal people in the Coen district adapted to European settlement by moving onto the newly established cattle stations where they became stockmen and domestic labour. Some worked in the mines and a few were employed in Coen. Several men were attached to the Coen police station as trackers[9]

Others continued to live as they always had. As recently as 1947, an extended family group was found by the police near the Archer River and brought in to Coen. The police reported that the group were living a ‘traditional’ lifestyle and up to that point had had very little contact with western civilisation[10].

Around 1890, reef gold was found at Coen and mining recommenced. In 1892, Coen had a population of approximately 125 people, including a small population of 25 Chinese immigrants who prospected for gold and worked their market gardens. The buildings at Coen comprised a hotel, store, butcher’s shop, blacksmith’s shop and a row of 6 cottages occupied by miners and their families. The police camp was situated 2 miles from town on the Coen River and the telegraph station was 1 mile from town on Lankelly Creek. Supplies to Coen were transported from Cooktown to the Port Stewart store and from there bullock teams transported goods the 40 miles to Coen[11].

In 1897, the Queensland Parliament passed the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1987[12], which granted the ‘Home Secretary’ the power ‘to cause every aboriginal within any District, not being an aboriginal exempted from the provisions of this section, to be removed to, and kept within the limits of, any reserve situated within such District, in such manner, and subject to such conditions, as may be prescribed.[13]’. 

Over 300 people were removed from the Coen district to Aboriginal reserves. Almost half of those removed were sent to Palm Island[14]. Included in this number were the Lama Lama people of the Stewart River area[15]. They had been dispossessed of their lands by European pastoral expansion into their country in the late 19th century. They formed a community at the Stewart River on what is now Silver Plains Station, near the site of the Moojeeba township. In the 1930s, they were removed to Lockhart River Mission but later returned to Port Stewart.

In the 1930s, mainly older people from the Munkan, Kaanju and Lama Lama lived scattered around Coen, living in bark and stick huts[16]. In 1939, there was an influx of people who had earlier been removed from Coen to Lockhart River, and others from Ebagoola and the Archer River. A more permanent camp was then established[17].

As the camp increased in size, the Director of Native Affairs was in favour of removing everyone to Lockhart River Mission to avoid the expense associated with providing services to the camp. However, the local protector opposed the proposal saying that:

'your suggestion to send these old people to Lockhart River is unthinkable. If you send them there they will only walk back to their own native country. Coen is their home, their native land, and at least they might be happy in the knowledge that they might die in the place where they first saw the light of day’[18]

The local Coen protector arranged for the people who were working to contribute to the cost of camp improvements, and under those terms they were allowed to stay at Coen[19].

In May 1944, 14 acres were gazetted near Coen as an Aboriginal reserve. The reserve was located south of the town on the Coen River between Oscar and Spring Creeks. Over time, more buildings were erected on the reserve and a market garden established. In 1961, the reserve between Oscar and Spring Creeks was closed and a new reserve established. The new reserve was located closer to the town on the Coen River, opposite the cemetery[20].

In 1961, the owner of the Silver Plains Station falsely accused the Lama Lama people of harassing stock. The accusations came as a response to the Lama Lama people refusing to work on the station at under-award rates of pay. The Lama Lama were removed to Cowal Creek, after being tricked into believing they were going to Thursday Island for a medical check-up. Some families walked back to Coen. Eventually, the majority resettled themselves at Coen.

In the late 1970s, the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers saw the disappearance of station work for many Aboriginal people, and the permanent population of Coen grew to its present size. The Queensland Government funded the construction of houses at Coen during the 1970s.

In 1987, the Lama Lama people at Coen started petitioning the Queensland Government for a grant of land on their traditional country at Port Stewart. In 1989, the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs gave the Lama Lama people a vehicle so that they could maintain an outstation at Port Stewart[21].

By 1990, the Department of Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs owned 12 houses in the town of Coen, and 12 at the Aboriginal reserve opposite the cemetery[22].

In the 1990s, the Aboriginal population of Coen had split into two different family groups. One group continued to live at the Aboriginal reserve opposite the cemetery and the other had taken up residence down the river at the council camping reserve[23]. These two groups continue to live separately today[24].

In 1993, the Coen Regional Aboriginal Corporation was established, with its administration centre located in Coen. This is a non-statutory corporation, incorporated under the Commonwealth Aboriginal Councils and Association Act 1976, and provides services to the Coen Aboriginal community and outstations in the region. The corporation has helped facilitate the dramatic increase in the outstation or ‘homelands’ movement in the region.

Many more people are now able to use the semi-permanent camps they have established on their traditional lands[25]. Outstations belonging to the different groups in the Coen district include Stoney Creek, Langi, Port Stewart, Wenlock, Puntimu and Glen Garland[26]. Recently the outstation movement has seen considerable growth. There are now up to 12 outstations in the district[27]

End notes

  1. N Tindale, Aboriginal tribes of Australia: their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits and proper names (Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1974).The courts have never made a native title determination in this area.
  2. G Pike, Queen of the North: A Pictorial History of Cooktown and Cape York Peninsula (G Pike, Mareeba, 1979) 22-23.
  3. P Trezise, Last Days of a Wilderness (Collins, Sydney, 1973) 16-17.
  4. G Pike, The Last Frontier (Pinevale Publications, Mareeba, 1983) 63-64; Author unknown, ‘The Coen’, The Queenslander, 13 July 1878, 470.
  5. Pike, Above n 4, 70.
  6. Author unknown, ‘The Palmer’, The Queenslander, 30 October 1880, 563.
  7. Author unknown, ‘Current News’, The Queenslander, 22 January 1881, 101.
  8. J Richards, The Secret War: A True History of Queensland’s Native Police (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2008).
  9. A/44851, Coen Police station trackers file. See also 7B/2, Protectorates, Coen, Reserve and Buildings, file 1, letter from the Coen Protector to the Director of Native Affairs, dated 17.12.1940.
  10. 8L/199 (restricted access).
  11. Author unknown, ‘The Coen Diggings’, Brisbane Courier, 19 August 1892, 2.
  12. Herein entitled the Protection Act.
  13. Section 9 of the Protection Act.
  14. Queensland, Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories removals database (access restricted).
  15. Historical records indicate that the Lama Lama people occupied this region; 7B/2, letter from POA Griffin dated 26 August 1937.
  16. Ibid.
  17. 7B/2, POA Coen report dated 1.1.1939.
  18. 7B/2, Protectorates, Coen, Reserve and Buildings, file 1, letter from the Coen Protector to the Director of Native Affairs, dated 17.12.1940.
  19. Ibid.
  20. 07-010-001, Protectorates, Coen, Reserve and Buildings.
  21. 07-010-001, Protectorates, Coen, Reserves, Buildings; Queensland, Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships, Community and Personal Histories removals database; 07-010-001, Protectorates, Coen, Reserve and Buildings, ‘Summary of file 1D/96, Removals-Coen.
  22. Above n 20.
  23. Ibid.
  24. B. Smith, ‘Regenerating Governance on Kaanju Homelands’ in J. Hunt et al (eds.), Contested Governance – Culture, power and institutions in Indigenous Australia (2008) 153-173.
  25. P. Memmott and P Blackwood, Holding Title and Managing Land in Cape York – Two Case Studies (Research Discussion Paper, No. 29, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, 2008) 24.
  26. 14085, part 1, Grants and Subsidies, Outstation Development Program, Coen Regional Aboriginal Corporation.
  27. Above n 25.



Reserve huts at Coen (date unknown).

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last updated:
19 July 2017
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