Aboriginal people of the Kulin clans are the custodians of traditional lands which include the tall timber forests east of Melbourne. Speakers of the Woi wurrung and Daung wurrung languages called this 'cold country' - the area where their territories meet in the hinterland of the Great Dividing Range. This is the source of the watersheds of the Yarra and Goulburn Rivers, both major spiritual and physical markers of their territories. It is a landscape that they know also as one marked by the peaks of Tonne-be-wong, Toole-be-wong and Donne-be-wong, mountains. These have been renamed Mounts Riddell, Ben Cairn and Donna Buang respectively by the new settlers. Kulin people travelled through and around these mountains along their 'unmade tracks', as they were called by settlers and miners, during different times of the year prior to European settlement of Melbourne.
Following the establishment of Port Phillip settlement in the 1830s, the Kulin clans continued to occupy their territorial lands, but in ever decreasing numbers and with greater restriction placed on their movements. In June 1835, John Batman believed he purchased two parcels of land totalling 600,000 acres with 20 pairs of blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 lbs of flour and 6 shirts as payment for the first portion; and 20 pairs of blankets, 30 knives, 12 axes, 10 mirrors, 12 pairs of scissors, 50 handkerchiefs, 12 red shirts, 4 flannel jackets, 4 suits of clothing, and 50 lbs of flour was paid for the second. Yearly rent paid in more of these goods was part of the 'agreement'. It is likely that the transaction was viewed by the Kulin as payment for a licence to use of their land, a practice known as tandarrum.
Four years later on the northern side of the Dandenongs, James Dredge as Assistant to the Port Phillip Protectorate for Aborigines for the Goulburn District, reported within two weeks of arriving in 1839 of the incidence of Daung wurrung people being poisoned with flour laced with arsenic,
such was the prejudice and ill will existing amongst many settlers towards the blacks... many of the aborigines had been destroyed by them with 'sweet damper' (James Dredge Diary, 1 June 1839, p.52).
The Daung wurrung were living close to the lagoons along the Ovens, a series of over one hundred which stretched along the Goulburn River from King Parrot Creek to the Acheron River. These places of water were where young fish bred awaiting the next floodwaters to flush them into the Goulburn had become the waterholes of squatters. The following year, Dredge remarked,
they speak of their country to a stranger with emotions of pride... and mimick [Dredge with] the white man had no business in their country.
Under the supervision of Dredge, a station was set up in May 1839 at Mitchellstown, the crossing point on the Goulburn River for the Melbourne to Sydney road in the region. The Daung wurrung had already been attracted to the settlement 'by the ease of food... by prostitution and trade with travellers or border policemen stationed there' (Christie 1979:95). Dredge treated them for diseases, paid them for work and issued supplies to the old and sick, Aborigines began to frequent the station. By February 1840, almost the entire Daung wurrung people were at the station, but when supplies ran out the 262 people moved off the station. In July 1840, Dredge was replaced as Assistant to the Protectorate by William Le Souef. He moved the station to the Murchison, but saw his role in protecting the settlers rather than the interests of the Daung wurrung. Due to his attitude, he had been threatened with spearing and sought police protection.
Similarly, other Kulin groups around Melbourne, speakers of Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung languages, had been forced to occupy camps on the fringes of townships and ration depots were operating at Warrandyte and Mordialloc. The depredations wrought by displacement from their land and high death rates from disease and massacre saw the population diminished rapidly. Census figures for the Kulin were 1225 people in 1839-42 and only 181 people in 1863.