Mary Ann Bugg doesn’t fit the stereotype of a 19th-century woman.
Often dressed in men’s clothes, she was an expert horse rider and skilled bush navigator who roamed across NSW robbing travellers, stations, pubs and stores while eluding police.
Most history books mention her as the partner of the infamous Captain Thunderbolt, the “gentleman bushranger” famed for escaping from jail on Cockatoo Island — but Mary Ann has every claim to being just as iconic.
Mary Ann was a proud Worimi woman, born of an Indigenous mother and convict father near Gloucester on the mid-north coast of NSW.
In 1860 she met Thunderbolt, whose real name was Fred Ward. Before his capture in 1870, she acted as his scout, informer, lover and confidante and bore him three children.
Thunderbolt is recognised for having the longest bushranging career in NSW, but it is unlikely he would have survived for so long without Mary Ann’s help.
She taught the illiterate Thunderbolt to read. She helped provide food and shelter, spread false information to help him stay ahead of the authorities and nursed him back to health after he was shot.
Thunderbolt remains a legend, a popular folk hero and major tourist drawcard in New South Wales, where a highway is named in his honour.
Mary Ann Bugg is less well known and some even say she’s been erased from the Thunderbolt legend.
And for one of her biographers, that’s part of a bigger problem, where many Aboriginal people responsible for the survival of Australian folk heroes have been airbrushed from the history books.
Who was Mary Ann Bugg?
Mary Ann’s story marks her as an uncommon woman for her time.
Though many relationships between settlers and Indigenous people on the frontier were violent and unequal, her parents’ union was long-term and consensual. Mary Ann was the eldest of their eight children.
Mary Ann Bugg taught Thunderbolt to read, gave him food and shelter, and helped him stay ahead of authorities. (ABC: Lucy Fahey)
She and her siblings were sent to an orphan school in Paramatta when she was five years old.
As a result, she had a degree of literacy uncommon among people of her race and class, says historian and author Carol Baxter.
“This was a woman who had no place in society,” she says.
“She was educated at a time when Aboriginal children weren’t educated. You’ve got this child who’s a mix of two worlds, neither of whom accept her.”
This degree of European learning would help Mary Ann in her later encounters with the justice system — after she began bushranging with Thunderbolt.
Fights with police
One early brush with the law came while Mary Ann was heavily pregnant in 1865.
Police descended on Thunderbolt’s camp, but instead found Mary Ann and two of her children.
Instead of leaving quietly, Mary Ann taunted the police for their failure to capture Thunderbolt.
“[She] sprung like a tigress upon one of the police, ribboning his uniform, and taunting him with cowardice for seeking her apprehension instead of Thunderbolt’s,” according to a contemporary account in the Maitland Mercury.
In the face of Mary Ann’s fury, the police had no choice but to leave her at a nearby station while they continued to hunt for the male bushranger — who later returned to rescue her.
Two years later, Mary Ann was apprehended by police on charges of stealing 12 yards of fabric, which she claimed she bought at a nearby store.
Unable to present a witness or a receipt, she was sentenced to three months in jail.
Mary Ann wrote her own petition to the governor. Public support poured in, with one letter to the local newspaper referring to the arrest as a “gross injustice”.
After further investigations, the inspector-general of police found Mary Ann had been “wrongfully convicted” and recommended her immediate release.
Life on a violent frontier
Mary Ann Bugg brought up her children at a time when the NSW government was enlisting Aboriginal trackers and troopers from Queensland to drive people off their traditional land and prepare the way for European settlement.
The organised squadrons were recruited from properties on the fringes, where hunger, disease and malnutrition stalked them.
Without any kinship connections, or sympathy for local clans, the strangers had a reputation for cruelty.
The Native Mounted Police patrolled the colonial frontier from the late 1840s until the early 20th century. (Supplied: Queensland Police Museum)
But not all relationships on this brutal frontier were based on exploitation and violence.
In an honours thesis about Mary Ann Bugg, Kali Bierens argues the bushranging pair were typical of the occasional collaborations between Aboriginal people and white settlers.
Thunderbolt’s relationship with Mary Ann meant he was included in Kamilaroi kinship obligations, Bierens writes, sharing his loot with local people.
In return, he was supplied with fresh horses, rations and shielded from detection in their country.
“Reciprocal relationships that developed between Aboriginal and settler Australians represent the essence of the Thunderbolt legend,” Bierens writes.
Bierens argues that convicts, the landless poor and Aboriginal people identified strongly with the image of Thunderbolt as a hero of resistance, who gave voice to their shared struggle against a system of oppression and injustice.
But she believes these courageous Aboriginal figures have never been given the attention they deserve.
“Visitors to ‘Thunderbolt Country’ can [today] sample a Thunderbolt pie, indulge a glass of Thunderbolt’s Shiraz, pose for a photograph at Thunderbolt’s rock,” Bierens writes.
“The spirit of Thunderbolt lives on in Uralla. However, it seems a pity that there is not recognition for the important role his Aboriginal wife played in the partnership.”
Some retellings of the Thunderbolt legend hold that Mary Ann died a tragic death from pneumonia in 1867, and was mourned by Thunderbolt, who died three years later at Uralla, NSW.
An engraving from 1870 shows Constable Walker shooting Captain Thunderbolt in the chest. (State Library of Victoria: Samuel Calvert)
However, Carol Baxter says this is based on a misunderstanding of the primary sources.
Her research concludes it was another Aboriginal woman who died after being taken as a lover by Thunderbolt, and that Mary Ann actually outlived her famous partner by another 35 years.
According to Baxter, Mary Ann and Thunderbolt parted ways for good in 1867. In the decades afterwards, she gave birth to at least five more children, became a nurse, and married another man.
She may even have circulated the myth that she was Maori, concealing her heritage at a time when Aboriginal children were often removed to be raised on missions or reserves.
In Baxter’s history, Mary Ann died at the age of 70 in Mudgee on April 22, 1905.
There are no statues or monuments to celebrate the role of Mary Ann or other Aboriginal people in keeping the bushranging legend alive.
“Mary Ann was someone who tried to fight for her own voice in a society that didn’t want to give her a voice, a society that had no-one backing her up,” Baxter says.
“She is one of the most unusual women of her time.”
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