Monday, August 22, 2016

James Mackenzie (1) Sheepstealer?

Visitors to New Zealand travelling from Christchurch to Mount Cook and Queenstown, pass through the Mackenzie Country. The expansive tussock-covered plain was named after James Mackenzie, better known as Mackenzie the Sheep Stealer, who is credited with discovering this vast area of land in 1855.

The events that led to this plain being given his name are well known. A thousand Merino sheep were stolen from the Levels Station, owned by the pioneering gentry, the Rhodes brothers. Mackenzie was found with the sheep in a pass through the range of mountains which opens onto the plain that took his name. This pass was later named the Mackenzie Pass.

Mackenzie escaped, but was later captured in Christchurch. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years hard labour in April 1855. He hated prison and escaped on at least two occasions.

In September 1855, a new resident magistrate at Christchurch investigated the case, and found the trial to be seriously flawed. Mackenzie was granted a free pardon in January 1856 after spending nine months in prison. He probably returned to Australia, but was never heard of again.

I recently read a book about Mackenzie by Catriona Burnett of Mount Cook Station. I was interested in her book, because I knew her when I helped with shearing and mustering at Mount Cook Station when I was a young farmer. As the granddaughter of one of the early run-holders, she was not very sympathetic to Mackenzie.

Having grown up in Cannington, near the area where the events took place, I was struck by some serious flaws in the standard story about Mackenzie. Reading the account of the incident in a letter to the Rhodes brothers by John Sidebottom, the overseer of The Levels, I realised that parts of his story did not make sense. I will explain these problems in the next couple of posts.

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