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 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.
The first major flaw in the standard account was that Mackenzie is said to have driven the stolen sheep from Taiko to the Mackenzie Pass on his own, with one dog and a bullock to carry his pack of food, bedding and other equipment. The legend is that his dog was so clever that Mackenzie was able to drive the flock of sheep without any other assistance.
I have driven a flock of one thousand sheep with one dog. In an enclosed paddock where the sheep know where they were going, it was difficult to keep them together, as some would be keen and move fast while the slower ones would be unwilling to move. Driving a flock through rough country that had never been grazed would be extremely difficult for a man and a dog, no matter how skilled the dog.
A modern drover would want at least three or four dogs to drive this number of sheep over rough country for this distance. A couple of them would be noisy huntaways that could push the sheep over the hill, whereas Mackenzie’s dog was supposed to have been mostly silent.
On the day that the sheep were stolen, Mackenzie is supposed to have driven them in the night up over the high ridge to the north of Mt Misery and down into Cannington by the Pareora River. Sheep do not like walking straight uphill, or downhill. They prefer to go sideways around the hillside and graze. This hill had not been grazed at that time, so it would be much rougher going than it is now. Getting the sheep over the hill with one dog, would be extremely difficult, especially when he had to lead a pack bullock.
Once Mackenzie got down into Cannington, he would probably have had to cross the Pareora River twice to get up into Mawaro. Opposite the Cannington homestead, the river goes quite close to the cliff, so it is unlikely that he could squeeze his sheep through between the river and the cliff. He would have had to cross the river before he got there, and then cross back again further up.
The river was much deeper then, because most of the flow is now taken by the Timaru water supply intake in the Upper Pareora Gorge. Sheep will cross water, but they do not like it. If you hold them close to the river and get a few leaders across, the others will follow, but this would be difficult task for one man. While he was getting the last few stragglers across, the ones that had gone first would be scattering.
As the journey progressed further, he would have had to cross half a dozen streams and rivers. Finding a place to cross would require some scouting, and getting the sheep across would never be easy for one man.
Mackenzie always claimed that he had been hired by a man called John Mossman. This was discounted by the officials, as Mossman was never found. However, given the difficulty of the terrain, Mackenzie almost certainly had assistance. Driving a flock of a thousand sheep over that country would have been almost impossible for one man. He very likely had help, or was helping someone else, perhaps the instigator of the theft.
The standard account suggests that Mackenzie planned to drive the sheep down through the Lindis Pass to Southland and sell them. This is an even more implausible suggestion, as crossing the much larger Waitakai River which would have been even more difficult for one man and a dog.
The other odd thing about the James Mackenzie story is the behaviour of the John Sidebottom, the overseer of The Levels station. His letter to the Rhodes Brothers in Christchurch is the main source of information. What stands out in this letter is how incredibly slow he was to try to purse the stolen sheep. It was almost as if he wanted them to get away.
The sheep were grazing in Taiko. The land was not fenced at the time, so they would be put into an enclosure at night, and let them out to graze each morning. The usual practice was for two men to watch the sheep during the day and camp in a hut at night.
The theft of the sheep was reported by a Maori boy called Seventeen. It seems that he was not sleeping at the enclosure with the sheep that night, or he would have been disturbed when they were stolen. Perhaps he had gone back to the outpost at Cave for a meal and sleep and found the sheep missing when he returned early in the morning.
Sidebottom records that Seventeen came to him at Cave on Thursday morning, where he was paring the feet of sheep with footrot. Seventeen reported the sheep were gone and had been tracked to Campbell’s hut, at the foot of Mount Misery. This was really useful information, as it meant that sheep had not gone towards Timaru, or down the valley to where the Taiko stream joins the Pareora River at the foot of Mount Horrible, which would have been an easier way to go.
I presume that Sidebottom heard about the theft some time later in the morning, but he did not bother to search for the sheep that day. This is odd, because the loss of a thousand sheep was a more serious problem, whereas a bit of footrot could easily wait.
More important, he had a horse and knew where the sheep had gone. At Cave, he was much close to their destination. He could have ridden over the Cave Hill at its low point and ridden down the valley where the Cave-Pareora Road travels and be in Cannington in a few hours. By climbing up on the hills, he would have been able to see across the valley and discover where the sheep has gone. Had he taken this action, he would have probably have discovered them before nightfall.
Even if the thieves had been driving the sheep most of the night and next day, they would not only have been able to get far into Cannington. They had to drive the sheep about 7 km from Taiko, where the sheep were camped, into Limestone Valley at the foot of the hill (a direct route was blocked by a limestone cliff). They then had to drive them up over the hill north of Mount Misery and down the other side.
Getting down off the hill would have taken them at least three or four hours. I remember when my father assisted with mustering sheep at Braeval. We could watch the sheep coming down the hill from our home on the other side of the valley. It would take several hours for the flock to all come down, and that was with a good track and sheep that knew they were going to good pasture on the flatland.
The sheep would hardly have been off the hill by that time that Sidebottom heard about the theft later in the morning. However, he did nothing until the next day.
On Firday morning, Sidebottom set out with Seventeen and Taiko and they tracked the sheep over the hill and down towards the Pareora River. By nightfall, they had arrived at bush of the Upper Pareora Gorge.
I am surprised that Sidebottom had travelled such a short distance. The sheep had travelled the same route on the previous day. Sidebottom had a horse, and even if his Maori boys were on foot, they should have been able to move much faster than the stolen flock.
A thousand sheep would leave a lot of droppings and wool on bushes, so tracking them would be quite easy. So by Friday night he should have been able to catch the stolen flock, if he had been going hard all day.
On Saturday, they tracked the tracked the sheep up into Mawaro to a branch of the Tengawai River. He must have been quite close to the sheep, but Sidebottom stopped tracking and rode back to Cave to get more supplies. He had all of Thursday to prepare, so it is odd that he had run out of supplies after only one day on the pursuit.
While at Cave, Sidebottom sent back to Levels Station for more help. I am not sure why he had not done this on Thursday, because this delay allowed the sheep to travel further. By the end of Saturday, they would have been well up into the Waratah Valley. Reading his account and understanding the distance he had to travel, it seemed like he was doing his best to let the sheep escape.
On Sunday, they continued tracking the sheep, but Sidebottom deliberately delayed progress in the afternoon by sending the Maori boy Taiko to look for the men who were coming to help. Taiko took the horse, which would have delayed the speed of the tracking. He arrived back at sunset without the men.
As the end of the day, Sidebottom finally caught up with the sheep and discovered Mackenzie at the bottom of a hill watching them while preparing a meal. He captured Mackenzie and recovered the sheep. Although visibility was affected by fog, he immediately began driving the sheep through the night towards home (Mackenzie escaped during the night).
The next day they arrived back at Cave, having covered a distance of 25 miles over rough country. Driving them all through the night and into the next day without giving them a rest seemed an odd action for a man charged with caring for the sheep
The contrast in speed is astounding. When chasing the sheep, he took several days to travel from Cave to the Mackenzie Pass. When driving the sheep home, he was able to cover the distance during one night and part of the next day. If he had shown the same zeal on the outward journey, he would have quickly caught the sheep.
Catriona Burnett records several things about Sidebottom that I think explain why he took so long to catch up with the stolen sheep.
First, Sidebottom wrote to the Rhodes Brothers that he had seen a large plain when he had looked out from the place, where he discovered the sheep.
I should tell you I have found old sheep track (large tracks of a good mob) leading up to the same pass, therefore I have a strong opinion this is not the first mob that Mackenzie has driven off… There seems to be a fine plain just at the back of the snowy range and a fist rate pass through the mountains to it.The first sentence can’t be true, because Sidebottom came upon the Mackenzie at dusk, so he would not be able to see track from sheep that had passed the same way several weeks earlier.
His claim to have seen a “fine plain” is also problematic. In a newspaper article written in 1917, Catriona’s father T.D. Burnett discussed the question of where Mackenzie was captured. Sidebottom said that they came across the sheep when “looking down a very abrupt hill”. TD Burnett thinks they had not reached the crest of Mackenzie Pass, but were on the Waratah side of the pass on the “little flat formed by the junction of Lockhart’s and Mackenzie’s steams. Several other witnesses confirm that they were caught in the fork of two creeks on the eastern side of the pass.
TD Burnett points out that the plain cannot be seen, except from the summit of the pass, or from the mountains on either side, so it was odd that Sidebottom wrote that he had seen “a wide plain”. The most plausible explanation is that Sidebottom had already explored the area, and already knew about the pass and the plain.
Second, Catriona Burnett reports that Sidebottom applied for a pastoral license to graze land 75,000 acres in the Mackenzie Country on 1 May 1855, when he went to Christchurch to give evidence against Mackenzie. The license was signed by William Brittain, Commissioner of Crown lands, and is labelled “Pastoral Lease No 53. These licenses were awarded on the condition that the land was fully stocked within a year. It seems that Sidebottom was unable to get sufficient sheep, so his license had lapsed by 1857, when licenses covering the same area were issued to others.
Sidebottom resigned from his overseer role at Levels at the end of the Mackenzie’s trial and took over Eureka Station in Canterbury. He died suddenly in Christchurch, two years late in April 1859, after selling a run for a considerable sum of money. He was seized with a fit of apoplexy and lingered only a short time.
The Rhodes Brothers lived in Christchurch, so an overseer had considerable freedom to get around. I suspect that that Sidebottom had investigated the area west of Cave much earlier. He was active and ambitious man, so it is natural that he would have explored further inland looking for land that was not controlled by the existing runholders. The Mackenzie Pass is visible from several places closer the coast, so if he was curious, he would have wondered where it led.
While based at Cave, he would be well placed to travel up the Tengawai River towards the Waratah Valley. When he got to the Mackenzie Pass he would climbed to the summit and seen the wide plain on the other side. He might even have ridden down and explored the flat land he had discovered.
Being the first to discover this large area of flat land, he would begin thinking about how he could get control of it. Getting a pastoral license was relatively easy. The tricky part was getting sufficient sheep to stock such a big area of land.
Small numbers of sheep had gone missing from The Levels before the Mackenzie incident. Sidebottom had probably paid someone to drive them up through the Mackenzie Pass and release them. (This is probably why his letter suggested that Mackenzie had stolen sheep on previous occasions). He may have already worked out the route through Cannington and Mawaro, and the good places to cross the rivers.
Taking a thousand Merino’s may have been the next big step towards stocking the run he planned to establish. He had probably done a deal or formed a partnership with the person who had paid Mackenzie to drive the sheep. He might have called Seventeen back to Cave, so that they were easy to take.
Once the sheep were stolen, Sidebottom moved so slowly to give them a chance to get away. Once they were up through the Mackenzie Pass and scattered across the plain, it would be impossible to find them. He could then go and apply for a pastoral license, knowing that he already had sufficiently sheep to stock the area.
What Went Wrong
Something must have gone wrong. The clue is in Mackenzie’s petition to the governor for his pardon. His submission says,
Your petitioner and James Mossman were driving the sheep three days when your petitioner became very unwell and was obliged to rest one day and immediately on the day of rest, James Moss man went to the top of the hill while your petitioner was lying on the ground unwell, but for what purpose your petitioner could not tell,, and he against after diner did the like thing, and remained till towards dusk in the evening of that day when he came running down the hill greatly agitated and exclaimed to your petitioner, “McKenzie? McKenzie? I have done a very bad job. I have stolen these sheep and the owner is coming and is close at hand and I will go away”If Sidebottom had paid Mossman (probably his partner and not his real name) to take the sheep into the Mackenzie country, they would have agreed that he could have four days to get through the pass. Once they were on the other side of the pass on the wide plain, they would scatter out to graze and be hard to find. They would become much harder to track, so Sidebottom would be able to say that the trail had disappeared.
The problem was Mackenzie’s sickness. The drovers had arrived at the foot of the pass on Saturday night, so it would only take a few hours to travel through the pass on Sunday morning. By the afternoon, the sheep would be scattered on the plain and hard to see.
Unfortunately, Mackenzie took sick and Mossman was unable to drive the sheep on his own. The day was lost. The sheep remained on the eastern side of the pass, when they should have been spread on the wide plan on the other side.
Sidebottom seemed to have wasted time for four days to give them time to get away, but he had not counted on them losing a day. When he got near the Mackenzie Pass, he expected the sheep to be well gone. Instead, he had come upon Mossman, who several times during the wasted day had gone to the top of the hill looking for someone. They had an argument and Mossman had fled back to warn Mackenzie. He said that Mossman had a gun, so he might have pulled it on Sidebottom.
With his plans falling apart, Sidebottom had no option but to re-capture the sheep and take them back. So when Taiko returned with his horse Jenny, they carried on tracking and soon came upon Mackenzie watching the sheep. By this time Mossman had bolted, so Mackenzie was captured.
Sidebottom did have some integrity, because he bound Mackenzie loosely and he was able to escape in the fog at night. I presume that he hoped would disappear and not be seen again (as Mossman did). Unfortunately, he was captured in Lyttleton, so Sidebottom was called to give evidence against him.
Maybe the Mackenzie country was actually discovered by John Sidebottom, but Sidebottom Country does not have quite the same ring as Mackenzie Country. And Sidebottom Pass would be awful. It this explanation is true, Mackenzie was an innocent drover, and Sidebottom was double-crossing his employer to stock a run he planned to establish in the land he had discovered, so perhaps it is just as well that the country is not named after him.