Aboriginal people of this area are known to be of the Wadi Wadi tribe, and Yuiu tribe. Traditional stories say the Dharawal people brought the Dharawal (cabbage tree palm) with them on arrival at Lake Illawarra, back when their ancestors were animals.
One of the most famous Aboriginal inhabitants of this area was King Mickey Johnson (1834 -1906) who was possibly brought to the area by E. H Weston (Albion Park) from the Clarence River region. After working for Weston for around ten years, he moved to Kangaroo Valley with his wife Rosie and was living there during the 1891 census. He and Rosie then moved to Berawaurra (Windang) at the mouth of Lake Illawarra, where they lived for many years. Mickey was proclaimed King of the Illawarra Tribe at the Illawarra Centenary celebrations in 1896 and was presented with a crescent-shaped brass plate inscribed with Mickey Johnson, King. by Archibald Campbell, MLA. Mickey later moved to the aboriginal camp on the flat at Minnamurra River near the bridge, possibly because of dissatisfaction with his treatment by the Government and the Mission. Mickey and Rosie had five children. King Mickey Johnson died in 1906 when he was 72, and is buried in the Kiama cemetery. A small cabin at Minnamurra was provided for Queen Rosie in 1923, through donations from the community. Rosie later moved to Myola and the Currumbeen Creek area to be with her family and is buried on the northern side of Currumbeen Creek.
The first written references to the people of the Central Illawarra may have been by Captain James Cook in April 25 1770, when he recorded his observations in his log book. Bass and Flinders may have recorded the first European contact with the people of this region at Port Kembla in March 1796. Many early settlers, explorers and government officials wrote of the local aboriginal people. These reports and letters have been compiled by Michael Organ into a comprehensive collection found in the Kiama Library Local Studies Collection.
There are midden sites at Bass Point, Minnamurra River, Minnamurra Point, Gerroa and Gerringong and quarry sites in Shellharbour, Killalea, Knights Hill and Saddleback (Griffin, p. 21). There are also stone arrangements in the Jamberoo Valley and engravings in Foxground. The Bass Point campsites are possibly the oldest dated coastal campsites in NSW, with occupation going back 17,000 years (Flood, p. 286)
Conflict, environmental changes and land grants resulted in displacement of aboriginal communities and the loss of traditional homelands. The Cedar getters were the first to come to the region and were followed by white settlers and their animals. As land was cleared and towns settled, the aboriginal families lost their communities, their independence and often their lives. The traditional trails used by the aboriginal people of the Illawarra and South Coast were the very ones that allowed the cedar getters, surveyors and settlers to move into the area.
Queen Rosie (left), recognised as the last of the traditional Illawarra Aborigines, lived at Kiama and her last home was built in one of the disused Kiama quarries. Today Queen Rosie's descendants still live in the Wollongong area.
Gerringong and Bombo were good source of ochre, used in ceremonies.
Language spoken in the region was Dharawal.
The Wadi Wadi people were nomadic and followed trails to La Perouse, Bass Point, Wreck Bay and over the mountains to Cooma and Jindabyne.
Trading and travel occurred across tribal boundaries
The people of Lake Illawarra had strong associations with the people from Kangaroo Valley
By 1924, there were few aboriginal people in Kiama. with camps at Brown Street, at the top of Bombo Hill and Minnamurra River.
Some local Aboriginal men were employed in the quarries and saw mills of the area.
Many Aboriginal people of the South Coast died in the great flu epidemics of 1890 and 1919
Boolarng Nangamai - local indigenous cultural centre located in the Gerringong industrial estate.