Murder, missing gold and lost shipwreck

A memorial to the Maria shipwreck was erected by the National Trust in Kingston in 1966. (ABC South East SA: Kate Hill )

By Kate Hill -

When a passenger ship foundered miles off the south-east coast of Kingston in 1840, the events that followed ensured the story of the Maria became one of the darkest and most controversial events in South Australian maritime history.

What is fact is that 26 passengers and crew boarded the Irish-built brigantine Maria under Captain William Smith and left Port Adelaide on June 26, 1840, bound for Hobart.

But neither they nor their ship would ever reach their destination.

The first inkling that events had gone awry was in newspaper reports in late July that "a massacre site" had been found along the Coorong coastline.

Reports began to circulate that Maria passengers and crew had been murdered by natives after abandoning their foundering ship.

A group of men set off from Adelaide to investigate, and brought back horrible stories of finding "legs, arms and parts of bodies partially covered with sand and strewn in all directions", and described a trail of native footprints leading from the scene.

The men brought back wedding rings, allegedly found on the slain bodies of two female passengers, and said they had found local natives in possession of blankets and tellingly, one wearing a sailor's jacket.

As wild rumours swirled and a horrified public demanded information and action, Governor George Gawler sent a team on horseback to investigate further, lead by Major Thomas O'Halloran.

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