Prior to European occupation the Darling River was the home of the Barkindji Aboriginal people who moved from Wilcannia upriver through Menindee and down river as far as Wentworth. They lived on fish and crustaceans and used bark canoes and elaborate stone fish traps. They had lived in the area for at least 35,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.
The first European explorers into the area were led by Major Thomas Mitchell. They passed through the area in 1835. Mitchell travelled down the Bogan and Darling rivers to Menindee. He named the lakes Laidley’s Chain of Ponds after the Deputy Commisary-General of New South Wales. The Barkindji called them ‘Wontanella” meaning “many waters”.
Infamously Mitchell and his party were involved in the first massacre in the area. Only Mitchell’s version of events still exists. He argued that two members of his expedition took a kettle for fresh water to the lake and some Aborigines tried to take it. One of Mitchell’s party was clubbed and two Barkindji men were shot. The Aborigines fled to the water where a woman with a baby on her back was killed. Mitchell records that “a mournful song, strongly expressive of the wailing of women” could be heard and so they left the area very quickly.
In 1844 Charles Sturt travelled up the Darling. He arrived at Menindee and then headed overland towards the location of the modern towns of Broken Hill and Tibooburra.
So deeply antagonistic was the relationship between the Barkindji and European settlers that, for a number of years, prospective pastoralists and drovers avoided the area.
In 1853 police were brought in to suppress the Barkindji. One technique used was to forcibly move the people to government missions at Menindee, Lake Cargelligo and Ivanhoe.
The first settler in Menindee was Tom Pain who arrived in 1852 with his family. He opened the Menindee Hotel in 1853. Now known as Maiden’s Menindee Hotel, it is considered the second-oldest hotel still in continuous operation in New South Wales. From 1896 to 1979 it was owned by the Maiden family. Menindee is also the oldest town on the Darling and the oldest town in western New South Wales.
The Central Darling was officially surveyed and opened for tender in 1855. That year the explorer John McKinlay took up several properties, including ‘Menindel’ which was one of the first small frontage blocks along the Darling. This station later became Kinchega.
In 1856 Captain Francis Cadell established a store near the hotel at Menindee.
When settlers realised that the Darling River was navigable (and they could bring goods in and send produce out) they began to settle the area.
In October, 1860 Burke and Wills reached Kinchega station on their expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria. They stayed at the Menindee Hotel.
Dost Mahomet, one of Burke and Wills’s Afghan camel drivers settled in Menindee. He worked in the bakery of William Ah Chung. His grave is located about 1 km out of town on the road towards Broken Hill.
A post office opened in 1861 and the settlement was officially named ‘Perry’.
The locals objected to Perry and in 1863 the town’s name was changed to Menindie. Growth was initially slow but with the help of the steamers Menindee became an important river port and telegraph station. The boats were quicker and much cheaper than bullock trains although in drought periods the water level would sometimes fall so low the waterways became unnavigable.
When gold was found to the north in the late 1870s and 1880s, labourers and station workers along the Darling left their jobs. This resulted in Wilcannia becoming the main river port in the region.
Ah Chung’s bakehouse was built around 1880 and is still standing in Menindee Street.
By 1894 there were plans to establish a water storage scheme in the area.
In 1918 the town’s name was changed from Menindie to Menindee.
Between 1949 and 1960 water storage was developed around Menindee. It now has a storage capacity of 1,794,000 megalitres, 3.5 times the volume of Sydney Harbour. The scheme provides regulated flows of water for irrigation and a pipeline runs from Menindee to Broken Hill providing the city with a regular supply of water.
In 1999 the historic Maidens Menindee Hotel burnt down. It has been replaced by a modern building.