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Early explorers – surveying an ancient land

With the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales in 1788 at Sydney, it quickly became apparent that the Colony needed to find suitable land and soils if the new Colony was to support itself.

Surveying party at work

Owen Stanley (comp), unsigned, Surveying party at work, watercolour. Voyage of the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, 1846-1849. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW: a487085.

In the first decades, farms were established at Parramatta. Later, explorers, most of whom were professional surveyors, were sent or volunteered to travel north and south along the coast, and west into the inland to find sources of fresh water, sites for other settlements and suitable land for grazing sheep and farming.

Under instructions from the Governor of New South Wales and working for the Surveyor General, professionally trained surveyors methodically measured and mapped key geographic features, identifying their suitability for settlement and communication routes. These early surveyors were required to use their skills first in the subdivision of land for sale and the laying out of towns, and later for building roads, bridges, and railways. Early surveyors faced many challenges in a new and unknown land. It was difficult to make accurate measurements using the technology of the day (chains and steel bands).

The discovery of rich grazing or agricultural lands was achieved by surveyors Evans and Oxley in New England (1818), and Thomas Mitchell in 'Australia Felix', or Victoria (1835–36).

Crossing the Blue Mountains was a great challenge, and many attempts were made by convicts and adventurers from 1790. The mountains' sandstone labyrinth seemed to go on forever and they seemed impenetrable. After a number of attempts, Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson (who trained as a surveyor) found their way through in 1813.

Southern New South Wales – Bundle, Surveyor George Evans and Charles Throsby, 1812–1818

In March 1812, the Colonial Surveyor George William Evans was sent to explore Jervis Bay, to determine a possible inland route back to Port Jackson. Bundle, an Eora man who ranged from Port Jackson to Parramatta in the company of Tedbury, the son of Pemulwuy, was renowned for his tracking skills. Bundle was with Evans on board the Lady Nelson. Although the expedition almost ended in disaster for the members of the exploration party, it resulted in the settlement of the Illawarra area in the drought years that followed.

View of Shoalhaven River

View of Shoalhaven River (NSW), black and white photograph. Image courtesy of the State Records Authority of New South Wales : 12932-a012-a012X2442000080.

In 1818, Bundle, with another Aboriginal named 'Broughton', accompanied Charles Throsby on his exploratory expedition into the southern region. Bundle acted as interpreter between Throsby and the Gundungurra people. In 1822 Bundle (now spelt 'Bundal') was a constable at Narellan and received half a pound of tobacco per month as his pay. Later, in 1825, James and William Macarthur tried, unsuccessfully, to have Bundal (and another young Aborigine named 'Johnny') appointed as constables on the Camden side of the Nepean (on full pay and rations). Bundal assisted the authorities in the capture of thieves and runaway convicts, and in 1826 he was given a blanket as a reward for his services. By 1838 he had been given a brass plate as his badge of office, and he was the last individual to be nominated as 'chief'.

Travelling west over the Blue Mountains – Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, 1813

The Blue Mountains Pioneers

Unknown, The Blue Mountains Pioneers (Detail), Sydney Mail Christmas Supplement, 1880, Engraving. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

As explorers attempted to travel west into the inland, they were met with huge mountains, cliff faces and deep valleys. This part of the Great Dividing Range is known as the Blue Mountains, and for many years they were feared as impassable as no way through them could be found.

In 1813, three men – Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth, who owned land near Sydney, were keen to find new areas for their sheep to graze. Despite the failures of other explorers, they decided to try and find a way through the mountains to see if there was good pastoral land beyond. Lawson was a trained surveyor and was invited to join the group by Blaxland. Lawson's survey journal was to prove the most useful guide, giving precise survey notations for others to retrace the route.

The expedition included a lone Aboriginal guide, three convicts, as well as horses. Their method was to travel with the guide and one convict navigating their way through, marking trees to be cleared on the way back to camp, allowing the horses and supplies to follow them the next day. This ensured that there would be no difficulty in making a road.

Led by Blaxland, they found a passage to the Western Plains, beyond the range, by following the top of a ridge. This route was based on earlier observations and explorations of the main ridge by George Caley, Francis Barrallier and John Wilson.

Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth arrived at Blaxland to see a vast expanse of bush and grassland beyond the mountains—excellent for farming. Governor Macquarie instructed George Evans to follow Lawson's clearly-marked route. Soon after, William Cox and a team of convicts built a road in less than six months. Settlers began populating the area, bringing their livestock to graze on the open plains.

In 1813, George Evans reached the Macquarie River, beyond Bathurst (and actually being the first to reach the other side of the Great Dividing Range). Rewarded for the significance of this find by Governor Macquarie, he was later recalled to explore further from Bathurst. This time he reached the Lachlan River, south of Cowra.

Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Ernest Revell, Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, New South Wales, c. 1930s. Image courtesy of Helen Wells.

However, Aborigines had inhabited the Blue Mountains area for at least 40,000 years before Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth found the track through the mountain range. Evidence of their early occupation is visible today throughout the Blue Mountains area with many camp sites, axe grinding grooves, rock engravings, other art sites and stone tools evident. Today, all these relics are preserved and are under protection.

The name of the well known rock formation The Three Sisters , recognises its significance as a site to the Gundungurra people as part of their Seven Sisters Dreaming story that tells of a witchdoctor who turned three sisters into stone in order to protect them during a tribal battle.

A way through in Queensland and Victoria, 1816

CunninghamP. Justine, Cunningham's Gap, Queensland, 1866, wood engraving. Explorers can be seen in the foreground. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: IAN20/01/66/12.

Other explorers, such as Hume and Hovell, Major Mitchell (the Surveyor-General of New South Wales), Paul Strzelecki, John Oxley and Allan Cunningham all explored the mountains and regions beyond the Great Dividing Range. Allan Cunningham joined John Oxley's expedition to the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers in 1817.

Cunningham, a botanist and explorer, found a way through the Range. Sent by Joseph Banks to New South Wales in 1816 to collect plants, Cunningham originally travelled inland from the Hunter River, in New South Wales north to the flat grazing lands of the Darling Downs, which he named. He was trying to find a route through to Moreton Bay but the mountain ranges were too steep, his party were running out of supplies and his animals were getting too weak.

Cunningham returned to Sydney and decided to explore inland from Moreton Bay the year after, in 1828. He then found a way through the mountains, which is now called Cunningham's Gap. This opened up a 'road' for many settlers to travel to the Darling Downs with their flocks and herds, although the way was very rugged.

Many places within the Great Dividing Range are considered sacred sites by Aboriginal people. For example, the rocky outcrop we know as Mount Warning, located near Murwillumbah in north-eastern New South Wales, was known as Wollumbin by the Bundjalung people. The Bundjalung Dreamtime story of Wollumbin, tells us he is the Warrior Chief of the mountain.

The Bundjalung people believe the spirits of the mountains were warriors and the wounds they received in battle can be seen as scars on the side of the mountain. They say thunder and lightning are the effects of their battles. When you look toward Wollumbin from the north, you can see the face of the Warrior Chief in the mountain's outline.

John Oxley's 1817 and 1818 expeditions

Portrait of John Oxley

Unknown, Portrait of John Oxley, 1783-1828, photograph. Image courtesy of the State Library of Queensland: 1330.

After George Evans discovered the Lachlan River in 1815 (under instructions from Governor Macquarie), the Surveyor-General Oxley successfully surveyed and described the country by following the Lachlan River and across to and down the Macquarie River. Oxley then proceeded north-east, discovering the Castlereagh River, finding the rich Liverpool Plains, and followed the Hastings River to its estuary at Port Macquarie. Oxley was accompanied by a botanist, mineralogist, boat builder, boatman, smith, chainman to surveyors and for his second expedition, a huntsman and three labourers.

John Oxley's expeditions resulted in the immediate take up of land on the Liverpool Plains and paved the way for the later expeditions of Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell. Oxley's early death in 1828 was said to have been affected by his constitution having 'been materially injured by the privations which he suffered during the Several Expeditions on which he was employed in exploring the interior'.

South-eastern Australia – Hume and Hovell, 1824

Mount Macedon

Unknown, Mount Macedon, ca. 1911, postcard. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: H90.140/565.

Hamilton Hume, an experienced explorer, and William Hovell, a merchant seaman and accomplished navigator, undertook a journey south from Lake George to Port Phillip at the request of Governor Thomas Brisbane. During their expedition they became some of the first Europeans to see the Snowy Mountains.

With six servants and four months worth of supplies, they departed from Hume's station at Lake George on 17 October 1824. On 22 October they crossed the Murrumbidgee River and ventured into mountainous country. The rough country necessitated leaving their carts behind and loading everything on the bullocks - a better option than the horses in the rough terrain. Almost a month after their departure from Lake George, they had reached the Murray River (which they originally called the Hume River).

View on the Upper Mitta Mitta

George A. Appleton, View on the Upper Mitta Mitta [with Bogong Ranges in background], 1864, print : tinted lithograph. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: pb000407.

They then headed southwest and discovered and crossed the Ovens and Goulburn Rivers (originally named the Hovell River). They ventured past Mount Disappointment and Mount Macedon, crossed the Werribee River, and by 16 December 1824 set up camp at the present site of Geelong. Due to their longitude calculations being around 40 miles out, they actually thought they were at Western Port, not Port Phillip.

In the Bogong Ranges, part of the Great Dividing Range, traditional Indigenous life included annual migrations of thousands of Aboriginal people from the valleys and plains up to the cooler summer climate of the Range. Here they would camp, just below the tree line, and feast on cori, Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa).

Their three month expedition confirmed that the land between Sydney and Port Phillip was suitable for farming and grazing. The Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, described it as 'new and valuable country'.

Major Mitchell, Surveyor-General of NSW 1825–1855

On Oxley's death, Major Mitchell was appointed as the Surveyor-General of New South Wales in 1828, and from his arrival he did much to improve the quality of the survey of the colony. A year later he had responsibility for roads and bridges. Through his personal connections to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir George Murray, Mitchell was able to make considerable changes to the roads leading to Parramatta and Liverpool. By 1830, Mitchell had mapped a road south through Berrima to Goulburn, as well as discovering and constructing a descent from the Blue Mountains to Bathurst.

View in the Grampian Ranges

James Waltham Curtis (1839-1901), View in the Grampian Ranges, 1879, print : engraving. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria: mp004791.

Mitchell made a number of journeys into Australia's inland accompanied by the Aborigine John Piper. In the mid-1830s on a trip south west, into what is known today as the state of Victoria, Mitchell found grazing land richer than he had seen in New South Wales.

In 1835, Mitchell travelled west of Orange to a base at Boree Station, before heading north-west to the Bogan River. Mitchell then travelled down the Bogan to its junction with the Darling River, and then down the Darling to the vicinity of Menindie. A year later Mitchell was instructed to travel downstream from Menindie to confirm the junction of the Darling with the Murray. This time he left Boree Station for the Lachlan River until he reached its junction with the Murrumbidgee, and following that to the Murray. At Mount Dispersion, he met Aborigines whom he had fought previously on the Upper Darling. A fight ensued and seven Aborigines were killed.

Meeting of Major Mitchell and Edward Henty, Portland Bay

J. Macfarlane, Meeting of Major Mitchell and Edward Henty, Portland Bay, 1836, 1890 - 1899, photoengraving. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Despite orders to the contrary, Mitchell did not survey the last 132 miles (209 km) of the river to Menindie and instead turned back to the Murray River. At the junction with the Loddon River, Mitchell was so pleased with the pasture land around it, he named it 'Australia Felix' (later Victoria). The word felix is a latin word that means blessed or fortunate. Mitchell also named the Grampians Ranges – the western most tip of the Great Dividing Range. In August 1836, on arrival at Portland, on the lower Murray, near the Glenelg River, he was surprised to meet the Henty Brothers - already established.

The rapid occupation of Victoria followed, by people as well as from droving flocks from New South Wales, using the tracks Mitchell had cut.

In 1831, Mitchell explored and mapped the Namoi River from his base at Tamworth to Narrabri. By 1834 Mitchell had drawn a map of the colony divided into 19 counties with a description of their boundaries.

The Aborigine Piper, who accompanied Mitchell on his expeditions

The Aborigine Piper, who accompanied Mitchell on his expeditions. Lithograph by Fernyhough, Sydney, c. 1836. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: a1122021.

John Piper was an Aborigine of the Wiradjuri people who accompanied Major Mitchell on his explorations in Victoria, and on his nine-month-long survey of the rivers of the Murray-Darling system. His advice and expertise was recognised with the gift of an old firelock gun, blankets, Mitchell's red coat, and a cocked hat which once belonged to Governor Darling. Piper was represented in this outfit by several colonial artists.

Whilst publicly stating his conservative views, Mitchell took an enlightened view of selecting convicts and Aboriginal place names for geographical features. He also publicly stated that the surveyed land should be made available to small settlers as well as large landowners.

Mitchell's close relationship with the Aborigines he travelled with is in contrast with the ultimate impact of his expeditions, which was to encourage white settlement and further hasten dispossession.

On his return to Sydney, Mitchell's news started a land rush of people keen to settle these areas and benefit from its rich soil and open plains.

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Last updated: 20th April 2016

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