Mitchell, whose name both as explorer and Surveyor-General looms large in our history, was born at Craigend, Stirlingshire, in 1792. He was the son of John Mitchell of Grangemouth, and his mother was a daughter of Alexander Milne of Carron Works. When he was but sixteen, young Mitchell joined the army of the Peninsula as a volunteer. Three years later he received a commission in the 95th Regiment or Rifle Brigade. He was employed on the Quartermaster General's staff at military sketching; and he was present in the field at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, the Pyrenees, and St. Sebastian. After the close of the war he went to Spain and Portugal to survey the battlefields. He received promotion to a Lieutenancy in 1813. He served in the 2nd, 54th, and 97th Regiments of foot, and was promoted to be Captain in 1822, and Major in 1826. His appointment as Surveyor-General of New South Wales, as successor to John Oxley, took place in 1827, when he at once assumed office, and started energetically to lay out and construct roads, then the urgent need of the new colony.

His strong personality, and the energy and thoroughness he displayed in all his undertakings, combined with his many gifts as draughtsman, surveyor and organizer, proved to be of peculiar service to the colony at that period of its existence. There was a vast unknown country surrounding the settled parts, awaiting both discovery and development, and Mitchell's inclinations and talents being strongly directed towards geographical discovery, the office of Surveyor-General that he held for so long was the most appropriate and advantageous appointment that could have been given him in the interests of the colony.

At the same time, Major Mitchell had faults which have always detracted from the estimation in which he would otherwise be held for his undoubted capabilities. His domineering temper led him into acts of injustice, and often made it impossible for him to allow the judgments of others to influence his opinions. In his view, no other explorer but himself ever achieved anything worthy of commendation or propounded any credible theory regarding the interior of Australia. He always referred slightingly to Sturt, Cunningham, and Leichhardt, and his perversity on the subject of the junction of the Darling and the Murray drew even from the gentle Sturt a richly-deserved and unanswerable retort. On his second expedition, which was supposed to establish the identity of the Darling with the junction seen by Sturt, Mitchell excused himself from further exploration of the lower Darling as he expressed himself satisfied that Sturt's supposition was justified. But later, when on his expedition to what is now the State of Victoria, he again fell into a doubting mood, and he was not finally convinced until he had re-visited the junction. This constant doubting at last roused Sturt, who speaking in 1848 of Mitchell's work, said: "In due time he came to the disputed junction which he tells us he recognised from its resemblance to a drawing of it in my first work. As I have since been on the spot, I am sorry to say that it is not at all like the place, because it obliges me to reject the only praise Sir Thomas Mitchell ever gave me."

Sturt's original sketch of the junction had been lost, and Sturt, who was nearly blind at the time of publication, obtained the assistance of a friend, who drew it from his verbal description.


Rumours of a mysterious river called the Kindur, which was said, on no better authority than a runaway convict's, to pursue a north-west course through Australia, now began to be noised about. This convict, whose name was Clarke, but who was generally known as the Barber, said that he had taken to the bush in the neighbourhood of the Liverpool Plains, and had followed down a river which the natives called the Gnamoi. He crossed it and came next to the Kindur. This he followed down for four hundred miles before he came upon the junction of the two. The union of the two formed a broad navigable river, which he still followed, although he had lost his reckoning, and did not know whether he had travelled five hundred or five thousand miles. One thing, however, he was convinced of, and that was that he had never travelled south of west. He asserted that he had a good view of the sea, from the mouth of this most desirable river, and had seen a large island from which, so the natives reported, there came copper-coloured men in large canoes to take away scented wood. The Kindur ran through immense plains, and past a burning mountain. As no one had invited him to stay in this delectable country, he had returned.

The story, which bore every evidence of having been invented to save his back, received a certain amount of credence, and Sir Patrick Lindesay, then Acting-Governor, gave the Surveyor-General instructions to investigate the truth of it. It was in this way that Mitchell's first expedition originated.

On the 21st of November, 1831, Mitchell left Liverpool Plains and reached the Namoi on the 16th December. He crossed it and penetrated some distance into a range which he named the Nundawar Range. He then turned back to the Namoi, and set up some canvas boats which he had brought to assist him in following the river down. The boats were of no use for the purpose, one of them getting snagged immediately, and it was clear that it would be easier to follow the river on land. As the range was not easy of ascent, he worked his way round the end of it and came on to the lower course of Cunningham's Gwydir, which he followed down for eighty miles. At this point he turned north and suddenly came to the largest river he had yet seen. Mitchell, ever on the alert to bestow native names on geographical features - a most praiseworthy trait in his character, and through the absence of which in most other explorers, Australian nomenclature lacks distinction and often euphony - enquired of the name from the natives, and found it to be called the Karaula. Was this, or was this not the nebulous Kindur? The answer could be supplied only by tracing its course; but its general direction and the discovery and recognition of its junction with the Gwydir showed that the Karaula was but the upper flow of Sturt's Darling. Much disappointed, for Mitchell was intent upon the discovery of a new river system having a northerly outflow, he prepared to make a bold push into the interior. Before he started, Finch, his assistant-surveyor arrived hurriedly on the scene with a tale of death. Finch had been bringing up supplies, and during his temporary absence his camp had been attacked by the natives, the cattle dispersed, the supplies carried off, and two of the teamsters murdered. All ideas of further penetration into the new country had to be abandoned. Mitchell was compelled to hasten back, bury the bodies of the victims, and after an ineffective quest for the murderers, return to the settled districts.

The journey, however, had not been without good results. Knowledge of the Darling had been considerably extended, and it was now shown to be the stream receiving the outflow of the rivers whose higher courses Cunningham had discovered. The beginning of the great river system of the Darling may be said to have been thus placed among proven data. Mitchell himself afterwards showed himself an untiring and zealous worker in solving the identity of the many ramifications of this system.


His next journey was undertaken to confirm the fact of the union of the Darling and the Murray. Sturt himself was fully convinced that he had seen the junction of the two rivers when on his long boat voyage; but he had not converted every one, and Mitchell, with a large party was despatched to settle the question and make a systematic survey. Early in March, 1833, the expedition left Parramatta to proceed by easy stages to the head of the Bogan River, which had been partly traversed the year before by surveyor Dixon. It was during this expedition that Richard Cunningham, brother of Allan, was murdered by the natives. He had not been long in Australia, and had been appointed botanist to the expedition. On the morning of April 17th, he lost sight of the party, whilst pursuing some scientific quest, and as the main body were then pushing hurriedly over a dry stage to the Bogan River, he was not immediately missed. Not having any bush experience, he lost himself, and was never seen again. A long and painful search followed, but owing to some mischance, Cunningham's tracks were lost on the third day, and it was not until the 23rd of the month that they were again found. Larmer, the assistant-surveyor, and three men were sent to follow them up until they found the lost man. Three days later they returned, having come across only the horse he had ridden, dead, with the saddle and bridle still on. Mitchell personally conducted the further search. Cunningham's tracks were again picked up, and his wandering and erratic footsteps traced to the Bogan, where some blacks stated that they had seen the white man's tracks in the bed of the river, and that he had gone west with the Myalls, or wild blacks.*

*[Footnote.] Lieutenant Zouch, of the Mounted Police, subsequently found the site of his death, and recovered a few bones, a Manilla hat, and portions of a coat. The account afterwards given by the natives was to the effect that the white man came to them and they gave him food, and he camped with them: but that during the night he repeatedly got up, and this roused their fears and suspicions, so that they determined to destroy him. One struck him on the back of the head with a nulla-nulla, when the others rushed in and finished the deadly work.

As is often the case with men lost in the bush, the unfortunate botanist, by wandering on confusing and contradictory courses, had rendered the work of the search party more tedious and difficult, thus sealing his own fate. A rude stone memorial has since been erected on the spot, and a tablet put up in the St. Andrew's Scots Church, Sydney. The death of Cunningham, who was a young and ardent man with the promise of a brilliant future caused Mitchell much distress of mind. He did all he could to find his lost comrade, and jeopardised the success of the expedition by the long delay of fourteen days.

He resumed his journey by easy stages down the Bogan, and on the 25th of May came to the Darling. This river was at once recognised by all who had been with him on his former trip as identical with the Karaula as Mitchell had supposed; but he found the country in a different condition from that presented by it when Sturt and Hume first discovered the river at nearly the same place. The water was now fresh and sweet to drink, and the flats and banks luxuriant with grass and herbage.

After choosing a site for a camp, where the town of Bourke now stands, Mitchell erected a stockade of logs, which he named Fort Bourke, after the Governor. The country on either side of the Darling was now alive with natives, and though a sort of armed truce was kept up, it was at the cost of constant care and watchfulness, and the tactful submission to numerous annoyances, including much petty pilfering. The boats proved to be of no service, and after Mitchell with a small party had made a short excursion down the river to the farthest limit of Sturt and Hume in 1829, where he saw the tree then marked by Hume, H.H., he had the camp dismantled, and started with the whole party to follow the river down to its junction with the Murray.

By the 11th of July, one month after leaving Fort Bourke, they had traced the river for three hundred miles through a country of level monotony unbroken by any tributary rivers or creeks of the least importance. Mitchell was now certain from the steadfast direction the river maintained, and the short distance that now intervened between the lowest point they had reached and Sturt's junction, that Sturt had really been correct in his surmise, and that he had witnessed the meeting of the rivers on that memorable occasion. He therefore decided that to keep on was but needlessly endangering the lives of his men. He was constantly kept in a state of anxiety for the safety of any member of the party whose duty compelled him to separate from the main body, for the natives, who had become doubly bold through familiarity, were now persistently encroaching and rapidly assuming a defiant manner.

On the very day that Mitchell had made up his mind to retreat, the long threatened rupture took place. Mitchell refers to the blacks of this region as the most unfavourable specimens of aborigine that he had yet seen, barbarously and implacably hostile, and shamelessly dishonest. On the morning of July 11th, two of the men were engaged at the river, and five of the bullock-drivers were collecting their cattle. One of the natives, nick-named King Peter by the men, tried to snatch a kettle from the hand of the man who was carrying it, and on this action being resented, he struck the man with a nulla-nulla, stretching him senseless. His companion shot King Peter in the groin, and his majesty tumbled into the river and swam across. The swarm of natives who were constantly loitering around the camp gathered together and advanced in an armed crowd, threatening the men, who fired two shots in self-defence, one of which accidentally wounded a woman. Alarmed by the shots, three men from the camp came to the assistance of their mates, and one native was shot just when he was about to spear a man. The blacks now drew back a little, and the men seized the opportunity to warn the bullock-drivers, whom they found occupied in lifting a bullock that had fallen into a bog. Their arrival probably saved their lives, as the bullock drivers were unarmed. No further attack took place, but the strictest watch had to be kept until the party was ready to begin the return journey or to beat a retreat as the natives regarded it. They reached Fort Bourke without further molestation, the aborigines being content with having driven away the whites, who retraced their steps from Fort Bourke to Bathurst.

The geographical knowledge gained on this journey consisted mainly in the confirmation of tentative theories - the identity of the Karaula with the Darling, and the uninterrupted course of the latter river southwards, as Major Mitchell himself had to confess, into the Murray. Furthermore it seemed now satisfactorily settled that all the inland rivers as yet discovered found the same common embouchure. Mitchell's experience too proved that the pastoral country through which the Darling ran was by no means unfit for habitation, nor was the river a salt one; true some of his men had noticed that the water was brackish in places, but this brackishness, it was seen, had a purely local origin.

Mitchell was a keen observer of the habits and customs of the aborigines. He was remarkably quick at detecting tribal differences and distinctions, and his records of his intercourse with them - which occupies so much of his journals - were most interesting then, when little had been written on the subject; and are even more valuable now, as a first-hand account by an intelligent man and a practised observer of the appearance of the natives at the time of earliest contact with the white man.


One would have thought that the fact of the union of the Darling and the Murray was now sufficiently well-established; but the official mind deemed otherwise. When the Surveyor-General's next expedition started in March, 1836, he was informed that the survey of the Darling was to be completed without any delay; that, having returned to the point where his last journey had come to an end, he was to trace the river right into the Murray - see the waters of the two mingle in fact - then to cross over the Murray and follow up the southern bank, recrossing, and regaining the settled districts at Yass Plains. Although the primary object of the expedition was the verification of previous discoveries, the programme was largely departed from, and this particular journey of Mitchell's led to the opening up and speedy settlement of what is now the State of Victoria.

A drought, long-continued and severe, was in full force when Mitchell commenced his preparations for departure; consequently bullocks and horses in suitable condition were hard to obtain. But as the Government spared no expense, the necessary animals were at last available. Though upon reaching Bathurst Mitchell was informed that the Lachlan River was dry, he started on his third exploring expedition in the best of spirits. His mind overflowed with old memories and associations, and he wrote in his journal that this was the anniversary of the day "when he marched down the glacis of St. Elvas to the tune of St. Patrick's Day in the Morning, as the sun rose over the beleaguered towers of Badajoz." He had heard that the aborigines of the lower Murray had been informed of his approach, and that they had assured the other tribes that they were gathering murry coolah - very angry - to meet him, but this to one of the Major's temper, lent but an added zest to the journey; for there were old scores to settle on both sides. It was the 17th of March, 1836, before he got free of the cattle stations and found himself at the point where Oxley had finally left the river. He noticed that throughout this route, in spite of the dry weather, the cattle were all in good condition; and he found Oxley's swamps and marshes transmuted into grassy flats. In fact, so changed was the face of the land, that even the landmarks of that explorer could scarcely be recognised.

Again his mind began to be troubled with doubts as to whether he had not acknowledged the veracity of Sturt's judgment too hastily, for we find in his journal that he again wavered, after professing that the identity admitted of little doubt. Now, on the Lachlan, he reverted to his old idea that the Darling drained a separate and independent basin of its own. He wrote: -

"I considered it necessary to ascertain, if possible, and before the heavy part of our equipage moved further forward, whether the Lachlan actually joined the Murrumbidgee near the point where Mr. Oxley saw its waters covering the face of the country, or whether it pursued a course so much more to the westward as to have been mistaken for the Darling by Captain Sturt."

Impelled by this doubt he undertook a long excursion to the westward with no result but the discomfort of several thirsty nights and an unchanging outlook across a level expanse of country bounded by an unbroken horizon. He reached Oxley's furthest on the 5th of May, but did not find that explorer's marked tree, though he found others marked by Oxley's party with the date 1817.

On the 12th of May, he halted on the bank of the Murrumbidgee, which in his opinion surpassed all the other Australian rivers he had yet seen. As his orders were simply to clear up the last hazy doubts that wrapped the Murray and Darling junction, and then to visit the southern bank of the Murray, he did not take his heavy baggage on to the Darling, but formed a stationary camp on the Murrumbidgee, and thence went on with a small party. When they came to the Murray, they found their old enemies awatch for them. It was afterwards ascertained that many of these aborigines had travelled as far as two hundred miles to assist in chasing back the white intruders once more from their violated hunting-grounds. But these braves of the Darling did not yet understand the nature of the man they sought to intimidate.

At first a nominal peace prevailed, and for two days the blacks followed the expedition closely, seeking to cut off any stragglers, and rendered the out-roving work of minding and collecting the cattle and horses one of considerable risk. Mitchell was soon convinced that a sharp lesson was necessary to save his men. In the event of losing any of his party, he would have had to fight his way back with the warriors of what seemed a thickly-populated district arrayed against him. One morning, therefore, the party was divided, and half of them sent back to an ambush in the scrub. The natives were allowed to pass on in close pursuit of the advance party. The native dogs, however, scented this ambuscade, and, after their fashion, warned the blacks of the presence of the hidden whites. As they halted, and began handling and poising their spears, one of the ambushed men fired without orders, and the others followed his example. The natives faltered, and those in advance, hearing the firing, rushed back eager to join in the fray. The conflict was short and decisive; the over-confident fighting men of the Darling lost seven of their number and were driven ignominiously back into the Murray scrub and across that river. Henceforth the explorers were unmolested. These pugnacious aboriginals were the same that had threatened to bring Sturt's boat voyage to a tragical conclusion, and soon after Mitchell's exploration, they waged a determined war against the early overlanders and their stock.

Mitchell's way to the Darling was now clear, and on the 31st of May he came upon that river, a short distance above the confluence. Tracing the stream upwards, he again convinced himself that it was the same river that he had been on before, and, satisfied of this, he turned and proceeded right down to the junction itself, and finally disposed of one of the most interesting problems in Australian exploration.

He naturally felt much anxiety, after his late skirmish, for the safety of the stationary camp he had left behind, and having lost no time during his return, he was relieved to find his camp in quiet and safety.

The Surveyor-General first mapped the exact junction of the Murrumbidgee and Murray, and then transferred the whole of the expedition in boats to the other side of the Murray. Thus was commenced the investigation of the unexplored side of the Murray, that above its junction with the Murrumbidgee, in other words the Hume proper. On the 30th of June the party camped at Swan Hill, having found the country traversed to exceed expectations in every way. This pleasing state of affairs continued and Mitchell journeyed on without check or hindrance. After finding the Loddon River on the 8th of July, and the Avoca on the 10th, he altered his preconceived plan to follow the main river up, and, drawn by the beauty and pastoral advantages of this new territory, he struck off to the south-west in order to examine it in detail, and trace its development southwards.

More and more convinced that he had found the garden of Australia - he afterwards named this region Australia Felix - Mitchell kept steadily on until he came to the Wimmera, that deceptive river which afterwards nearly lured Eyre to a death of thirst. On the last day of July he discovered the beautiful Glenelg, and launched his boat on its waters. At the outset he was stopped by a fall, was compelled to take to the land once more, and proceeded along the bank, occasionally crossing to examine the other side. On the 18th the boats were again used, the river being much broader, and in two days he reached the coast, a little to the east of Cape Northumberland.

The whole expedition then moved homewards, and reached Portland Bay, where they found that the Henty family from Van Diemen's Land had been established on a farm for about two years. From them Mitchell received some assistance in the way of necessary supplies, and then resumed his journey for home. On the 19th the party separated; Mitchell pushed ahead, leaving Stapylton, his second, to rest the tired animals for a while and then to follow slowly. On his homeward way Mitchell ascended Mount Macedon, and from the summit saw and identified Port Phillip. His return, with his glowing report of the splendid country he had discovered - country fitted for the immediate occupation of the grazier and the farmer - at once stimulated its settlement, and as the man whose explorations were of immediate benefit to the community in general - Mitchell's name stands first on the roll of explorers.


Some years elapsed before Mitchell - now Sir Thomas - again took to the field of active exploration. The settlement of the upper Darling and the Darling Downs had caused numerous speculations as to the nature of the unknown territory comprising the northern half of Australia. In 1841, communications had passed between the Governor and Captain Sturt, and in December of the same year Eyre, not long returned from his march round the Great Bight, wrote offering his services, provided that no prior claim had been advanced by Sturt. Governor Gipps asked for an estimate of the expenses, but considered Eyre's estimate of five thousand pounds too high, and nothing further was done. In 1843, Sir Thomas Mitchell submitted a plan of exploration to the Governor, who consulted the Legislative Council. The Council approved it and voted one thousand pounds towards expenses. The Governor referred the matter to Lord Stanley, whose reply was favourable, but the project still hung fire. In 1844 Eyre again wrote offering to make the journey at a much more reasonable rate, but his offer was however declined as Mitchell's proposals held the field. In 1845 the fund was increased to two thousand pounds, and Sir George Gipps ordered the Surveyor-General to make his preparations.

Mitchell favoured the search for a practicable road to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and hoped also that he would at last find his long-sought northern-flowing river. In a letter which he then received from a well-known grazier, Walter Bagot, there is mention of an aboriginal description of a large river running northward to the west of the Darling. But as natives in their descriptions frequently confuse flowing to and flowing from, they probably had Cooper's Creek in mind.

During the earlier part of the year, Commissioner Mitchell, the son of Sir Thomas, who was afterwards drowned during a passage to Newcastle, had made a flying survey towards the Darling, and the discovery of the Narran, Balonne, and Culgoa rivers has been attributed to him.

On the 15th of December, 1845, Mitchell started from Buree with a very large company, including E.B. Kennedy as second in command, and W. Stephenson as surgeon and collector. He struck the Darling much higher than Fort Bourke, and it was not until he was across the river that he passed the outermost cattle-stations, which had sprung rapidly into existence since his last visit to the neighbourhood. The Narran was then followed up until the Balonne was reached. This river, in his superlative style, Mitchell pronounced to be the finest in Australia, with the exception of the Murray. He then struck and followed the Culgoa upwards until it divided into two branches; he skirted the main one, which retained the name of the Balonne. On the 12th of April he came to the natural bridge of rocks which he called St. George's bridge, and which is the site of the present town of St. George. Here a temporary camp was formed; Kennedy was left in charge to bring the main body on more slowly; Mitchell with a few men went ahead. He followed up the Balonne to the Maranoa, but as the little he saw of that tributary did not tempt him to further investigation of it, he kept on his course up the main stream until he reached the junction of a stream which he named the Cogoon. This riverlet led him on into a magnificent pastoral district, in the midst of which stood a solitary hill that he named Mount Abundance. It is in his description of this region in his journal that we first find an allusion to the bottle tree.

The party wandered on over a low watershed and came down out on to a river which, from its direction and position, he surmised to be the Maranoa, the stream he had not followed. At this new point it was full of deep reaches of water, and drained a tract of most pleasing land. On its banks he determined to await Kennedy's arrival.

Kennedy overtook him on the 1st of June, bringing from Sir Thomas's son Roderick despatches which had reached the party after the leader's departure. Amongst other items of news in the despatches was the report of Leichhardt's return, and of the hearty reception that he had been accorded in Sydney. One piece of random information, a mere floating newspaper surmise, but enough to arouse Mitchell's suspicious temper, annoyed him greatly. "We understand," it ran, "the intrepid Dr. Leichhardt is about to start another expedition to the Gulf, keeping to the westward of the coast ranges."

As this seemed to indicate an intention of trespassing on Mitchell's present field of operations, he naturally felt some resentment not likely to be allayed by such a paragraph as the following: "Australia Felix and the discoveries of Sir Thomas Mitchell now dwindle into comparative insignificance."

Again leaving Kennedy, he set out to make a very extended excursion. Traversing the country from the head of the Maranoa, he discovered the Warrego River. Keeping north, over the watershed, for a time he fondly imagined that he had reached northward-flowing waters; but the direction of the rivers that he found, the Claude and the Nogoa, soon convinced him of his error, and that he was on rivers of the east coast. Even when he had reached the Belyando, a river which he named and followed down for a short distance, he still deluded himself that he had reached inland waters. Intensely mortified at finding that he was on a tributary of the Burdekin, and approaching the ground already trodden by Leichhardt, he returned to the head of the Nogoa, once more subdivided his party, and formed a stationary camp to await his return from a westward trip.

This time, however, he was blessed with the most splendid success. He found the Barcoo, a river that seemed to him to promise all he sought for. The direction of its upper course easily led him to believe that it was an affluent of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and after tracing it for some distance he returned to camp. The newly-discovered river he named the Victoria, thinking it would prove to be the same as that found by Captain Stokes on his survey expedition. It was on the Barcoo, or Victoria, that Mitchell first noticed the now famous grass that bears his name. On their return journey, they followed down the Maranoa, and at the old camp at St. George's Bridge, they were told by the natives that white men had visited the place during their long absence. It was a singular and welcome feature of Mitchell's discoveries that they had always proved to be adjacent to civilisation, and to be suitable for immediate occupation.

The discovery of the Barcoo was the last feather in the cap of the Surveyor-General. He was doomed to learn soon that it was not the river of his dreams, but only the head waters of that central stream discovered by Sturt, Cooper's Creek; but meanwhile the delusion must have been very gratifying.

In 1851 Mitchell was sent out to report on the Bathurst goldfields, and on a subsequent visit to England he took with him the first specimen of gold and the first diamond found in Australia. He was for a short time one of the members for the Port Phillip electorate, but resigned, as he found faithful discharge of the duties to be incompatible with his office. He patented the boomerang screw propeller, and was the author of many educational and other works, including a translation of the Lusiad of Camoens. Although a strict martinet in his official duties, and subject to a choleric temper, he was strenuous in his devotion to the advancement of Australia, among whose makers he must always occupy a proud position. He died on the 5th of October, 1855, at Carthona, his private residence at Darling Point, Sydney, New South Wales. His wife was a daughter of Colonel Blount.