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Australian History: Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell

Thomas Mitchell

Major Thomas Mitchell was a very talented man. Aside from being a major in the army he was a naturalist, a draughtsman and surveyor, a scholar and an explorer. But he was known to be blunt and quick tempered and was often hard to get along with. In 1827, Governor Darling decided to choose Charles Sturt over Mitchell to lead an expedition to investigate the western rivers of New South Wales. Mitchell could not contain his anger and referred to Sturt as an ‘amateur traveller’. Their relationship of dislike continued throughout the 1830s.

Mitchell’s first expedition was set out to verify claims made by an escaped convict who told stories of a great river which flowed to the sea at the north of Australia. Mitchell encountered the Barwon River and followed it thinking this was the great river stream, only to find that it flowed into another river – the Darling, which Sturt had already discovered.

In 1835 Mitchell led another expedition from Orange this time to prove that the Darling flowed northward and not, as Sturt believed, into the Murray. The party set up a stockade serving as a base camp at the banks of the Darling which they called Fort Bourke after the governor. They followed the Darling down to a point where Menindee now stands. Here they clashed with Aboriginals with two Aboriginals shot. As there was no sign that the Darling was about to change direction and flow north and Mitchell decided to return home.

In 1836 Mitchell went out again this time with 27 armed men in case of any attacks from Aboriginals.  They followed Lachlan River and found that it joined with the Murrumbidgee and a little bit further it joined the Murray River. The following day he encountered a large group of Aboriginals which he recognised as the same group that attacked him the previous year. He planned an ambush and attacked them and gave the name of the hill at the attack, Mount Dispersion.

Soon after the party left and followed the Murray River southwards, where they reached a lagoon near where the Loddon River joins the Murray and named it Swan Hill for the abundance of ‘swans and other wild fowl’. He then climbed a mountain and in the region and named it Mount Hope. Looking to the south-west he was so impressed with the countryside that he decided to venture into it. They reached a mountain range which Mitchell named the Grampians after a range in his native Scotland.

They then reached Portland Bay in south-western Victoria where they found a docked ship and a number of wooden houses. It turned out that the Henty brothers had come from Tasmania to set up a farming enterprise. They entertained Mitchell and gave him supplies for his return journey.