Mitchell passed twice through Dja Dja Wurrung country in Winter and Spring of 1836. This account focuses on the implications of Mitchell ‘discovering’ the highly productive, carefully created, and responsibly managed Dja Dja Wurrung grasslands, that he otherwise took to be empty and ripe for subsequent picking by European invaders.
NOTE: Much of my account was added on 24 September 2018 to my much longer and wider historical and autoethnographic narrative on the ‘Beyond Contact’ page.
Major Thomas Mitchell’s 1836 traverse across what is now inland Victoria is important as part of the wider historical narrative by virtue of being the first European to describe and give (mostly new European) names to most of the inland rivers and mountains of northern and Western Victoria, including those rivers already mapped, named and cultured by Dja Dja Wurrung peoples for around one thousand generations.
Mitchell’s diary, published in Three expeditions into the interior of Eastern Australia; with descriptions of the recently explored region of Australia Felix and the present Colony of New South Wales, records his 1836 overland expedition of ‘exploration’ from Sydney via the Murray River then south to Portland, returning via Western Victoria and present day north eastern Victoria.
While Mitchell made some notes about the local traditional owners he encountered, his main interest was in describing, naming and ‘opening up’ a country’ he regarded as essentially uninhabited. That said, his 25 man official party including his second in command, G. C. Staplyton carried a total of 36 firearms. The men were dressed in red woollen shirts and grey trousers crossed by white braces, ‘giving the men somewhat of a military appearance’ (p.2) as they set off, in Mitchell’s words, ‘to traverse unexplored regions, peopled, as far as we know, by hostile tribes’ (p.3).
The expedition anticipated using boats along and in order to cross some larger inland streams including the Murray and Darling Rivers, which they carried in a boat carriage. The several heavy wagons left their wheel ruts discernable for several decades after their expedition. The track the wagons followed was often already an Aboriginal highway, and the expedition’s track across Victorian’s northern plains quickly followed by squatters, sheep and cattle later became known as the ‘Major’s Line’.
Twice during this 1836 expedition Mitchell passed through Dja Dja Wurrung country, twice crossing the Loddon River. The first traverse and river crossing was in mid winter (late June and early July, 1836) whilst heading southwest between Pyramid Hill and the headwaters of the Richardson River. The second time the expedition crossed the Loddon River near present day Newstead in late September 1836, on router between Mount Cole and Mt Alexander as the expedition was heading back towards Sydney. Mitchell named what is now known as Mount Alexander (to the Dja Dja Wurrung, Leanganook) ‘Mount Byng’, though the name did not stick. Admiral John Byng, an English Royal Navy officer was court-martialed and shot dead by a firing squad in 1757.
Unlike Chief Protector of Aborigines, George Robinson, Mitchell not only took the country to be uninhabited but also prepared and predestined for European intrusion by a then unknown cause. Mitchell came close to identifying the then unknown explanation for such extensive areas of open grassland on what later became the heavily grazed and cultivated plains of northern and western Victoria when he wrote that:
On highest mountains and in places the most remote and desolate, I have always found every dead trunk and the ground and any living tree of any magnitude also, the marks of fire; and thus it appeared that these annual conflagrations extend to every place. (p.328)
What Mitchell described were grassland, woodland and forest ecosystems carefully and deliberately created and managed by thousands of years of regular and systematic Aboriginal burning to encourage and sustain their desired food plants and animals.
On 30 June 1836 Mitchell was towards the north end of Dja Dja Wurrung country when he climbed to the top of Pyramid Hill and described:… a land so inviting, and still without inhabitants! As I stood, the first European intruder on the sublime solitude of these verdant plains, as yet untouched by flocks or herds; I felt conscious of being the harbinger of mighty changes; and that our steps would soon be followed by the men and the animal for which it seemed to be prepared’ (p.159).
The ‘fine plain’ Mitchell and his wagons passed across the next day was covered with what both he and Robinson called anthisteria, now known as Themeda triandra, ‘Kangaroo’ or ‘Oat’ grass, also covered in places by what Mitchell recognised as banksia and casuarina, and what Robinson respectively called ‘honeysuckle’ and ‘oak’. By July 5 they passed a lofty hill Mitchell recorded as Barrabungale (likely present day Buckrabanyule, unbeknown to Mitchell the sacred home of the feared ancestral giant serpent, Mindi). By July 6 the party were on a river Mitchell named the Loddon, because ‘… of its resemblance in some respects to the little stream in England.’ On July 10 they crossed and named the Avoca River, and on 13 July crossed and named the Richardson River after his botanical collector, John Richardson, who had an unplanned swim when his horse slipped during the river crossing. By July 19 they has encountered another river they ascertained from the locals to be the Wimmera.
By late August 1836 the expedition had passed north of (and renamed) Gariwerd the Grampians, and travelled along the Glenelg River, launching their whaleboat to explore the wide and navigable lower parts of the river. They came onto the southern Australian coast downstream of present day Nelson close to the present day South Australian-Victorian border. On 29 August Mitchell’s party was ‘astonished’ when one of the expedition’s Aboriginal members (not listed but invaluable amongst the ‘official’ expeditioners) whom Mitchell called ‘Tommy Came-last’ came to him with the unexpected news of fresh cattle tracks, the ‘shoe marks of a white man’, ‘portions of tobacco pipes and a glass bottle without a neck’. Mitchell understood that whalers and sealers had for several decades made camp along the same stretch of coast on Portland Bay, but the presence of cattle tracks astounded him. In Mitchell’s words, ‘How cattle could have been brought here I did not understand’. At anchor in the bay they found the answer: ‘The Elizabeth of Launceston’ and on shore ‘a considerable farming establishment belonging to Messrs. Henty’ that had been in place for at least two years. Mitchell wrote that Henty ‘was ‘importing sheep and cattle as fast as vessels could be found to bring them over’ (p.241).
The return journey towards Sydney took the party south of the Grampians, and apart from Mitchell’s personal side trip to climb and name Mount Macedon, on a steady north-east bearing across the ‘open downs’ of the Western District volcanic plains. The expedition re entered Dja Dja Wurrung country as they crossed the Great Dividing Range between Mount Cole and Mount Greenock (close to present day Talbot), both of which Mitchell renamed. Mitchell’s wagons skirted the base of Mount Greenock and headed northeast towards the open volcanic plains north of present day Clunes towards present day Newstead on a compass bearing of 60.5 degrees. The intention was to head for ‘Mount Byng Pass’, effectively at the south end of Mount Alexander that had been in the expedition’s sights on the horizon for several days. The dozens of smooth, grassed, breast-like volcanic hills visible to the east of the summit of Mount Greenock Mitchell called the Mammeloid Hills. On 25 September 1836 as the party lumbered across this vast Aboriginal grassland, Mitchell wrote: ‘In travelling through this Eden, no road was necessary, not any ingenuity in conducting wheel carriages wherever we chose’ (pp.276-7).
As the party headed north-east onto the open grassy plains, Mitchell climbed a nearby ‘smooth round hill’, likely what later became known as Mount Cameron, to get the lay of the land and try and map the course of the many small northward flowing streams. Mitchell’s party:
… entered on a very level and extensive flat, exceedingly green and resembling an English park, bounded on the east by a small river flowing to the north-west (probably the Loddon) and abrupt but grassy slopes beyond its right bank.
Mitchell’s was correct in assuming it was the Loddon, the same river he had crossed around 100km north approximately three months earlier. Mitchell’s description on 28 September puts the party close to present day Newstead and heading through belts of forest and grassland towards present day Castlemaine. On 29 September the party found a route through the steep wooded ranges for their wagons, down onto the ‘more open granitic country at the foot of Mount Byng [Mount Alexander]’ near present day Chewton, naming it ‘Expedition-pass’. Mitchell was confident ‘that such a line of communication between the southern coast and Sydney, must, in the course of time, become a very considerable thoroughfare’.
At this point, at the foot of Mount Alexander, whilst waiting for repairs to the wagon carrying their boats, Mitchell resolved to take a side trip from his wagon train ‘to the lofty mountain mass which appeared about thirty miles to the southward’ (p.281). From this mountain, that Mitchell called Mount Macedon after Philip of Macedon in honour of the fact that he was able to view Port Philip from the summit, he could see signs of European activity at the Port Phillip settlement in the form of ‘white objects which might have been either tents or vessels’. Port Phillip had been briefly settled near Sorrento on 1803-4, then left mostly undisturbed by Europeans until the previous year, 1835, when settlers from Tasmania led by John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner (who incidentally had been at the Sorrento settlement as a child) established what became Melbourne on the lower reaches of the Yarra River.
On the return journey towards Sydney across what are now the northern plains, Mitchell went ahead to ensure he was first with the news of his discovery of Australia Felix, ‘the better to distinguish it from the parched deserts’ that Mitchell ‘had wandered so unprofitably, and for so long’ in Western New South Wales. Mitchell wrongly took this Eden wrongly to be ‘still for the most part to be in a state of nature providing a fairly blank sheet’ for subsequently being carved up by European towns and lines of communication. The expedition’s return route approximated the current Hume Highway, fording the Goulburn River near present day Mitchelton and the Murray River near present day Albury. Mitchell buried letters of instruction to Staplyton who followed behind him with the wagons. As Hawdon along with Gardiner and Hepburn were heading south on the first ever overland journey with herds of sheep and cattle towards Port Phillip in late 1836, they encountered Stapleton who was also crossing the Murrumbidgee River near present day Gundagai on his way back to Sydney.