State Library of South Australia logoDownstream, the River Murray in South Australia
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European discovery of the River Murray system


First European sighting of the River Murray    
Charles Sturt and the discovery of the River Murray    
Collet Barker's exploration in Gulf St Vincent    
Sturt and Gawler go up the river to the North West Bend    
Who discovered Lake Alexandrina?    
The Overlanders    

The destination of westward flowing rivers of New South Wales was a puzzle to European settlers in eastern Australia for several decades. In their efforts to resolve this puzzle, European explorers encountered Aboriginal communities, and the lack of understanding by many of Aboriginal ways of life resulted in clashes, particularly over access to traditional lands.

Aboriginal Australians have occupied the Murray-Darling river system for many thousands of years. The rich resources of the rivers and the adjacent lands maintained a denser population and more settled lifestyle than could be supported in more arid lands. Indigenous communities had a long continuous relationship with traditional lands, with intimate knowledge of and respect for the waterways, land and resources. The strong spiritual connection with the river and adjoining lands and communities' rights were communicated in stories of the Dreaming, and songs, dance and art. Aboriginal groups had upheld tribal boundaries that were marked by geographic features such as rivers, lakes and mountains, in contrast to the fences or barriers of the traditional European way of marking land ownership. European explorers and later, settlers, had limited understanding of indigenous communities and their relationship with the environment, and in their pursuit of discovery and desire for land, did not consider indigenous rights.

A number of explorers and surveyors had tried to solve the riddle and been thwarted by floods and drought. William Hovell and Hamilton Hume explored beyond the Murrumbidgee River in 1824, and in the vicinity of present day Albury, discovered a river they named the Hume. This was in fact the upper reaches of the Murray.  Then in 1828 Charles Sturt discovered the Darling River into which drained many of the New South Wales rivers, and part of the puzzle was solved. But where did the Darling go?  One current theory was that there was an inland sea. Sturt was sent out again in 1829 by Governor Darling to resolve the problem.  On 7 January 1830, Sturt and his party launched their boat onto the Murrumbidgee, and sailed downstream into a large river that Sturt named the Murray. They passed the junction of what Sturt believed was the Darling River and eventually reached the sea at Encounter Bay. They then returned upstream.

Sturt reported favourably on the land along the lower Murray, which ultimately led to the settlement of South Australia.  As a result of Sturt's work, Collet Barker was assigned by the New South Wales governor to examine St Vincent Gulf for a possible outlet of the river.  Meanwhile sealers had discovered a large lake adjacent to Encounter Bay in 1828, but the report did not reach Sydney until after Sturt had left on his expedition.  Shortly after South Australia was settled in 1836, the overlanders brought herds of cattle and sheep to the young colony from the east coast and added to the knowledge of the lands adjacent to the river.



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