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European discovery of the River Murray system: The Overlanders

The Overlanders

 Hawdon and Bonney

Adelaide had been settled for a mere 16 months when Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney arrived in the fledgling colony on 3 April 1838 with the herd of some 300 cattle that they had overlanded from New South Wales. Prior to this time all livestock had been brought to South Australia by ship - either from Tasmania or the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Hawdon and Bonney's herd represented an enormous addition to the number of cattle in South Australia - within two years of that first herd, the numbers had increased threefold. The first sheep were overlanded by Edward Eyre on his second trip in 1839, and resulted in a fivefold increase in numbers.

Hawdon had taken stock overland from New South Wales to Port Phillip Bay before deciding that he would take a herd to Adelaide. This would be the impetus for a succession of parties making the long journey, and for pioneering alternative routes. He set out in January 1838 from the Goulburn River after some preliminary work in which he sent a herd of sheep down to Port Phillip. The start of the journey was heralded by a fierce electrical storm that killed several cattle and also injured some of the drovers. By 22 January the party had moved into previously unexplored country - the only guide they had to what lay ahead of them were maps from the expeditions of Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell. Hawdon's cattle appeared to thrive by eating the reeds that abounded along the rivers, despite the heat of summer. His initial course was to follow the course of Mitchell's River Yarrane (the Loddon). By doing this he hoped it would be easier to water the cattle at a smaller river, and avoid the Aboriginal people along the Murray, who had been reported as hostile. The Yarrane (Loddon) was however almost dry, in contrast to when Mitchell had followed it, and Hawdon was forced back to the Murray.

The country was now improving and Hawdon described the huge flocks and variety of waterbirds at Swan Hill, and the apparent fertility of the soil: ...although at present producing only reeds, the soil is well adapted for wheat, and is beautifully situated for the experiment of growing rice.

('Journal of Joseph Hawdon' 12 February 1838, as published in The first overlanders: Hawdon and Bonney)

After passing the Murrumbidgee-Murray junction, he described the country as consisting ...of ridges covered with thick brush, the soil of a red sandy description [with] some high and thick brush. [17 February] Some of the ridges were about 100 feet [30.5 metres] high; he also commented on the rocky islands in the river, and that he was able to walk across the river where the water was only four feet [1.2 metres] deep. The reeds were also becoming very scarce and with little or no grass either the cattle were often hungry. By 1 March he had reached the Murray-Darling junction, and three days later discovered a lake ...about thirty or forty miles in circumference [4 March]which he named for Queen Victoria. In the vicinity of this and its outflow the Rufus River, he again found plenty of reeds for his cattle.

As the banks of the river increased in height to become cliffs the difference between the floodplain and the country beyond the cliffs became more noticeable. On 10 March Hawdon recorded crossing into South Australia and that

...the flooded flats through which [the river] flowed appeared to be about seven miles in width.  A good portion of these flats, say about one-fourth, is adapted for agriculture, but the sand on the outer bank still continues of the same unprofitable description.

On 12 March he discovered Lake Bonney by proceeding due west instead of following the river as it proceeded to the south. Hawdon also recorded that the Aboriginal name for the lake was Nookamka. Later his party descended from the cliffs to travel along the firmer surface of the river flats, but were again forced up to the cliff tops when the river ran hard against the cliffs.

On 19 March they reached the Great Bend where the Murray River flows south to Lake Alexandrina and the sea. Hawdon noted a change in the nature of the country:

...we now appear done with the loose sandy country, entering one consisting of open plains thinly sprinkled over with bushes, and producing more grass than I had seen on the journey, except at Swan Hill; but it is a very thin coat, though in the valley of the river there is a good portion of alluvial land for cultivation. [19 March]

He also noted that for the first time in over a month they saw evidence of the presence of Europeans.

Several days later Hawdon left the line of the river to cross the Mt Lofty Ranges and reach Adelaide. The crossing was made to the north of Mt Barker and on 1 April they had reached the Onkaparinga River and the following day the sea at Noarlunga. On 4 April Joseph Hawdon dined with the Governor of South Australia - the safe arrival of the first herd of cattle to be overlanded from New South Wales was celebrated with a public dinner.

Throughout his journey Joseph Hawdon recorded his encounters with the Aboriginal people. These were all peaceful meetings, with gifts of tomahawks and pieces of clothing, exchanged for nets and weapons. Hawdon also recorded presenting them with game (birds and kangaroos) that he had shot, and noted the variety of food they themselves had caught - fish, mussels, ducks and turtles as well as vegetable materials.

The river lands seemed well populated, with large groups of 80-100 men, women and children, although Hawdon recorded that many bore the signs of having been infected with small pox and other European afflictions. Charles Bonney wrote a number of years later that the Aborigines

...proved very useful to us, and the paths which they had made in travelling up and down the river afforded an unfailing guide as to the direction we ought to take in order to cross the great bends it frequently makes. (Bonney, Charles. 'Account of the Hawdon and Bonney trek with cattle from New South Wales to Adelaide 1838' as published in The first overlanders: Hawdon and Bonney, p. 73)

Hawdon wrote many times how Bonney would play his flute for the Aborigines, who appeared to enjoy the music.

 Eyre, Edward

Edward Eyre was the second of the overlanders and left at almost the same time as the Hawdon and Bonney party. However it was his intention to travel south of the line of the rivers heading almost due west across the mallee country of western Victoria and South Australia. In this the descriptions of the country and the maps of Thomas Mitchell in which he placed considerable confidence guided him. So he travelled across the course of the rivers Ovens, Broken, Goulburn, Campaspe and Loddon, believing that Mitchell's Yarrane (the Loddon) would link up with Charles Sturt's Lindesay River. However he was forced by lack of water to retrace his way and to follow the Murray River to the west. In his Autobiographical Narrative 1832-1839 he described the fine alluvial flats of rich soil and with good pasturage in the river bends and the banks. The land beyond the banks was

...a firm reddish soil generally covered with eucalyptus scrub. Here and there open grassy plains [and] intruding sandy ridges intersected the higher grounds... the whole course of the Murray was also well timbered along its banks and in the alluvial flats with large and lofty gum trees. [Eyre, Edward John Autobiographical narrative of residence and exploration in Australia, 1832-1839, p.155]

The Aboriginal people he met with constantly caused notrouble, although he was cautious enough to maintain a night watch at camps. Eyre attentively described their characteristics- their nets in particular interested him, which they used for fishing, but also for hunting kangaroo and emu.

After crossing the Darling River the character of the land changed: there were more lagoons, but the soil was sandier and the vegetation was dwarfed and reminded Eyre of English moors. The pasturage for the stock was becoming poorer, and the animals strayed further in search of good feed. Between Lake Victoria and the Darling, the numbers of Aboriginal people increased to:

...many hundreds. They were, however, exceedingly well behaved aiding us greatly in driving the cattle...and offering to barter anything they had for tomahawks, upon which they seemed to place great value...[Eyre, Edward John Autobiographical narrative of residence and exploration in Australia, 1832-1839, p. 157]

Beyond the Rufus River, Eyre's party met with a

 ...numerous and very troublesome tribe...who were most impertinent and pertinacious in crowding around us and the drays and in handling everything they could get near... [Eyre, Edward John Autobiographical narrative of residence and exploration in Australia, 1832-1839, p. 157]

So persistent were these Aboriginal people that Eyre was compelled to threaten them with firearms, although these were not fired. On leaving the camp the next morning he gave them presents of hoop iron sharpened and cut so as to make chisels. The Aboriginal people, who in return gave a net, accepted these gladly. Good relations were established, but Eyre was glad to move on.

The country around continued barren: red sandy soil without grass. Twenty days' journey from the Darling Junction, they reached the North West Bend. Ahead they could see the distant ranges; the end of their journey was in sight. Several days later they left the River, passing through open grassy downs...then dense eucalyptus scrub to the foothills.

They followed Hawdon's tracks, passing close to Mt Barker and arriving some 20 miles south of Adelaide. Eyre was puzzled by this southerly approach, but believed Hawdon had had a good reason for it. He proceeded to Adelaide ahead of his overlanding party to arrange the sale of the stock, but several days later rejoined them and settled them on a station on the Sturt River, six miles south of Adelaide.

Eyre's overlanding had taken 268 days, because of his mistaken choice of a more southerly direct route. The condition of his stock was considerably poorer than that of Hawdon's, but eventually he sold it all. Four and a half months later he was back in Sydney and arranging to overland more stock, this time sheep as well as cattle.

The Aboriginal people gave more trouble on this journey, having been harried by the settlers as they moved further west. One of Eyre's men was speared, but after the barb was extracted he recovered. Eyre was compelled to keep a close watch on his men to prevent them from retaliating. The Aboriginal people appeared to be alarmed by the increasing number of white men encroaching on their territory, although they remembered Eyre with apparent delight. Eyre encountered John Hart and William Pullen overlanding cattle from Portland Bay in Victoria.

Eyre arrived in Adelaide in March 1839 with 600 cattle, 1000 sheep, as well as working oxen and horses. He considered that he, and Hawdon before him, had proven the practicability of the line of rivers as a route overland from New South Wales, and that it opened out to the colonists the immediate prospect of stocking their beautiful, fertile and extensive districts... (Eyre, p. 191)

Subsequently Eyre settled in Adelaide, and in May 1839 set out to explore to the north. After examining the country at the head of the gulfs he began to the return to Adelaide, but crossed the ranges to the River Murray and began to explore down river. He discovered rich alluvial river flats stretching for miles, which he subsequently purchased. As he continued south, good land alternated with poorer soil. At the most westerly reach of the river (near Mannum) he ascended to higher ground and dense pine scrub, and then back to the river flats which were large and very rich. Above the flats there was grassy open land suitable for sheep, with few trees. The river widened now with extensive reed beds. Shortly after Eyre reached the junction with Lake Alexandrina. Back from the lake were extensive grassy plains slightly timbered with casuarina and banksias. He considered there was much excellent agricultural land and commanding a fine and extensive run for stock (Eyre, p. 210)

 Sturt, Charles

Charles Sturt was the third man to overland stock from New South Wales to Adelaide. He used the opportunity to explore the headwaters of the Hume River, showing in the process that it was the upper reaches of the Murray River that he had navigated eight years previously. He departed from Goulburn in April 1838, making his observations of the country and of the Aboriginal people. (Sturt, Mrs Napier George. Life of Charles Sturt sometime Capt. 59th Regt and Australian explorer, London, Smith Elder, 1899).  Heavy rains had flooded the country, impeding their progress.

Sturt noted that the country was more thinly populated than in 1830, and that the Aboriginal people were more hostile, and there was continual trouble with them. He also recorded in a despatch to George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales, that the rivers were useless as the medium of internal communication because of the logs and snags in them after heavy rains. This was contrary to his opinion in his account of his first navigation of the Murray.

Following Hawdon's track, Sturt worried about the weather, and the cows that continually calved and delayed progress. The absence of the Aboriginal people he considered in part the result of Hawdon's and Eyre's parties ahead of him, but also that they would see the overlanders as an invasion. At one moment Sturt records that the Aboriginal people ...are very quiet, they really are an inoffensive harmless race... (Langley, p. 168) and then he is making a stockade with his dray against a possible attack. From the Darling junction onwards the trouble with them increased; a cow was speared and a drover's dog attacked, and only Sturt himself was able to prevent conflict between his men and the Aboriginal people. He reached Adelaide in late August.

Hawdon, Eyre and Sturt had proven the overland route from Sydney, following the line of the rivers. Charles Bonney, Hawdon's partner subsequently pioneered a southern route from Portland, via the Coorong, and both routes were used to greatly increase the herds of Adelaide.

 Friction between overlanders and Australian Aboriginals

It was evident from these first pioneering journeys that sooner or later there would be a clash between the overlanders and the Australian Aboriginals. The Governor in his report in the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register 18 January 1840 thought this likely. More herds of cattle and sheep followed the river road. John Hart and William Pullen had a small skirmish in February 1839, and one man was slightly wounded; James Coutts-Crawford's party was attacked in the vicinity of the Rufus River in March 1839, but scared the Aboriginal people away with no injuries to either side.

Overlanding sheep from Portland, Peter Snodgrass was attacked as he crossed the Murray above Lake Alexandrina in October 1839. Several Aboriginal people were wounded and sheep driven off. In October 1839 another party was attacked near the Great South Bend (Morgan) and the overseer Thomas Young was killed. In retaliation the overlanders killed 11 Aboriginal people. The South Australian Police were unable to locate the offenders. Later in the same month and in the same district another overlanding party was attacked with injuries to both sides. Then in November 1839, Alexander Buchanan's party was attacked while crossing the Darling River. A number of Aboriginal people were killed and many more were wounded. Buchanan attacked their camp after they speared several of his sheep.

Later overlanding parties experienced difficulties that required a close watch to be kept. In April 1841, Henry Inman and Henry Field were attacked after crossing the Rufus River. A police party was despatched by Governor Gawler but was subsequently recalled. A civilian party went out and encountered some 300 Aboriginal people: a fight ensued in which eight Aboriginal people were killed, but the Europeans were repulsed and returned to Adelaide. Major O'Halloran, Police Commissioner was then despatched with a detachment of police; this large group of 68 met with another overlander Charles Langhorne in late June. His party had been attacked near the Rufus River by a group of over 500 Aboriginal people. This event resulted in the deaths of four of his men and five Aboriginal people.

Attacks on overlanding parties were increasing and culminated in the attack on William Robinson's party in August 1841, again at the Rufus River. Fifteen Aboriginal people were killed when they attacked overlanders as they crossed the river. The following day an expeditionary force led by Matthew Moorhouse, the Protector of Aborigines, with Sub Inspector Shaw as second in command, met the overlanders. In the attack that followed, now known as the 'Rufus River massacre', between 30 and 40 Aborigines were killed and four taken prisoner (including two women and a boy). Subsequently it was determined that the cause of much of the trouble with the Aboriginal groups was the Europeans engaging in sexual relations with the women without giving the food and clothing promised first.

In Adelaide an enquiry was ordered, conducted by a Bench of Magistrates under the Chairmanship of Charles Sturt. It was the view of the enquiry that the actions of Moorhouse and Shaw were justified, that unnecessary severity was not used, that the remaining Aboriginal prisoner be returned to his community (the others had been released previously), and that police stations be established on the River Murray to protect future overland parties and property and to prevent collision with the natives or injury to them.

Edward Eyre was appointed Resident Magistrate and Protector of Aborigines on the Murray. A police station was established at Moorunde. Eyre visited the Rufus River, and found the numbers of Aboriginal people much reduced; he recommended that a post be established at the junction of the Rufus River with the Murray, for the distribution of flour and blankets. By 1846 attacks on overlanding parties had ceased. In 1849 police were stationed at Ral Ral (near Renmark), in 1851 at Chowilla, and in 1855 at Overland Corner. But it is Brian Glenie's opinion that 'by this time, due to killing by Europeans, infanticide and disease, any danger of Aboriginal attacks had well and truly passed' (Glenie, p. 58).

Further reading

Arthur, Edward. A journal of events from Melbourne, Port Philip to Mount Schank in the district of Adelaide, New Holland, a distance of 400 miles: undertaken in 1843 by Messrs Edward & Fortescue Arthur, sons of Captain Arthur, R.N., with a flock of 4000 sheep: also An account of the difficulties they experienced during a sojourn of twenty months, Hobart: Sullivan's Cove, 1975.

Eyre, Edward John. Autobiographical narrative of residence and exploration in Australia, 1832-1839; edited with an introduction and notes by Jill Waterhouse. London: Caliban Books, c1984

The first overlanders, Hawdon and Bonney: their accounts of the first cattle drive from New South Wales to Adelaide 1838, edited by Kevin K. Kain. Ridgehaven, S. Aust.: K. Kain in association with Gould Books, c1991

Glenie, Pat. The Rufus River "massacre" (or was it?), by Pat and Brian Glenie[Renmark, S. Aust.: P. and B. Glenie, 1993

Langley,Michael. Sturt of the Murray: father of Australian exploration, London, Hale, 1969

'Importations of the first stock overland from New South Wales'. [Describes the journeys of Messrs Hawdon, Eyre and Sturt with cattle from New South Wales in 1838] (reprinted from the South Australian Gazette, 1838) Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. South Australian Branch, 17 (Session 1915-1916), pp. 99-107

McEwan, Marcia. The overlanders, Sydney: Bay Books, 1979

Packard, Brian. Joseph Hawdon: the first overlander, [West Pymble, N.S.W.: Brian and Dorothy Packard,] 1997


Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Hawdon, Joseph

Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Bonney, Charles

Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Eyre, Edward

Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Sturt, Charles

University of Adelaide Library Electronic Texts Collection: Eyre, Edward John. 'An account of the manners and customs of the Aborigines and the state of their relations with Europeans' [Originally published with Journals of expeditions of discovery into Central Australia, and overland from Adelaide to King George's Sound, in the years 1840-1]

Buchanan: overlander
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Enquiry into the attack
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Extract from Hawdon's journal
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Fatal encounter with Aboriginal people on the Murray
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Public dinner to Mr Hawdon
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