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European discovery of the River Murray system: Charles Sturt and the discovery of the River Murray

It long puzzled the authorities in New South Wales where the westward flowing rivers went. The Macquarie River disappeared into marshes - what lay beyond? For many years it was believed that there was an inland sea that received all the waters of the rivers, and visions of a fertile and well-watered inland lingered until the mid-19th century.

 Sturt's 1828 expedition

In 1828 Charles Sturt was sent out by Governor Darling to solve the riddle of the Macquarie River and the other western rivers. As a severe drought had lasted several years, it was hoped that the marshes would be dry and that the course of the river would be traceable. So it proved and Sturt was able to solve the puzzle of the Macquarie and the Castlereagh Rivers and in so doing discovered the river into which they drained - the Darling. But the waters of this river were salt and the perceived presence of an inland sea was kept alive, despite the brine springs subsequently discovered in the riverbed. Sturt was unable to follow the Darling's downward course because of a shortage of supplies and of fresh water and returned to Sydney.

 Sturt's 1829 expedition

In 1829 Sturt was sent out again, this time to trace the route of the Murrumbidgee River and if this failed, he was to attempt to find and trace the source of the Darling. This time he took with him a whaleboat, built by Egan the master builders. The whaleboat was transported in sections to be re-assembled when they decided to take to the river. Sturt also equipped the expedition with a still for the distillation of water should the river waters again prove to be salty.

Setting out from Sydney on 3 November 1829, the party consisted of Charles Sturt, George McLeay, Harris - Sturt's servant, Hopkinson, Fraser, Robert Harris, Clayton, Mulholland, Macnamee, and an Aboriginal boy who it was hoped would act as a guide and interpreter.

With riding horses, bullock drays and boat carriage, the expedition travelled through known and sparsely settled lands to Yass and then followed the Murrumbidgee down to the Lachlan. Finally Sturt decided that it was time to take to the boat, and accordingly camp was made and work on assembling the whaleboat began. In addition they built a small skiff from local timber. On 7 January the expedition set out - the bullock drays would wait a week and then return to Goulburn Plains to await further instructions.

The boat crew, in addition to Sturt and McLeay, included his servant Harris, Hopkinson, Robert Harris, Clayton and Fraser. The Murrumbidgee at this point was a wide, swiftly flowing river and gave great hope of continuing so for many miles. On only the second day out however an accident occurred, when the skiff that was carrying the bulk of their supplies and the still, struck a sunken log and sank. Fresh water contaminated the expedition's casks of salted meat. The head of the still and the carpenter's tools, all considered essential to the expedition's success, were recovered with difficulty. A few days later, wide reed beds began to constrict the river and Sturt feared the worst, and trees evidently swept down by floods made navigation hazardous. It was then that the whaleboat suffered its second accident, striking a sunken log, and a hole was punched in the starboard side. The crew bailed all afternoon and that evening repairs were made. Several days later sunken rocks were struck, this time without damage. The Murrumbidgee was joined by another tributary and its current swelled with the additional waters. Another reach of the river was full of snags and flood debris and then suddenly rounding a bend, the whaleboat was

...hurried into a broad and noble river. It [was] impossible for me to describe the effect of so instantaneous a charge of circumstances upon us...such was the force with which we had been shot out of the Murrumbidgee, that we were carried nearly to the bank opposite.

(Sturt, C. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia Vol. II, Chapter IV, 'Junction Of A Large River--Character Of The River')

 The River Murray

The new river was wide and of great volume-Sturt estimated that it had an approximate width of 350 feet [106.68 meters], with a depth between 12 [3.65 meters] and 20 feet [6.1 meters]. The reaches of the river

...were from half to three quarters of a mile in length, and the views upon it were splendid...its transparent waters were running over a sandy bed at the rate of two-and-a-half knots an hour, and its banks, although averaging eighteen feet in height, were evidently subject to floods.

(Sturt,C. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia Vol. II, Chapter IV, 'Junction Of A Large River--Character Of The River')

The expedition continued on down the river with Sturt meticulously plotting its course. He recorded the heights of the banks, evidence of past floodings, and where visible from the river, the type of grasses and other vegetation beyond the immediate banks. Sturt did however note that the observations made were of a limited nature.

From time to time the boat negotiated rocky stretches and incurred knocks and light damage. Some of the meanders of the river were noted to return them almost to their previous point. Finally on 23 January another river was seen flowing into the Murray. Before they could examine this however they had to confront a large band of Aboriginal people who tried to impede their passage. The new river reminded them of an English river with its sloping grassy banks and overhanging trees. Its sweet waters were cloudy and slightly green, and there was as a strong current. A little way up it, a fishing net strung across the river blocked further passage. Unwilling to damage it, Sturt turned back downstream and re-entered the Murray.

He was fairly certain that the new river was the Darling. He also noted that the waters of the two rivers flowed side by side for a considerable distance beyond the junction - the Murray still clear, the Darling murky.

At length the Rufus River, named for George McLeay's red hair, was passed, and the banks of the river became cliffs. Several further creeks joined the Murray, one of which Sturt named for his commander Colonel Patrick Lindesay, and noted his position at 140º 29' E and latitude 33º 58' south. The cliffs were about 100 feet [30.5 meters] high and their view was restricted almost entirely to the river itself. Their position was by now south of the head of St Vincent Gulf and hopes rose that that was where the Murray would enter the sea. The expedition had been on the river for 22 days, and with the salt meat spoiled after its dunking in the Murrumbidgee, their provisions were meagre. Fish from the river was considered tasteless 'without butter' and kangaroos eluded them. The continued meandering of the river carried them three times the distance they would have covered if travelling in a straight line.

 Nearing the sea

The cliffs were now noted to contain many fossils and to range in colour from yellow to deep red. On the 3February, after a meander or two the river suddenly turned due south, just as an elderly Aboriginal had told him it would. Sturt also noted that waters changed, becoming cloudy, and broadened as well. The cliffs on either side were so high that the Aboriginal people seen at the ...summits showed as small as crows (Sturt, C. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia Vol. II, Chapter V 'Remarkable Cliffs')

For the first time seagulls were seen - surely the sea was near! Gales were encountered, and a mountain range was seen beyond the right bank - Sturt had no doubt that he had identified Mt Lofty among them. Then on the 9February they entered a broad lake, the termination of the River Murray. The land was low, and on the left shore grew cypresses. Despite the beauty of the lake Sturt was disappointed, as he feared that there would no practical exit to the sea. As the wind increased, navigation of the lake became dangerous and they made camp. Sturt took the opportunity to examine the country in detail.

It remained now only to determine how large the lake was and where it entered the sea, which the party thought they could hear. They continued across the lake until stopped by the shoaling water. Sturt then continued on foot across the sand hills to discover that they had arrived at Encounter Bay, and subsequently walked along the shore to the Murray mouth. It seemed unlikely to Sturt that the mouth of the river could be safely navigated.

It remained but for Sturt to return to Sydney. With his men weakened by inadequate diet, he decided to return via the River, rather than by sea to Launceston. Fortunately the expedition was assisted by strong southerly winds for the first few days and made rapid progress. Finally, after 77 days in all on the river, they reached the point from which they had first taken to the boat. The bullock drays and fresh provisions were not waiting for them at this location, but were still a few days march away. After an absence of nearly six months, Sydney was reached at last.

 Sturt's description of the land and assessment of rivers for navigation

Sturt was impressed by the apparent fertility of the lower Murray and lakes region, and recommended further examination of the region, in part to further assess the fertility of the area but also to seek a possible second channel for the River Murray. From his own exploration and those of Collet Barker Sturt wrote in his account of his expedition Two expeditions into the interior of Southern Australia...that the lower Murray was suitable for colonisation, a land in which might be established:

...a peaceful and prosperous home. All who have ever landed upon the eastern shore of St Vincent's Gulf, agree as to be richness of its soil, and the abundance of its pasture.

(Sturt, C. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia Vol.II, Chapter VIII, 'Adaption Of This Part Of The Country For Colonisation.')

In the upper reaches of the river, the high banks or cliffs that bordered it often obstructed Sturt's view of the land away from the river. When visible, the land was generally described by him as ...inhospitable and unprofitable... and flowing through...a barren and sandy interior... with the exception always of the immediate flood plain. This was in contrast to the land beyond the higher reaches of the Murrumbidgee that were more heavily forested with box, cypress and eucalyptus.

Sturt considered the Murray suitable for navigation by boats of a considerable size, aside from the shallowness of the lake and the difficulties of the Mouth. But even these would be overcome in the future. He believed the Darling, when he first saw it in 1828, to be navigable.

 Results of the 1829 expedition

The immediate results of the expedition were knowledge of where all the westward flowing rivers terminated, and a path into the interior. In some respects Sturt was preceded -at least in the upper reaches of the Murrumbidgee-by the early graziers, who were steadily pushing further south and south westerly in search of pastures. This also occurredwith Thomas Mitchell and his explorations.

As a result of Sturt's recommendation, Collet Barker was sent to explore St Vincent's Gulf, and made several important discoveries, that combined with Sturt's description of the country and its apparent fertility, would lead to the establishment of the Province of South Australia on the shores of the Gulf. The River itself would become the path of the first parties to overland stock to the new colony: Sturt himself would be one of these overlanders. Tragically it would also lead to armed conflict with the Aboriginal people of the River.

 Sturt and Australian Aboriginals

In general, Charles Sturt attempted to maintain friendly relationships with Aboriginal people he encountered in his expeditions along the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers. It would be later parties travelling the rivers who would cause conflict and death. There were several occasions when trouble threatened but Sturt and his men always met the situation with restraint, and the trouble was averted. Sturt's practice of making gifts of tomahawks and pieces of metal to Aboriginals along the river had its own reward and in effect the tribes contrived to 'hand on' the explorer to the next tribe, thereby negotiating a safe passage. This was most noticeable at the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers where a large and hostile band, armed and ready to attack, confronted the boat party. Sturt prepared his men as he saw no way to avoid conflict, and took aim at one of the leaders. However, McLeay stopped him from firing and drew his attention to a group of four Aboriginal people on the opposite bank, who were outstripping the boat. The leader flung himself into the river and swimming across, argued strongly with the hostile aborigines and prevented conflict. Sturt rewarded this action and soon the large band, which numbered 600 men, women and children, were clamouring loudly around him and his men. This pattern of 'ambassadorship' was continued along the river as recorded by Sturt:

...they sent ambassadors forward regularly from one tribe to another, in order to prepare for our approach, a custom that not only saved us an infinity of time, but also great personal risk.  Indeed, I doubt very much whether we should ever have pushed so far down the river, had we not been assisted by the natives themselves.

(Sturt, C. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia Vol.II, Chapter V, 'Populous District')

Perhaps they were also assisted by the appearance of George McLeay, who with flaming red hair appeared to remind the Aboriginal people of one of their legendary figures Ngurrundi [Ngurunderi], or 'Rundi' as Sturt called him. Certainly McLeay interacted well with the different groups.

Sturt would next experience difficulty with the community at the Murray Mouth, but as he raised his firearm the Aboriginal people ceased their chanting, and Sturt noted that they appeared familiar with his weapon. He was not at this time aware of the actions of the sealers and whalers based on Kangaroo Island, who regularly come ashore at Encounter Bay and caused strife. These actions would lead to the fatal attack on Collet Barker.

Sturt noted also that many of the Aboriginal people were afflicted by diseases that had left them with terrible sores and scars. The communities most affected were those furtherest from Sydney, which also puzzled him. It is now considered that the sealers and whalers on the south coast unwittingly introduced the diseases syphilis, gonorrhoea and smallpox. These diseases, which were endemic among Europeans, devastated the Aboriginal population, greatly reducing their numbers. As Peter Dowling wrote in a paper European and Aboriginal contact in the Riverland presented at the 12th State History Conference, May 2003:

Biological contact in the form of introduced infectious diseases took a huge toll on the Aboriginal populations, disrupted their long-standing cultural and social structures and often occurred way ahead of the expanding European frontiers.

Further reading

Sturt, Charles. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia, during the years 1828, 1829, 1830, and 1831: with observations on the soil, climate, and general resources of the Colony of New South Wales, Adelaide: Public Library of South Australia, 1963. Australiana facsimile editions; no. 4. Reprint of the 1833 ed. published by Smith, Elder, London.

Sturt, Charles. Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia, during the years 1828, 1829, 1830, and 1831: with observations on the soil, climate, and general resources of the Colony of New South Wales,  First published by Smith, Elder, London, 1833. North Adelaide: Corkwood Press, 1999.

Sturt, Charles. 'Course of the Hume River from the hilly districts to the junction of the Morumbidgee. (Communicated by Lord Stanley)', Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 14 (1844), pp. 141-144. Also held in Royal Geographical Society of SA Library.

Cumpston, J. H. L. Charles Sturt: his life and journeys of exploration, Melbourne: Georgian House, 1951

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

Dowling, P. J. Violent epidemics: disease, conflict and Aboriginal population collapse as a result of European contact in the Riverland of South Australia, 1990

State History Conference (12th: 2003: Renmark, S. Aust.) History, community and environment: conference papers, 12th State History Conference, Renmark Hotel 24-25 May 2003

Price, A. Grenfell. 'Sturt's voyage down the Murray: the last stage'. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch, 28 (Session 1926-7), pp. 20-34

Price, Anne. Riddle of the rivers; illustrated by Walter Cunningham. New ed. French's Forest, N.S.W: Reed, 1985.

Sturt Centenary 1829-1929: souvenir of the discovery and exploration of the River Murray, compiled by the Dept. of Lands and Survey, Adelaide, Adelaide: Government Printer, [1929]

Whitaker, Chris. 'Captain Charles Sturt's cannon', Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. South Australian Branch, 79, (1978), pp. 38-42


Project Gutenberg of Australia: Charles Sturt: Includes text of Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia...See Vol. 2

Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition See: Sturt, Charles

Australian explorers: Charles Sturt

Assistance from Aboriginal peoples
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Junction of the Darling and Murray
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Murray mouth
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Sturt charts the river
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Sturt describes his whaleboat
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