The casual explorer: mapping unknown and lesser-known expeditions of the 1830s – 1850s
Dr Ray Kerkhove, Harry Gentle Resource Centre Visiting Fellow 2018

1. ‘JW’ – convict period surgeon? 1827 – 1829?

One unknown explorer we know as a ‘correspondent’ or otherwise ‘JW, Leicester Building, Hobart’. In December 1838, January 1839 and May 1850, ‘JW’ published long and detailed articles in Sydney’s Australian and Hobart’s Colonial Times. In these, he described how, in earlier years, he was resident at Moreton Bay. During his residency, he made a number of excursions to ‘avail myself of the pleasures of the chase among those giants of the forest’. JW’s writings contain some of our earliest descriptions of vegetation, geography and Indigenous culture on the northern side of Brisbane and Moreton Bay, including between Cabbage Tree Creek and Pine River, and behind what JW calls ‘the old settlement’ (Redcliffe). Of particular importance is JW’s statement that:

An aboriginal “kipper” (youth), generally accompanied me. He belonged
to the Amity Point Tribe, and had saved my life on the “Bunya Bunya” Ranges,
when attacked by Huon Munde, and some of his blood-thirsty tribe.

This terse reference provides little indication of the author’s route or discoveries, but is nevertheless a tantalising statement. The ‘Bunya Bunya Ranges’ were over 110 kilometres north of Brisbane. The Blackall Ranges, Upper Stanley River and Bunya Mountains all had groves of bunya pine, but in this early period only the Blackall Ranges were known to Europeans. However, it is normally assumed that other men – Reverend Christopher Eipper, Tom Petrie or perhaps one of the runaway convicts such as Duramboi – were the first European visitors to this area. If JW’s account is correct, he may have visited the Blackall Ranges years before any of these men, possibly around 1826-27.

Much would depend on when JW was active in Moreton Bay. In one article, he makes reference to the Light Company of the 39th Regiment. This points to the period of December 1826 to September 1828, when the Company were stationed at Moreton Bay. His mention of well-trained dogs supplied to him by “my esteemed friend Bob Nichols’ before the latter became famous, implies a similarly early date. ‘Bob Nichols’ is George Robert Nichols (1809-1857) – the early Australian lawyer and politician. It is not clear from JW’s statement whether Nichols was ever present with him in Moreton Bay, though the reference to their joint love of ‘field sports’ suggests the two men made excursions together. In either case, JW is discussing a period before Nichols was appointed as solicitor in 1833. This narrows the date of JW’s journeys to somewhere between Nichol’s return from England to Sydney in 1823 and his appointment as solicitor in 1833.

Libby Connors surmised that JW may be a man called ‘John Watts’ and that he was perhaps a relative of the penal colony’s surgeon and thus evaded being recorded. She bases this on the fact that his last article from 1850 was authored as ‘JW’ from ‘Leicester Building Hobart.’ The Leicester Building was an academy in Hobart where a ‘Mr John Watts’ (hence possibly the ‘JW’ in question) taught languages, Classics, maths and ‘mercantile studies’ to ‘gentlemen.’ John Watts claimed to have had ‘many (teaching) experiences’ in England and Europe. The Hobart Academy operated since at least 1842, but ‘John Watts’ does not appear in advertisements as a teacher until early December 1849.

Unfortunately, the limited Academy advertisements concerning ‘John Watts’ do not confirm that he once lived at Moreton Bay. On the other hand, the lyrical, observant tone of the ‘JW’ articles, suggest they were penned by a well-educated, erudite individual. John Watts would fit that description.

Connors’ theory that the author was possibly the surgeon’s brother is supported by the author describing his Moreton Bay home as having a view across the river, being against a corn field, and having spare rooms and various refinements that stunned his Aboriginal guests. During this early period, there were only a few houses of this type in Brisbane, most structures being either penal/military barracks or officers’ quarters. The Surgeon’s and Surgeon’s Assistant’s homes stood side by side, and were indeed adjacent to a corn field, with views across the river. Moreover, from 1831, we have reference to a ‘Dr Watt… surgeon superintendent’ attending to new arrivals to Sydney.

Even if his identity remains a mystery, JW’s accounts present an important and rather different image of European-Indigenous interactions in convict-period Brisbane. Rather than the two communities keeping each other at arm’s length, JW presents a world wherein they engaged in joint hunting trips:

I spent much my leisure time in the bush, kangaroo-dog, shooting,
&c., and very frequently passed in sight in the camps of the Aborigines
— some of whom were always anxious to accompany me in the
morning to the hunting grounds, my dogs being well trained, possessed
of good speed …I could depend on their killing if the day was a fair one;
and my sable friends came in for the flesh, and I the “garang garang,” or skins.

JW’s exploration map

2. Joseph Bradley – the whaler 1831

On 26th July 1802, Flinders was on the Investigator, undertaking the second ever European exploration of what is now Moreton Bay (the first being his 1799 expedition). Curiously, Flinders was not alone. He wrote that:

A strange vessel seen to the southward, had induced me to carry little sail all
the morning; it was now perceived not to be the Lady Nelson, but probably
one of the two whalers known to be fishing off the coast; we therefore made
sail for Cape Moreton…

The note is short, but its significance is huge. It indicates that Flinders was not voyaging in an undiscovered vacuum but rather in a world where he expected to encounter other vessels –commercial, exploratory, British and foreign. This begs the question: if others were already familiar with these waters, what exactly had Flinders found that they did not already know?

The ship Flinders saw probably belonged to Eric Bunker (1762-1836) – the American seen as the ‘father’ of Australian whaling. Keith Smith notes that whaling was already active between Tasmania, Norfolk Island and Sydney from as early as 1791. There were also extensive sealing expeditions along the east coast of Australia by 1809.

The full extent of whaling or sealing discoveries around early Queensland awaits further research into sealers’ and whalers’ diaries, but there is some indication that these commercial expeditions may overturn our current understanding of Australia’s exploration. In 1988, Mervyn Cobcroft re-published the diary of the whaler Joseph Bradley. Though the diary had initially been published in 1860, it was not represented in any major library, nor recorded in bibliographies of whaling, until Cobcroft discovered it. Bradley’s diary documents extensive travels around the coast of central and southern Queensland between 1831 and 1834. According to his account, he was plagued with repeated shipwrecks. His journeys began usually in New Zealand, the Kermadec Islands and Sydney. In one instance in 1832, he passed what we now know as Cato Bank in the Coral Sea and was wrecked near Bunker’s Island off Gladstone. In his surviving whaleboat he reached Hervey Bay and was picked up at Double Island Point.

Joseph Bradley’s whale boat journey of 1831


In another journey, Bradley lost his main vessel near Cape Moreton and had to proceed by whaleboat on a long voyage that Cobcroft reconstructs took him past Point Lookout (Stradbroke Island), and along the surf beaches to Trial Bay (north of Port Macquarie). Here his rescue on 6th July 1831 is recorded in the Journal of Public Transactions. Past Point Lookout, Bradley comes across wreckage of another large vessel (not his own) which he surmised to be another whaling ship, perhaps indicating yet another ‘unknown’ voyage.

3. Byrne (Brown), Jones (Sullivan) and ‘Ben’ – convict runaways 1829 – 1832

There were hundreds of convict escapes from Moreton Bay penal settlement. Runaways journeyed scores to hundreds of kilometres north, west or (mostly) south of the colony. Their full story may never be known as many were soon after reported as being ‘found speared’ in the bush. Even in 1831, such runaways were ‘continually falling victim to the spears of the savages around them’. In 1832, when John Bradley was rescued from Double Island Point, he was joined by convict runaways Mick Sullivan, Peter Brown, and Ben (‘Old Yellow Hide’). They declared they had walked for days, crossing creeks and rivers, and had been living around the Wide Bay/Cooloola area with ‘the natives’. On being brought to Port Macquarie, it is recorded that they added to geographical knowledge of this area: ‘giving the Captain a description of the land and the passage through’.

Cobcroft could verify Bradley’s sojourn at Double Island Point through Colonial records. However, he found the dates and names of runaways confused, possibly indicating aliases adopted to avoid punishment. Their real names were apparently Harry Byrne and Joseph Jones, although there was indeed a Michael Sullivan ‘runaway’ – but possibly not the same man. Cobcroft also proposes that ‘Ben’ (Old Yellow Hide) may be the mysterious ‘Yelloman’ whom Duramboi (James Davis) heard of living ‘to the north’.

The timing and placing of these ‘accidental explorers’ is significant. Except for ‘Gilbury,’ all these bunders (wild white men) seem to have absconded between 1827 and 1829. ‘Peter Brown’, ‘Mick Sullivan’ and ‘Ben’ informed Bradley they had been in the area for ‘two or three years’ (thus since 1828 or 1829). These years marked the zenith of Captain Logan’s reign, thus it could lend support to tales of his harsh punishments.

4. The Archers & Hawkins – Pastoralists and a Recluse 1842

Some work has been done on the early journeys and mapping of pastoralist brothers Charles and Colin Archer. For instance, we have the writings of Bloxsome, Vivian Voss, and Lorna McDonald. They have demonstrated that these pastoralists made a significant impact on the mapping, naming and transport routes within the Central Queensland region. However, many of their journeys remain unmapped. For instance, from their description, it seems they were probably the first Europeans to explore the swamplands of Marcoola. They did so – as they themselves described – by being ‘armed with… some guns, pistols, and cutlasses, a couple of ropes with nooses, and a hank of twine’ in their hunt for the warriors Cambayo and Dundalli. In describing this 1842 exploration, they mention a ‘Lowie Hawkins’ who had been residing past Beerwah for many years who assisted them. He seems to have been a runaway and apart this single mention (which suggests he probably knew the area fairly well), we know nothing about him.

5. Nique, Rode, Schmidt and Wagner – the missionaries 1842

This expedition of June 1842 is surprisingly under-rated. It is interesting in comprising just one wagon, four missionaries and a fluctuating body of a dozen to thirty Aboriginal guides, who happily journeyed with the missionaries, giving it a celebratory character rather unlike other expeditions. Bee on the Missionfield (a document transcribed by Colin Sheehan – also on the Harry Gentle Resource Centre website) details the journey. The missionaries offer little indication of their route other than it being over hills and valleys between what is now Woodford and the area of Maleny/ Mapleton. However, they do offer numerous local place names, which have yet to be fully aligned with known landforms of today.

Local place names recorded by Missionaries

6. Simpson & Eipper – Land Commissioner and Missionary 1843

In March and April the following year (1843), Lands Commissioner Stephen Simpson conducted a similar expedition but in this case with an armed party of a dray of ten bullocks, four mounted troopers, six convict assistants, the German missionary Christopher Eipper and himself. In contrast to the jolly journey of the earlier missionary expedition, this sojourn encountered almost no Aboriginal persons, no doubt due to the military set up of the party, and the state of war that existed between the colony and the local groups at this time. The areas covered we can reconstruct from Simpson’s letterbook entries. It comprised the same route covered by the missionaries, but then extended into the Mary Valley, past Mt Bauple and possibly to Wide Bay itself.

Route taken by Simpson & Eipper in 1843

7. Thomas Dowse 1848

Thomas Dowse is mostly remembered as key early Separatist and one of the first settlers of Sandgate. However, he also vaguely refers to his exploratory trips far north of Brisbane. In an article he wrote to Moreton Bay Courier in 1861, he described:

…the magnificent tract of land lying between the Kilcoy ranges and Maryborough… I make this assertion, not for the mere idea of ‘blowing’ but because I twice passed over this particular part of the country some eighteen years ago, and then spoke by admiration of the land suite occupied by squatters.

This is a surprising statement because ‘eighteen years ago’ would bring us to 1848, when the Palmer brothers and Alderidge had just re-settled Wide Bay after its pastoral runs had lain abandoned for years. In other words, if he had passed over this region, it was at the time unsettled. The brief description does not specify the exact areas covered but indicates a general exploration of the highlands and lowlands between Kilcoy and Maryborough.

8. Stuchbury – Government Geologist 1854

A particularly unknown expedition was conducted by S Stuchbury, who seems to have been the NSW geologist. In 1854, he describes his journey up the Pine Rivers and Caboolture to the Glasshouse Mountains and on to the Blackall Ranges (4 miles north of Beerwah) and the Conondale Ranges, making him perhaps the first person to make a scientific exploration of this area:

About four miles distant from Beerwah, a spur went off, in direction east by south. At a distance of eleven miles I ascended, from the south side, the large mountain called Barumbah. This mountain is of hard black dolerite, which on the summit is vesicular ; on its southern and eastern sides it becomes truly basaltic, the columns which have fallen lying about in all directions. Descending a north-north-east spur, I found myself encompassed by impenetrable jungles, through which a passage was cut with great difficulty. Beyond this the country was undulating, richly grassed, and well-watered. The extremity of this spur is called by the aborigines, “Omeriemom.” North-east from Omeriemom about one and a half miles, sandstone, I bearing south eighty degrees east, without perceptible dip, is exhibited in the bed of a creek, and extends south-easterly, and easterly towards Calowndra, where I had previously observed coal (vide thirteenth Report). From Barumbah examined the dividing range between the waters of the Stanley and the tributaries of Toorangoor, Yungun, and other small creeks falling into the narrow channel between Bribie’s Island and the mainland.

9. Frazer and Watson 1860

The expeditions of William Pettigrew and Tom Petrie into the Sunshine Coast and Wide Bay between 1862 and 1865 are usually credited with the more detailed exploration of the Sunshine Coast, Cooloola and Wide Bay regions. However, in 1860, a group composed of Mr Frazer of Customs, ex-pilot Watson, the water police and ‘a crew of blacks’ mounted an extensive expedition into the area, following up on Aboriginal reports of a boat ‘washed ashore 30 miles north of Caloundra.’ The group journeyed along Pumicestone Passage and up the rivers of ‘Maroolah’ (doubtless Mooloolah), ‘Marootchy’ (Maroochy) and ‘Wind’ (possibly Noosa River or ‘Wide Bay’). They even marched three miles inland probably around Coolum, where they located the boat. To their surprise, it had been there some two years (thus since 1858). Additionally, the group:

…saw at one place, the bones of a man, supposed to be of a white, in consequence of the dread with which the blacks manifested to go near the spot where they were… the bones had been there about four years.

Thus apart from themselves exploring ‘uncharted’ areas two years before Petrie and Pettigrew, the group had found evidence of two earlier expeditions, supposedly from 1858 and 1856. The skeletal remains might relate to the Thomas King massacre, except that this was earlier than either the boat or the skeleton (being 1852), but at any rate, the report indicates a larger volume of European visitation to the region than is usually presumed.

10. William Pettigrew 1862 – 1865

Elaine Brown has demonstrated that a timber getter and businessman – William Pettigrew – was responsible for much of the finer exploration and place-naming of what is now the Sunshine Coast/ Cooloola region. Her work showed that he was the first to properly map the “Murrula Harbour” (Mooloolaba) and Maroochy harbour. Many Sunshine Coast/ Wide Bayt landforms (their names provided by Aboriginal guides) are first identified or named on Pettigrew’s diaries and maps. These include Mudjimba, Nambour, Ninderry, Lake Weyba, Noosa, Cooroy, Kin Kin, Teewah (“Seewah’), and Tinbeeerwah. For timber leasing the earliest mapping of the Belli Creek, Obi Obi Creek area. By the time of the Bedwell and Bray map of 1869, most of these and other names had been inserted on available maps and thus became standard for the region.