The Burke and Wills Expedition: Tragedy and Triumph

This article, by Dr Judith McKay, was originally published on the Queensland State Archives website, March 2011.

The Burke and Wills Expedition, the first to cross the Australian continent from south to north, ended in tragedy, yet it resulted in opening up of vast tracts of Queensland to pastoral settlement. The expedition and the various ‘relief’ parties dispatched in its wake have left not only a trail of archival records but also indelible marks on the landscape.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Wills, William John (1834-1861)
Australian Dictionary of Biography, Burke, Robert O’Hara (1821-1861)











The ‘Victorian Exploring Expedition’ was organised by the Royal Society of Victoria with the support of the Victorian Government. Purporting to explore the inland, its scientific goals were secondary to its quest to make Victoria Australia’s leader in exploration. In particular, the gold-rich colony wanted to beat South Australia’s John McDouall Stuart in the race across the continent. The expedition was led by Robert O’Hara Burke, a police superintendent who was chosen more for his influential connections than for his knowledge of exploration or bushcraft.

Culture Victoria, Burke and Wills: Have Camels Will Travel

The well-equipped expedition, the first to use camels, departed Melbourne on 20 August 1860. Impulsive and determined to travel fast, Burke split his party and dumped supplies at Menindee, NSW, before pressing on to Cooper’s Creek, QLD (now known as Cooper Creek, QLD). There in December he established Depot Camp LXV (later called Fort Wills) near Boolloo Boolloo Waterhole and again left a waiting group while he trekked to the Gulf of Carpentaria accompanied only by surveyor William John Wills, his second-in-command, John King and Charles Gray. After reaching Camp CXIX on the Little Bynoe River in February 1861, the men began their return journey, struggling on low rations and with failing camels. At ‘Plant’ Camp XLVI near today’s Betoota in Queensland they buried equipment to lighten their load, however Gray died before they reached Camp LXV on the evening of 21 April.

On return, the men were dismayed to find that the waiting group under William Brahé had left for Menindee just hours earlier. During their stay the group had erected a stockade to protect their supplies from Aborigines and, before leaving, buried at the foot of a nearby Coolibah tree a small cache of food. On the morning of their departure they left messages carved into the tree pointing to the cache—the so-called Dig Tree survives to this day. Soon afterwards Burke’s trio began a journey west to Blanchewater Station, near Mount Hopeless in South Australia to seek help, preferring this to the longer, but known, route to Menindee. Driven back by waterless desert, Burke and Wills eventually perished near Cooper’s Creek in late June while King managed to survive along the watercourse by befriending Aborigines.

National Museum Australia, Burke and Wills collection, ‘The famous tree at Fort Wills on the Cooper’

Once Brahé returned to Melbourne to report that the Burke and Wills expedition had foundered, such was its prominence that several search parties were soon dispatched. The first, led by Alfred William Howitt and including Brahé, left Melbourne on 20 June 1861 to retrace the missing explorers’ steps. Arriving at Camp LXV in September, the party found King and later the remains of Burke and Wills, blazing trees to mark their graves. By this time the explorers’ plight had aroused much interest in western Queensland; John Black of Gulnarbar Station in the Maranoa reported the arrival at the Culgoa River of a camel thought to have strayed from their party. Howitt later returned to Cooper’s Creek to collect the explorers’ remains, on this mission exploring a large tract of the Channel Country. Another search party, led by John McKinlay and his deputy William Oswald Hodgkinson (later to become a well-known Queensland explorer), left Adelaide on 14 August bound for Cooper’s Creek. After finding the explorers’ graves and Howitt’s abandoned camp, the party explored the local lakes and pastoral land; then from February 1862 it attempted to retrace the explorers’ path north to Eyre Creek and the Gulf of Carpentaria, finally turning east to trek to Port Denison (Bowen).

Meanwhile a much larger undertaking, the ‘Victorian Burke Relief Expedition’, was organised to search from the north and the east. Frederick Walker, a former Native Police officer, was appointed to lead a party of Aboriginal troopers from Rockhampton to the Gulf while, with the assistance of the Queensland Government which contributed £500 for the purpose, another ‘Northern Expedition’ was to search from the Gulf southwards. As the whole enterprise was initiated and largely funded by the Victorian Government, the two parties were to be under the supreme command of Captain WH Norman of the HCMS Victoria, which was to act as a supply ship. In early August 1861 William Landsborough, an experienced explorer and pastoralist, was chosen by Queensland’s Surveyor-General Augustus Charles Gregory to lead the Northern Expedition. Gregory, himself a noted explorer, drafted Landsborough’s instructions. On 24 August the expedition sailed from Brisbane and, on arrival at the Gulf, established a depot on the Albert River, later the site of Burketown.

Australian Dictionary of Biography, Landsborough, William (1825-1886)

In November 1861 Landsborough began his searches, heading down the Albert towards Central Mount Stuart. After reaching the Herbert River, he returned to the depot on 19 January 1862, in accordance with his instructions, to consult with Captain Norman on his future movements. By then, Walker had arrived from the east, reporting his finding of Burke and Wills’ tracks at the Flinders River and their most northerly camp. After re-supplying, both parties set out in search of further tracks. Walker intended to retrace the explorers’ path down to Eyre Creek however he soon lost their tracks and decided to return to Rockhampton. On 10 February Landsborough departed for the Flinders, later turning south to Bowen Downs (of which he was part owner) and then to the Barcoo and Warrego Rivers. The route yielded no more traces of the missing explorers and not until May, when he reached Coongoola Station on the Warrego, did he learn of their fate. Landsborough continued his journey down the Darling River, reporting his arrival at Bunnawannah Station in June. At last reaching Melbourne in October 1862, he was fêted as the first explorer to cross the continent from north to south.

The journals and maps of the Burke and Wills relief parties, recording the country they had traversed, caused enterprising pastoralists to follow in their tracks. Landsborough, accused by the Brisbane press of using his searches to advance his own interests, denied such charges, declaring in July 1862 to Queensland’s Colonial Secretary that he had ‘no immediate intention’ of tendering for country he had discovered. He added: ’respecting the country I saw near the Gulf of Carpentaria…it was exceedingly well adapted for sheep runs…I considered the most valuable country was the Plains of Promise…and of the country I saw while on the last expedition that had not been previously explored that the most valuable (on which I am satisfied sheep will thrive well) was the plains on the west bank of the Leichhardt River, and the plains on the Flinders River’ [DID15883]. In 1865, as settlement was established in the Gulf country, Landsborough became the district’s police magistrate and commissioner of crown lands, based at Burketown; later the Queensland Government rewarded him with £2000 for his explorations.

burke wills funeral
National Library of Australia, Trove, Public Funeral of the Australian explorers Burke and Wills

By the 1870s even the Channel Country received an influx of settlers, grazing their sheep and cattle along Cooper’s Creek and its myriad channels and streams. Within twelve years of the explorers’ deaths, the land encompassing the Dig Tree and depot area was taken up by John Conrick as Nappa Merrie run.

Dr Judith McKay
March 2011

Further information regarding the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition can be found on the QLD State Archives online catalogue or in this historical essay.

Other material consulted

  • Tim Bonyhady, Burke and Wills: from Melbourne to Myth. David Ell Press Pty Ltd, Balmain, NSW, 1991.
  • Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998.
  • Marjorie J. Tipping, ‘Becker, Ludwig (1808? – 1861)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969, pp 127-128.
  • Queensland Heritage Register Place ID 601359 Dr Ludwig Becker’s Grave, Molesworth Station, Bulloo River, Thargomindah
Featured image from The Australian, 150-year-old time capsule uncovered beneath Ballarat’s Burke and Wills fountain, Burke and Wills in front of the Dig Tree

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6 Responses

  1. Ray pini

    Great information about some famous legends . Would be good to cover stories of the indigenous people of these areas too – if possible.

  2. Janet

    I’ve just finished listening to Peter Fitzsimond’s book on Bourke and Wills’ very sad story. Then I got on line to further expand on it and came across your website
    I’m old school but can’t remember studying this in school. It’s certainly fascinating stuff. Congratulations on all the work, effort and backtracking which has gone into gathering all this information.

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