Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army who earned his stripes with Wellington in the 1811 Iberian Campaign against Napoleon. The Duke was so impressed by the young Scot, barely 19, he commissioned him to survey the battlefields. After 16 years of military service he was head-hunted by the Crown to perform the same duties for the young colony of New South Wales as Deputy Surveyor-General.
Mitchell’s boss was John Oxley who had opened up several areas to white settlers including the Lachlan, Macquarie and Tweed Rivers. With Allan Cunningham, Oxley beat an inland path to what would become Queensland via the Brisbane River But the difficulties of his explorations led to an early death. John Oxley died in 1828 aged just 45. Hired just a year earlier, Oxley’s ill-health was always at the back of Mitchell’s mind and suddenly he was promoted into the role he would keep for the next 27 years and four major explorations.
The first of those in 1831 took Mitchell directly due north of Sydney towards Tamworth. He found the Gwydir River and turned inland till he found the Darling. After natives killed two of three helpers, Mitchell returned to Sydney to plan his next sortie. It took four years to return to the Darling but he was determined to find out where this long meandering river emptied into the sea. His botanist Richard Cunningham was killed by the Aborigines and Mitchell was forced to withdraw again after a skirmish.
Undaunted, he was back a year later to try again. There was more battles with natives and he killed seven of a large posse of 200 that were attacking him. This time he followed the Darling until it joined the Murray near Wentworth. Mitchell went on to see the Grampians and he followed the Glenelg River to the Bass Strait coast (where Nelson is now). Mitchell returned to Sydney a hero after opening up this vast stretch of Australia Felix to the Europeans.
It led to a relative semi-retirement and there was no more expeditions for nine years. Having mapped much of what would become Victoria, he would do the same for what would become Queensland. With fellow explorer Edmund Kennedy he set off north on December 15, 1845, aged 54. Mitchell called on familiar routines striking out north-west for the Darling, as he had done three times before. But this time he continued north to the Narran River, to the Balonne, and to the Culgoa. Near the junction of the Maranoa and Balonne rivers, Mitchell found a natural bridge on April 23, 1846. He named the bridge for the auspicious saint’s day he found it, St George’s Bridge.
Crossing the bridge Mitchell followed the Cogoon Creek which he renamed what he thought the natives called it: Muckadilla Creek. This took him into great pastoral country west of what is now Roma. He christened a hill in the region Mt Abundance and from its top, marvelled over what he called a “a champaign region, spotted with wood, stretching as far as human vision or even the telescope would reach.” Mitchell would continue west to find the Warrego and Barcoo Rivers but it was his description of Mt Abundance that resonated. By champaign, Mitchell meant undulating country, but many who followed in his path were made drunk by his vision. It was to be his final exploration.
When he returned to Sydney, he told his friend and fellow Scot William MacPherson about his discoveries. His son Allan MacPherson held lands at Keera in New England and Mitchell encouraged him to try his luck at Mount Abundance. Heading north-west and crossing St George’s Bridge in the path of Mitchell, MacPherson was the first white settler of the Maranoa in 1847 just a year after his mentor, bringing with him his workers, cattle and sheep.
Watched closely by the Mandandanji whose lands he craved, MacPherson was fearless and carried guns to enforce his law. Ultimately he was not successful but he laid open the path for others to follow both from the south and from the east to the Darling Downs.
Thanks to his mentor Mitchell, MacPherson had changed the region forever.