About Thomas Mitchell

Major Sir Thomas Livingston Mitchell (June 16, 1792-1855), surveyor and explorer of south-eastern Australia, was born at Grangemouth in Stirlingshire, Scotland. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, but the poverty of his family following his father’s death led him to join the Army in 1811. He saw service in Portugal, where Sir George Murray, later to be Colonial Secretary, was the Army’s Quartermaster-General, and became Mitchell’s most important connection. He learned surveying in the Army, and in 1817 he married Mary Blunt in Lisbon.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 Mitchell returned to the dull routine of peacetime soldiering, and in 1827 he was pleased to take up the position of Surveyor-General of New South Wales. In this post he did much to improve the quality and accuracy of surveying – a vital task in a colony where huge tracts of land were being opened up and sold to new settlers. One of the first roads surveyed under his leadership was the Great North Road, built by convict labour between 1826 and 1836 linking Sydney to the Hunter Valley. The Great South Road, also convict-built, linked Sydney and Goulburn.

In 1834 he was commissioned to survey a map of the Nineteen Counties. The map he produced was done with such skill and accuracy that he was awarded a knighthood.





In two volumes

Volume One of this publication chronicles his 1831 and 1835 expeditions and Volume Two details his 1836 expedition. The 1831 expedition’s objective was to test reports of the existence of a large river following in the direction of the north-west in north western New South Wales. The 1835 expedition’s focus was to chart the Darling River and survey its junction with the Murray. The 1836 expedition is perhaps Mitchell’s most significant exploration as he opened up extensive new farming opportunities in south-west Victoria in an area he named Australia Felix.

Volume One

First Expedition

In 1831, George Clarke who had lived in the area for several years claimed that a river that the Aborigines called Kinder flowed north-west from Liverpool ranges in NSW to the sea. Charles Sturt said that the Murray-Darling system formed the main river system of NSW and Mitchell wanted to prove Sturt wrong. Mitchell then set off on the 24th of November 1831 to find the Kinder River. In his party were 2 surveyors, 15 convicts and his personal servant, Anthony Brown who came with him on every expedition. Between the 30th of November and the 11th December he got to Wallamoul Station near Tamworth. Mitchell used 20 bullocks, three heavy drays, three light carts and 9 horses. Most of the time the animals were used as pack animals. A little while later an Aborigine named Mr Brown joined his party and lead them into unexplored territory. Mitchell found a deep, broad river but it was not the Kinder it was the Gwydir. On the 21st January, Mitchell split his team. One group followed the Gwydir River but Mitchell’s group headed north. Two days later Mitchell found a large river and then sent for the other half of the party and began to build a wooden boat. Meanwhile Mitchell explored the river from land but he eventually decided it was the Darling River, with no need for exploration on water. The person who was meant to bring supplies arrived but without supplies because Aborigines had killled two out of the three of his men. Mitchell then had no choice but to call off the expedition and go home.

Second Expedition

Mitchell’s next expedition was on the 7th April 1835. This expedition was put together to trace the course of the Darling River to the sea. In his party, there was an assistant surveyor, James Larmer, botanist, Richard Cunningham, Mitchell’s personal servant and 20 other men. After the murder of botanist, Richard Cunningham, who was killed by Aborigines while he was by the Darling River, Mitchell decided to continue his expedition. They then followed the Bogan River downstream lead by an Aborigine. Mitchell decided to explore the Darling River with two boats they had lugged all the way there with them but is as it was shallow they continued over land. After one month of following the river, Mitchell believed that it was the Darling and didn’t want to continue. He returned to Sydney on the 14th of September the same year. His expedition had achieved very little because he didn’t trace the Darling River to the sea, thereby confirming Sturts’ proposition.

Volume Two

Third Expedition

Expedition 3 started on the 17th of March 1836. Mitchell was instructed once again to follow the Darling River to its end. In his party there was 25 men including his personal servant. At one point Mitchell decided to take a small group west. He found no other rivers so he decided to turn back to camp. On the 23rd of May, he reached the Murray River. His camp was attacked three times by Aborigines. They came across 200 Aborigines who they thought were going to attack. Mitchell’s men started to shoot at them and killed seven. He continued to explore and then decided that Sturt was right that the Darling did flow into the Murray River. He was determined to leave the Darling and explore the Murray River.

While he was exploring the Murray, Mitchell decided that the area to the south east looked interesting so he began to explore it. That’s how he discovered the Grampians. They then found a river that Mitchell called Glenelg, which Mitchell chose to follow and it lead to the sea. They returned to their camp and continued to explore the coast line. They soon discovered the Henty brothers’ farm, who were the first permanent settlers in this area. They gave Mitchell supplies and Mitchell headed for home. He returned to Sydney and was happy that he had discovered a vast, fertile region which would undoubtedly ensure his fame as an explorer.-The Australia Felix.

In retirement Mitchell published the journals of his expeditions, which have proved a rich source for historians and anthropologists, with their close and sympathetic observations of the Aboriginal peoples he had encountered. These publications made him the most celebrated Australian explorer of his day. But he was a famously difficult man to get on with. In 1850 Governor Charles Augustus FitzRoy wrote: “It is notorious that Sir Thomas Mitchell’s unfortunate impracticability of temper and spirit of opposition of those in authority over him misled him into frequent collision with my predecessors.”

Mitchell died in Sydney in October 1855. A newspaper of the day commented: “For a period of twenty-eight years Sir Thomas Mitchell had served the Colony, much of that service having been exceedingly arduous and difficult. Among the early explorers of Australia his name will occupy an honored place in the estimation of posterity.”

Some of the places Mitchell named on his expeditions were: the Avoca River, Ballonne River, Belyando River, Campaspe River, Cogoon River, Discovery Bay, Glenelg River, Grampians, Muranoa River, Mt Arapiles, Mt King, Mt Macedon, Mt Napier, Mt William, Nyngan, Pyramid Hills, St George, Swan Hill and Winnera River.

Among other ways, Mitchell is commemorated by the town of Mitchell in Queensland, the electorate of Mitchell, and in the name of Mitchell College in Wodonga, Victoria. The Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo is named in his honour, as well as Mitchell’s Hopping Mouse, Mitchell Falls, Mitchell Highway, Mitchell Park, Mitchell Plateau, Sir Thomas Mitchell Road in Bondi Beach, Mitchell’s Lookout and Mitchell River.. Mitchell is also the namesake in the highest honour of the NSW Surveyors Awards, the Sir Thomas Mitchell Excellence in Surveying Award.

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Click here to read Mitchell’s Journal entries