Stuart’s First Expedition
The vital phase of Stuart’s career began when he embarked as leader on the first of six expeditions into the interior.
Google Earth image: Andamooka Waterhole, discovered on Stuart’s first expedition.
Financed by Finke, he left Oratunga Station (at that time the Chambers brothers’ head station) near the modern day town of Blinman in the Flinders Ranges on May 14, 1858.
He was accompanied by a man called Forster and an unnamed aboriginal youth, to search for new pastoral lands and minerals in the north-west of South Australia. He was also searching for a strange land which the aborigines called Wingillpin.
Stuart took only five or six horses and provisions for one month – his instruments being a pocket compass and a watch.
On Saturday, June 26 1858, he made the European discovery of a large creek with ‘permanent waters’, in the arid region south west of Lake Eyre. He later named it ‘Chambers Creek’ after his future sponsor, James Chambers. Chambers Creek is now known as Stuart Creek.
This was the only major discovery on this expedition but it eventually proved to be ‘the key that opened the way to the centre of the continent’.
Stuart continued to the north-west but, near modern day Coober Pedy, he reluctantly turned to the south-west. Stuart did not realise the wealth of opal in the region, concealed beneath the peculiar flinty stones which were inflicting his horses with much suffering.
With provisions low and the horses in poor condition, they
now faced a gruelling journey through the waterless wilderness of the eastern fringes of the Great Victoria Desert. The aboriginal youth turned back, probably convinced the two white men would starve to death.
On August 16, 1858, thanks to Stuart’s exceptional navigation, they arrived at Miller’s Water on the coast, just west of Denial Bay, and eventually returned to the settled districts on September 11, 1858, after a journey of some 2,400 kilometres and an absence of four months.
Stuart again suffered from the effects of scurvy and rested at Mount Arden Station.
This expedition established Stuart’s reputation as an explorer and bushman of outstanding ability. The news of Stuart’s journey was received in Adelaide and also in London with great acclamation. The Royal Geographical Society honoured him by awarding a gold watch.
It is evident from Stuart’s journal entry for July 1, 1858, that, even at this stage of his career, he was thinking of reaching the centre of the continent.
While Europeans were engaged in unravelling the geographical mysteries of the Australian continent, explorers in the field of science had presented Samuel Finley Breese Morse (an American) with the technical apparatus to produce the electric telegraph. On January 24, 1838, he gave a public demonstration of his invention.
In 1855, the dynamic Charles Todd was appointed Government Astronomer and Superintendent of Telegraphs in South Australia. Within six years, four of the mainland colonies were telegraphically linked. There was growing interest and commercial pressure to link Australia to Europe by the telegraph.
Stuart’s Second Expedition
In October, 1858, Stuart applied to the government for a pastoral lease on Chambers Creek, which exceeded in area his entitlement as the discoverer. Negotiations were protracted. In order to ‘fast track’ his application, Stuart volunteered to survey his chosen blocks rather than wait for the government surveyors. As a result,the main aim of his second expedition (April – July1859) was to survey his chosen blocks at Chambers Creek.
He was accompanied by three men and fourteen horses. With the survey completed, he explored to the north-west and discovered ‘wonderful country,.. scarcely to be believed’.
Stuart’s Third Expedition
When Stuart returned to Adelaide, he was all ‘fired up’ to make an attempt to cross the continent. The Government had announced a prize of 2000 pounds in cash to the first European to cross the continent, and establish a route for an overland telegraph line from Adelaide to the north coast.
Charles Todd, who was preparing a report for the Government on the Overland Telegraph, was greatly encouraged by Stuart’s reports of valuable country near South Australia’s northern boundary.
Stuart’s sponsors, Chambers and Finke, put forward a proposal for an expedition to be led by Stuart. For reasons not included in this text, it was rejected by the Government and they selected instead, Alexander Tolmer. This expedition ended in chaos before leaving the settled districts.
Unfortunately for Stuart, his initial survey of Chambers Creek encroached on land discovered by Benjamin Babbage and Major Peter Egerton Warburton, who had traveled into the region following news of Stuart’s discoveries.
Stuart left Adelaide in August 1859 on his third expedition, primarily to re-survey his land claim. He was accompanied by William Darton Kekwick, two other men and twelve horses.
This union with Kekwick established a partnership which would be central to Stuart’s future success.
With his own survey completed, Stuart surveyed additional claims for his sponsors, explored the region to the west of Lake Eyre and established the northern limits of the lake. He also searched for mineral deposits and discovered new springs fed by the waters of the Great Artesian Basin, many fine creeks and good grass-lands.
When the party returned to Chambers Creek, two members refused to go out again and Kekwick was sent south to seek replacements. He returned with only one – Benjamin Head.
Meanwhile, the colony of Victoria, which for some time had contemplated sending an exploring expedition into the interior, was assembling the greatest exploring expedition in Australia’s history. No expense would be spared for the Burke & Wills Expedition – camels were imported from India.
Stuart’s Fourth Expedition
When Stuart left his base camp at Chambers Creek on March 2, 1860, (his fourth expedition) he was embarking on the most adventurous undertaking of his career. Accompanied by William Darton Kekwick, Benjamin Head, and with thirteen horses, they travelled north and became the first Europeans to cross the northern boundary of South Australia and enter what is now the Northern Territory from the south.
For the first time Europeans gazed upon the ‘red centre’. The small party went on to discover other geographical features including Chambers Pillar, the Finke River, the James, Waterhouse and McDonnell Ranges.
On Sunday April 22, 1860, Stuart wrote in his journal,
Centre of Australia
Today I find from my observation of the O LL 111? 00′ 30″ that I am now camped in the centre of Australia.
The next day, Monday April 23, Stuart and Kekwick climbed a nearby mountain, built a cone of stones, raised the Union Jack and named it Mount Sturt after Stuart’s leader of 1844-45.
A message announcing their arrival was written on paper, placed in a bottle and buried within the cone of stones.
Despite failing health, a shortage of provisions and scarcity of water, they managed to move north of present day Tennant Creek. On June 26, 1860, at a site now known as Attack Creek, the well-armed local Warramunga men launched an attack which terminated one of the most meritorious exploring expeditions in Australia’s history. Stuart and his two companions were some 2400 kilometres from Adelaide, on starvation rations they now faced a return journey with the waters drying up and the horses in poor condition. By Monday afternoon, on August 20, 1860, Stuart’s half-starved party enjoyed the taste of a swan which they shot at Freeling Springs. That day in Melbourne, thousands gathered to farewell the Burke and Wills expedition.
On his return to Adelaide, Stuart was ranked among the greatest of the explorers. Some claimed that he had already crossed the continent because he had travelled as far northward as the latitude to which, in 1856, A.C. Gregory had penetrated.
The Royal Geographical Society in London awarded him the Patron’s Medal. The ‘veil over the centre’ of Australia was removed – Stuart’s achievement in attaining the Centre was acclaimed as equal to Speke’s discovery of the source of the Nile.
Intercolonial Rivalry Now Surfaced.
Certain critics in Victoria doubted the truth of Stuart’s Journal. They suggested it was not possible to travel as far north in the time recorded and Stuart had either faked or mis-calculated his latitude.
The South Australian Parliament, now inspired by Stuart’s success, and hopeful of finding a route for an overland telegraph, voted a sum of 2500 pounds for Stuart to lead a larger, better equipped expedition.
Stuart’s Fifth Expedition
The organisation of this expedition, mainly government funded, was carried out by police Inspector George Hamilton, with some provisions and horses supplied by James Chambers.
They left Chambers Creek on January 1, 1861 with twelve men and forty-nine horses.
The extreme heat encountered soon took its toll on the men and horses.
Stuart reduced the party to ten and sent two men back with five horses which were in poor condition.
Stuart’s progress north was slowed by the continual search for water and feed for the horses.
On February 11, 1861, Burke and Wills reached tidal waters on the muddy estuary of the Bynoe River, near the shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Stuart and his party were camped at Coglin Creek, near the northern border of South Australia.
Beyond Attack Creek, Stuart made many attempts to cross waterless scrubby country to the northwest, in the hope of reaching the Victoria River.
Then, some 240 kilometres to the north he discovered “a splendid sheet of water” which he named Newcastle Waters.
This journey was Stuart’s first experience as leader of a large party. His second officer, Kekwick, was always the man left in charge at the main camp while Stuart, accompanied by Francis William Thring or several others, scouted ahead for water. The physical exertion required in continually searching for waters contributed greatly to Stuart’s poor health.
With provisions low, the men showing the effects of short rations and the horses in poor condition, Stuart again admitted defeat and it is strange that at this time he chose to name a newly discovered watercourse “Burke’s Creek after my brother explorer”.
As Stuart’s party made its way home, a search party led by Alfred Howitt reached Cooper’s Creek and found the only survivor of Burke’s party, John King, living with the aborigines. King informed Howitt of the deaths of Burke, Wills and Gray.
On Stuart’s return, the South Australian Government at once agreed to finance another expedition under Stuart’s leadership. The plan was to follow his previous route to Newcastle Waters but, instead of attempting to reach the Victoria River, he should continue northwards to pick up the headwaters of the Adelaide River and follow that down to the sea at Escape Cliffs.
The Last Years
While Adelaide celebrated, the people of Melbourne stood in silent tribute as the bodies of Burke and Wills were laid to rest.
What should have been a joyful home-coming for Stuart was tempered by the news that his best friend, James Chambers, had died on August 7, 1862.
After the initial excitement of the great celebration had waned, Stuart found himself without home or family. His lease at Chambers Creek had been granted but his poor health influenced his decision to sell out to John Chambers and Alfred Barker. His right hand was crippled, the result of an accident on the day the final expedition left Adelaide, and he was unable to work as a surveyor.
Stuart had given everything he had to give to achieve his aim, and his life now seemed empty.
He turned to William Finke for assistance but tragically, Finke died on January 18, 1864 and although John Chambers was supportive, Stuart decided to return to England. He sailed from Port Adelaide in April 1864 on the Indus, which was not the same diminutive barque which carried him to the colony twenty five years earlier.
About the same time the Henry Ellis also departed, carrying the first party of officials, surveyors and prospective settlers to found a new town on the north coast, close to the mouth of the Adelaide River.
Stuart died on June 5, 1866, aged fifty years and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Only seven people attended his funeral. His widowed sister, Mary Turnbull, arranged for the erection of the tombstone which still marks his grave.
It was damaged during World War II and the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia arranged for its restoration in the early 1980s.
When Stuart died, his reputation and achievements as an explorer were being questioned.
The first surveyors sent to locate the area where he reached the coast failed to locate the tree he had marked. Several of his companions who were working in the region, were challenged to identify the site, but after searching, they had to admit that they were unable to do so.
Stuart’s Latitudes were correct but his Longitudes were less accurate and so he followed the Mary River and not the Adelaide River to the coast. Half a degree of Longitude separated the two rivers. Some critics cast doubts on his achievements and his character. It would be two decades before his tree was located and photographed, with his initials still clearly visible – his name at last was cleared of suspicion.
Stuart’s Method of Exploration
Stuart’s approach to exploration was in stark contrast to Sturt’s.
Stuart referred to his men as his companions and did not have the military barriers of rank that Sturt had.
Stuart aimed for maximum speed, with no slow moving wagons or travelling stock for rations. Horses were his only means of transport – camels were not considered.
He did not attempt, as Sturt had, to combine detailed surveying with exploration.
He only used aboriginal guides on two occasions, then abandoned that idea.
His only navigational instruments carried were the sextant, artificial horizon and prismatic compass. R.R. Knuckey, who later worked on the construction of the Overland Telegraph, wrote of Stuart;
He was simply a marvel for horseback traverse. His map was so correct that we used simply to put a protractor and scale on it, get the bearing and distance, and ride with the same confidence as we would ride from Adelaide to Gawler.”
As Aeneas Gunn, a well-known pioneer of the Northern Territory recorded:
His expeditions were undertaken without ostentation. He took no theatrical risks nor hazardous shortcuts and he came through his journeys without tragic failures or dramatic incidents to mark them for public concern.”
On the final journey, Stuart prohibited the keeping of private diaries, possibly at the insistence of his sponsors. The only exception was Waterhouse, the Government appointed naturalist.
Fortunately, Stephen King made a series of sketches which he hid from Stuart’s view. They are an invaluable record – the only images of the journey.
Stuart, to his credit, had an enlightened view of the aboriginal people – possibly due to his association with Sturt and Edward John Eyre. His journals contain many references which reveal his keen interest in their activities and characteristics.
He admired the ‘bold spirit’ of a child and the planning and execution of their attack on him at Attack Creek. He was sometimes amused by their antics.
It is clear however, that he encountered increased hostility when he returned for his second and third attempts to cross the continent. Fire-arms were used as a last resort and then only to serve as a warning.
John McDouall Stuart spent half his life, 25 years, in South Australia. Mona Stuart Webster once wrote:-
The most important thing that Stuart gave his ‘ adopted country’, as he called South Australia, is the route across the Continent! The search for it dominated the later years of his life to such an extent that nothing else — health, or money, or home and family — mattered to him so much as finding a way to reach the northern shore. When he had found it, his health was gone and with it all hope of wealth or a home of his own, but to the end he was confident that he had achieved something of real value for which his name would be remembered.”