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John Oxley and his 1817 Expedition

The forest of what Oxley called Peel's Range

1817 was the year of the first white explorers in the Griffith area. John Oxley, Surveyor General of the Colony of New South Wales, on his second expedition into the hinterland made it to Mt Brogden in the Cocoparra National Park on June 3.
Oxley had, by this time, been in the colony for 5 years. As Surveyor General, he had a number of important things on his agenda. He wanted to establish himself as a pioneer and explorer of note, he wanted to survey the land for settlement, he wanted to make a lot of money for himself, he wanted to find the inland sea and he wanted his boss - Governor Macquarie - off his back. Macquarie wanted Oxley back in Sydney allocating land to settlers.
Most importantly, for us, Oxley had a European eye for what he saw. He was looking for fertile land for settlers. In what appears to have been a very dry year - perhaps the culmination of many dry years - Oxley did not find what he was looking for and left disappointed. It was left to Charles Sturt, some 10 years later, to follow and find the truth of the inland sea. But that is the stuff of further editions and updates to GriffithGateway.com.

GriffithGateway.com brings you John Oxley's journal from Project Gutenburg on the 190th anniversary of his expedition.

In this first part, Oxley oultines previous expeditions to the interior and their discoveries

APRIL 1817
MAY 1817
JUNE 1817
JULY 1817

The colony had been established many years before any successful attempt had been made to penetrate into the interior of the country, by crossing the range of hills, known to the colonists as the Blue Mountains: these mountains were considered as the boundary of the settlements westward, the country beyond them being deemed inaccessible.

The year 1813 proving extremely dry, the grass was nearly all destroyed, and the water failed; the horned cattle suffered severely from this drought, and died in great numbers. It was at this period that three gentlemen, Lieutenant Lawson, of the Royal Veteran Company, Messrs. Blaxland, and William Wentworth, determined upon attempting a passage across these mountains, in hopes of finding a country which would afford support to their herds during this trying season.

They crossed the Nepean River at Emu Plains, and ascending the first range of mountains, were entangled among gullies and deep ravines for a considerable time, insomuch that they began to despair of ultimate success. At length they were fortunate enough to find a main dividing range, along the ridge of which they travelled, observing that it led them westward. After suffering many hardships, their distinguished perseverance was at length rewarded by the view of a country, which at first sight promised them all they could wish.

Into this Land of Promise they descended by a steep mountain, which Governor Macquarie has since named Mount York(1). The valley(2) to which it gave them access was covered with grass, and well watered by a small stream running easterly, and which was subsequently found to fall into the Nepean River. From Mount York they proceeded westerly eight or ten miles, passing during the latter part of the way through an open country, but broken into steep hills. Seeing that the stream before mentioned as watering the valley ran easterly, it was evident they had not yet crossed the ranges which it was supposed would give source to waters falling westerly; they had however proceeded sufficiently far for their purpose, and ascertained that no serious obstacles existed to a farther progress westward.

1 This mountain was found to be 795 feet in perpendicular height above the vale of Clwydd.
2 Named by Governor Macquarie the Vale of Clwydd.

Their provisions being nearly expended, they returned to Sydney, after an absence of little more than a month; and the report of their discoveries opened new prospects to the colonists, who had began to fear that their narrow and confined limits would not long afford pasture and subsistence for their greatly increasing flocks and herds.

His Excellency Governor Macquarie, with that promptitude which distinguishes his character, resolved not to let slip so favourable an opportunity of obtaining a farther knowledge of the interior. Mr. Evans, the deputy surveyor, was directed to proceed With a party, and follow up the discoveries already made. He crossed the Nepean River on the 20th of November, 1813, and on the 26th arrived at the termination of Messrs. Lawson, Blaxland, and Wentworth's journey. Proceeding westward, he crossed a mountainous(3) broken country, the grass of which was good, and the valleys well-watered, until the 30th, when he came to a small stream, running westerly; this stream, called by him the Fish River, he continued to trace until the 7th of December, passing through a very fine country, adapted to every purpose either of agriculture or grazing; when he met another stream coming from the southward: this latter stream he named Campbell River, and when joined with the Fish River, the united streams received the name of the Macquarie River, in honour of his excellency the present governor of New South Wales.

3 Since named Clarence Hilly Range.

Mr. Evans continued to trace the Macquarie River until December the 18th, passing over rich tracts clear of timber, well-watered, and offering every advantage which a country in its natural state can be supposed to afford. During this excursion, Mr. Evans fell in with abundance of kangaroos and emus, and the river abounded with fine fish: he saw only six natives during the whole time of his absence, viz. two women and four children, although on his return he observed many fires in the neighbourhood of the mountains. On the 8th of January, 1814, he returned to Emu Plains, having gone in the whole near one hundred miles in a direct line due west from the Nepean River.

From the report of Mr. Evans, Governor Macquarie was induced to believe that a road might be opened for the whole distance already surveyed, and was most anxious that the colony should reap as soon as possible the advantages, which the discovery of such extensive and fertile tracts seemed to open.

The ample means afforded for this purpose enabled Mr. Cox, to whose superintendence this work was entrusted, to complete a road passable for loaded carriages early in 1815. This road extended in length upwards of one hundred miles, the first fifty of which passed along a narrow ridge of the Blue Mountains, bounded on each side by deep ravines, and precipitous rocks. The road which was cut down Mount York was a work of considerable labour and magnitude, and reflected the highest credit upon all employed in it. This important task being finished, the governor resolved in person to visit a country of which so much had been said, and to judge from actual observation how far the sanguine hopes which had been entertained were likely to be realized; his excellency therefore, accompanied by Mrs. Macquarie and his suite, set out from Emu Plains on the 26th of April, 1815, and arrived on the 4th of May at a small encampment (the site of which had been previously selected), on Bathurst Plains, near the termination of Mr. Evans's journey. Governor Macquarie having been pleased to publish for the information of the colonists such observations on the country as he deemed necessary, I shall not presume to add any thing to an account, which so clearly and accurately describes all that could be interesting or beneficial to the colonist and general inquirer.

I have therefore inserted in the Appendix the account published by the Governor in the Sydney Gazette, of the 10th of June, 1815, as affording the best and most authentic information on the subject. During the Governor's stay at Bathurst, he despatched Mr. Evans, and a party with a month's provisions, to explore the country to the south-west, and it is the result of that journey which led to the expedition, the direction of which was entrusted to my command.

The means which his excellency placed at my disposal were well calculated to attain the object in view, and it is a matter of the most sincere regret, that the nature and description of the country which we passed through was for the most part such as to afford few interesting objects of research or remark.

The botanical productions of the country have however in a great measure been ascertained by Mr. Allan Cunningham, the King's botanist, who accompanied the expedition.

With respect to the construction of the chart prefixed to this Journal, it is thought proper to observe, that the situation of the principal stations of Bathurst, and the depot on the Lachlan River, were ascertained by celestial observations, and connected by a series of triangles, commencing at the latter point, and closing at Bathurst. New base lines were frequently measured, and any unavoidable errors which might arise from the nature of the country were corrected at every proper opportunity by observed latitudes; so that on the return of the expedition to Bathurst, I had the satisfaction to find the connection of the angles complete, the error in the whole survey not exceeding a mile of longitude.

The instruments chiefly used were a small theodolite by Ramsden, and Kater's pocket compass(4), with the addition of an excellent sextant, pocket chronometer, and artificial horizon. I have to lament that our mountain barometers were broken at an early stage of the expedition; the height however of some principal points had been previously obtained, and is marked on the chart; these in two instances were verified by geometrical measurement, and the difference was found to be too trilling to be noticed. The conveyance of such delicate instruments is always attended with great risk, and in our case peculiarly so, our means being only those of horseback. I am afraid that a method of constructing those instruments, so as to place them beyond the reach of injury by carriage, will always remain among the desiderata of science. I have given to our thermometrical observations the form of a chart, as affording the readiest view of the atmospherical changes which took place during our journey. The winds and weather are also more particularly noticed on the same sheet than in the narrative.

4 A most valuable instrument, combining all the advantages of the circumferentor, without being so liable to be damaged and put out of order by carriage.

It may perhaps be not superfluous to mention, that it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to follow the course of the Macquarie River, and it is sanguinely expected that the result of the contemplated expedition will be such as to leave no longer in doubt the true character of the country comprising the interior of this vast island. It would be as presumptuous as useless to speculate on the probable termination of the Macquarie River, when a few months will (it is to be hoped) decide the long disputed point, whether Australia, with a surface nearly as extensive as Europe, is, from its geological formation, destitute of rivers, either terminating in interior seas, or having their estuaries on the coast.

J. O. Sydney, New South Wales, Dec. 11, 1817.

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