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Australian Explorers

Wednesday, October 23, 1861. :   South Australian John McKinlay's relief expedition to locate Burke and Wills finds the burial site of party member Charles Gray.

     The Burke and Wills expedition was supposed to mark the state of Victoria's greatest triumph: Victoria hoped to be the first state to mount an expedition to cross the continent from south to north. Instead, due to mismanagement and lack of clear communication, three of the four members of the party who finally made the attempt to cross to the gulf and back, never made it back. Charles Gray died on the return journey from the Gulf, his companions spending a day digging a shallow grave for him in the desert, and subsequently missing their own relief party from Melbourne by seven hours. Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills died some weeks after returning to their depot at Cooper Creek, where they found the supplies left by the relief party but failed to leave a message informing future relief parties they had been there. Thus they were believed to have not even returned from the Gulf. John King alone survived, after being taken in and nursed by the Aborigines of the Cooper Creek area.

Although the expedition had been financed by Victoria, South Australia mounted its own rescue mission for Burke and Wills. John McKinlay, born at Sandbank on the Clyde in 1819, first came to New South Wales in 1836. He joined his uncle, a wealthy grazier, under whose guidance he soon gained practical bush skills, and then took up several runs in South Australia. McKinlay was chosen to head up the relief expedition for Burke and Wills, setting out from Adelaide on 16 August 1861. During the course of his search, McKinlay's journals show that he crossed the continent from south to north, then east and back again, possibly making McKinlay the uncredited first explorer to cross the continent and survive.

In October 1861, with the help of a native guide, McKinlay discovered evidence that horses, camels and white men had camped near a waterhole. In a letter dated 23 October 1861, he wrote:

"Hair, apparently belonging to Mr. Wills, Charles Gray, Mr. Burke, or King, was picked up from the surface of a grave dug by a spade, and from the skull of a European buried by the natives. Other less important traces -- such as a pannikin, oil-can, saddle-stuffing, etc., have been found. Beware of the natives, on whom we have had to fire. We do not intend to return to Adelaide, but proceed to west of north. From information, all Burke's party were killed and eaten."

McKinlay had, in fact, located the burial site of Charles Gray who, despite the party's painstaking efforts to bury him, had then been dug up and eaten by Aborigines. An Aboriginal elder with whom McKinlay was able to communicate indicated that Gray had actually been killed in a skirmish between the whites and natives, not from exhaustion and illness as had been previously thought. The remains of Burke and Wills were eventually located by the Victorian relief expedition.


Today in History

Thought For Today
Well done, you good and faithful servant!' said his master. `You have been faithful in managing small amounts, so I will put you in charge of large amounts. Come on in and share my happiness!
Matthew 25:21 (c) GNB
What your hand finds to do - do well and be rewarded.

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