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Scottish, (1819-1872)


Extract from Chapter 15 of The Explorers of Australia and their life-work
by Ernest Favenc,
Whitcombe & Tombs, Christchurch, 1908.

John McKinlay was born at Sandbank, on the Clyde, in 1819. He first came to the colony of New South Wales in 1836, and joined his uncle, a prosperous grazier, under whose guidance he soon became a good bushman with an ardent love of bush life. He took up several runs near the South Australian border, and thenceforth became associated with that province.

In 1861 he was appointed leader of the South Australian relief party and started from Adelaide on October 26th. On arriving at Blanche Water, he heard a vague rumour from the blacks that white men and camels had been seen at a distant inland water; but put little faith in the story. He traversed Lake Torrens, and, striking north, crossed the lower end of Cooper's Creek at a point where the main watercourse is lost in a maze of channels. Here he learned definite and particular details respecting the rumoured white men, and thinking there might be some groundwork of truth in the report, he now pressed forward to the locality indicated. Having formed a Depot camp, he went ahead with two white men and a native. Passing through a belt of country with numerous small shallow lakelets, they came to a watercourse whereon they found signs of a grave, and they picked up a battered pint-pot. Next morning, feeling sure that the ground had been disturbed with a spade, they opened what proved to be a grave, and in it found the body of a European, the skull marked, so McKinlay states, with two sabre cuts. He noted down the description of the body, the locality, and its surroundings; and in view of these particulars, it has been stated that the body was that of Gray, who died in the neighbourhood.


Considering the minute and circumstantial accounts that have from time to time been related by the blacks concerning Leichhardt, one is not astonished at the legends told to McKinlay. The native with him told him that the whites had been attacked in their camp, and that the whole of them had been murdered; the blacks having finished by eating the bodies of the other men, and burying the journals, saddles, and similar portions of the equipment beside a lake a short distance away. A further search revealed another grave -- empty -- and there were other and slighter indications that white men had visited the neighbourhood, so that McKinlay was led to place some credence in this story.

Next morning a tribe of blacks appeared; and although they immediately ran away on perceiving the party, one was captured who corroborated the statement made by the other native. Both of them bore marks on them like bullet and shot wounds. The second native said that there was a pistol concealed near a neighbouring lake. He was sent to fetch it; but returned the next morning at the head of a host of aboriginals, armed, painted, and evidently bent on mischief. The leader was obliged to order his men to fire upon them, and it was only after two or three volleys that they retired.

McKinlay was now satisfied that he had discovered all there was to find of the Victorian expedition, and, after burying a letter for the benefit of any after-comers, he left Lake Massacre, as it was mistakenly named, and returned to the Depot camp.

McKinlay next sent one of his party - Hodgkinson - with men and pack-horses to Blanche Water, to carry down the news of his discovery, and to bring back rations for a prolonged exploration. Meanwhile he remained in camp. From one old native with whom he had a long conversation, he obtained another version of the alleged massacre, in which there was apparently some vestige of truth.

The new version was to the effect that the whites, on their return, had been attacked by the natives, but had repulsed them. One white man had been killed, and had been buried after the fight, whilst the other whites went south. The natives had then dug up the body and eaten the flesh. The old fellow also described minutely the different waters passed by Burke, and the way in which the men subsisted on the seeds of the nardoo plant, all of which he must have heard from other natives.

After waiting a month, Hodgkinson returned, bringing the news of the rescue of King and the fate of Burke and Wills. This explained McKinlay's discovery as that of Gray's body, the narrative of the fight and massacre being merely ornamental additions by the natives. After an easterly excursion, in which he visited the two graves on Cooper's Creek, McKinlay started definitely north. It is difficult to follow without a map the Journal containing the record of his travel during the first weeks. Not only does he give the native name of every small lakelet and waterhole in full, but he omits to give the bearing of his daily course.

A northerly course was however, in the main pursued, and Mckinlay describes the country crossed as first-class pastoral land. As it was then the dry season of the year, immediately preceding the rains, it proves what an abnormally severe season must have been encountered by Sturt when that explorer was turned back on his last trip in much the same latitude. On the 27th of February, the wet season of the tropics set in; but fortunately the party found a refuge among some stony hills and sand-ridges, in the neighbourhood of which they were camped, though at one time they were completely surrounded by water. On March 10th, the rain had abated sufficiently to allow them to resume their journey; but the main creek which they still continued to follow up north was so boggy and swollen that they were forced to keep some distance from its banks. This river, which McKinlay called the Mueller, is one of the main rivers of Central Australia, and an important affluent of Lake Eyre, and is now known as the Diamantina. McKinlay left it at the point where it comes from the north-west, and following up a tributary, he crossed the dividing range, there called the McKinlay Range, in about the same locality as Burke's crossing. He had christened many of the inland watercourses on his way across, but most of his names have been replaced by others, it having been difficult subsequently to identify them. In many cases, the watercourses which he thought to be independent creeks, are but ana-branches of the Diamantina.

Passing through good travelling country, and finding ample grass and water, he reached the Leichhardt River flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the 6th of May.

As his rations were becoming perilously low, McKinlay was anxious to get to the mouth of the Albert, it having been understood that Captain Norman, with the steam-ship Victoria was there to form a Depot for the use of the Queensland search parties. His attempts to reach it however, were fruitless, as he was continually turned back by mangrove creeks both broad and deep, and by boggy flats; so that on the 21st of May he started for the nearest settled district in North Queensland, in the direction of Port Denison.

He followed much the same route as that taken by A.C. Gregory on his return from the Victoria River. Crossing on to the head of the Burdekin, he followed that river down, trusting to come across some of the flocks and herds of the advancing settlers. On reaching Mount McConnell, where the two former explorers had crossed the Burdekin, he continued to follow the river, and descended the coast range where it forces its way through a narrow gorge. Here on the Bowen River, he arrived at a temporary station just formed by Phillip Somer, where he received all the accustomed hospitality. Since leaving the Gulf, the explorers had subsisted on little else but horse and camel flesh, and were necessarily in a weak condition. Had they but camped a day or two when on the upper course of the Burdekin, they would have been relieved much earlier, for the pioneer squatters were already there, and the party would have been spared a rough trip through the Burdekin Gorge. In fact the tracks of the camels were seen by one pioneer at least, a few hours after the caravan had passed. E. Cunningham, who had just then formed Burdekin Downs station, tells with much amusement how McKinlay's tracks puzzled him and his black boy. The Burdekin pioneers did not of course, expect McKinlay's advent amongst them, although they knew that he was then somewhere out west; and such an animal as a camel did not enter into their calculations. Cunningham said that the only solution of the problem of the footprints that he could think of was that the tracks were those of a return party who had been looking for new country, and that their horses, having lost their shoes and becoming footsore, they had wrapped their feet in bandages.

For his services on this expedition which were of great value in opening up Central Australia, McKinlay was presented with a gold watch by the Royal Geographical Society, and was voted 1,000 pounds by the South Australian Government.

During the early settlement of the Northern Territory, much dissatisfaction had arisen concerning the site chosen at Escape Cliffs. McKinlay was sent north by the South Australian Government to select a more favourable position, and to report generally on the capabilities of the new territory. He organized an expedition at Escape Cliffs, and left with the intention of making a long excursion to the eastward. But a very wet season set in, and he had reached only the East Alligator River when sudden floods cut him off and hemmed him in. The whole party would have been destroyed but for the resourcefulness displayed by the leader, who made coracles of horse-hides stretched on frames of saplings, by which means they escaped. On his return, McKinlay examined the mouth of the Daly River, and recommended Anson Bay as a more suitable site, but his suggestion was not adopted. McKinlay, whose health suffered from the effect of the hardships incident to his journeys, retired to spend his days in the congenial atmosphere of pastoral pursuits, and died, in 1874, at Gawler, South Australia, where a monument is erected to his memory.

McKinlay Memorial, Gawler, SA.

Erected by many colonists as a memorial of John McKinlay. A chief amongst Australian explorers and leader of expedition in search of Burke and Wills, 1861. Born at Sandbank, Argyleshire, Scotland, August 26th 1819. Died at Oaklands, Gawler December 31st 1872.

Brave yet gentle resolve yet unassuming. Formed to command, yet stern to none who knew to obey. He was at once admired and loved. To his country he has bequeathed a name which she may proudly add to the dead roll of her distinguished men.

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