History of Rockhampton

Fitzroy River (Toonooba), Rockhampton

Early Settlement

European discovery of the Rockhampton region

Following an earlier near-miss by Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres in 1606, the first European explorer to map the Central Queensland coastline was Lieutenant James Cook in 1770.

While Cook did not make landing on the Capricorn Coast, he named several landmarks; Cape Capricorn, the Keppel Isles, Keppel Bay, Cape Many Fold (later renamed Cape Manifold), and Shoal Water Bay (later renamed Shoalwater Bay).

In 1804, Matthew Flinders explored the Capricorn Coast in much greater detail. Flinders spent the best part of a month in the shallow bays, making landings at Curtis Island, Port Clinton, Shoalwater Bay and Percy Island.

Phillip Parker King followed in 1820 but encountered difficulties when his ship, the Mermaid, ran aground. In 1843, an extensive survey was carried out by Captain Francis Price Blackwood on HMS Fly and Captain Charles Yule who commanded HMS Bramble.

Sir Thomas Mitchell

In 1844, Sir Thomas Mitchell explored the region far west of Rockhampton on his fourth great expedition. In 1846, having initially planned to explore the region with Mitchell several years earlier, Dr Ludwig Leichhardt followed.

Leichhardt discovered and named the Dawson and Mackenzie Rivers, and on his return trip, he stayed with his friends and explorers, the Archer family at Gayndah.

Leichhardt shared with them his discovery of the Dawson and Mackenzie, and noted that they flowed in almost opposite directions but somewhat easterly.

Further, that he suspected the existence of a much larger river that flowed into the sea. He surmised that if such a river existed, it would almost certain promise fertile grazing lands.

Settlement of Gracemere and Rockhampton

Inspired by Dr Leichhardt’s learned opinion, brothers William and Charles Archer set out on trek in 1853. Along the way, they discovered the Dee River, and purportedly discouraged by its stench, almost turned back for fear of running short of water.

However, they continued into the Dee Range, and once at the peak near the present-day town of Mount Morgan, they looked out at a panorama of green native forests with the Pacific Ocean beyond, and snaking through the landscape was the mighty river that Leichhardt had professed they would find.

They named it the Fitzroy River after the Governor of New South Wales, who ironically was a vocal critic of Sir Thomas Mitchell, the man who had first explored Central Queensland.

Charles Archer
pastoralist, explorer

The Archers descended from the range and on their way to the river, encountered a lake which they decided would be a good location for a settlement should they decide to return. They named it Gracemere; Grace being the name of their brother Thomas’ new bride, and ‘mere’ meaning lake.

They continued on to the river then followed it east. They reached a rock barrier, near the city centre of present-day Rockhampton. Beyond the rocks, the rivers expanses opened up, and they realised its true proportions and potential.

They marked out lots ahead of applying to the Government to stake claim to the 70 kilometres of river frontage and its hinterlands, and they called it the Gracemere Run.

They returned to their properties in the south and prepared. In 1855, Charles Archer returned to Gracemere ahead of a sturdy body of men, mostly Germans.

This time though, he came not as an explorer but as a settler with bullock trains, several thousand sheep, and provisions enough to start a new settlement. Meanwhile, his brother Colin went to Maryborough to oversee construction of the ship Elida, which would carry their first clip of wool.

So keen was their ambition and precise was their planning, that within six months, the Archers and their party cleared land for a sheep run, built living quarters, constructed a loading wharf on the river, clipped their first wool, and shipped it back to Sydney.

The story of their success and the rich grazing lands spread like wildfire throughout the new colony and Europe, and new settlers began arriving within months.

The first wave of gold fever

In 1856, the Elliott brothers arrived at Gracemere and soon after, took up landholdings at Canoona, north of present-day Yaamba. There, Philip Elliott and his party came under fierce attack from the Darumbal Aboriginals, possibly of the Taroomball tribe. Elliott was seriously wounded by a spear and one of his men was killed.

However, Elliott had brought with his party a contingent of native police who turned near-certain loss into victory. For the Darumbal people however, this battle would prove to be only the first of many, and each battle more fierce than the last.

With abundant grazing lands and waters from the Fitzroy River and its many tributaries and lagoons, the region continued to expand rapidly. In 1858, the town of Rockhampton was officially proclaimed, and the following year, gold was discovered at Canoona.

History would record the find as disappointingly small, but along with the gold rush came new pastoralists, and the lands around Canoona, Shoalwater Bay, and Byfield were quickly claimed.

Across the river from the new township of Rockhampton, new pastures were also expanding. On one particular property though, near the coast and just beyond the Berserker Range, the gold rush was about to begin again.

Near the banks of Nankin Creek, more gold was found. The settlement would become known as Mount Chalmers, and this time the find was substantial.

Julius and Carl Christensen
early Danish settlers in Rockhampton

Also at this time, the first seeds of a scandal were born, for it was apparent now that seams of gold traversed the region, and talk of the mother lode was on everyone’s tongue.

Twenty years on, and twenty kilometres away, a fraud unequalled in Australian history would occur at the Taranganba Gold Mine, that even in the present day is still known as the ‘Greatest Mining Swindle in History’.

Footnote: The Archers owned extensive holdings in Norway, and indeed, the brothers were born in that country. Subsequently, they often drew upon Norse mythology when naming landmarks. The Berserker Range and the suburb of Berserker in North Rockhampton are named for the Berserker warriors. Other namings include Tolderodden, Eidsvold, and Sleipner. Throughout their return trips to Scandinavia in the ensuing years, the Archer family promoted the virtues of settling in Rockhampton. During the late nineteenth century, Rockhampton was the largest intake port in Australia for Danish and Swedish immigrants.

If you enjoy this type of article, you can find more on the Central Queensland History page. Feel free to leave any related comments at the end of this page.

Andrew Thompson, editor | historian

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