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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition. We recognise there is missing history here and the Australian Museum is continually reviewing its content to ensure it conveys truth-telling, is scientifically and historically accurate as well as respectful to First Nations cultures.
With a reputation as a meticulous worker, he laid out towns, road routes and reserves, filled in vital gaps in inland maps, and discovered much of the best farming land in western Victoria and central Queensland.
Born in Scotland on 15 June 1792, Mitchell joined the army in 1811. In the Napoleonic Wars his surveying skill was noted and he produced plans of the major battlefields on the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1827 he came to Australia and became Surveyor-General. Surveying instruments were scarce and the department was in disarray, but Mitchell set about conducting the first proper baseline survey of New South Wales.
In 1831 his first major expedition searched for a river that reputedly flowed to the north-west. He explored parts of the Namoi, Gwydir and Barwon rivers, but returned to Sydney after Aboriginals killed two of his party.
Governor Bourke then asked Mitchell to investigate the course of the Darling River, which Charles Sturt had recently discovered. Mitchell, who loathed Sturt and had a tendency to disobey orders, charted the Darling for nearly 500 kilometres, but failed to confirm whether it flowed into the Murray.
After another altercation with Aboriginals, in which at least two explorers were killed, he returned home to face the Governor’s wrath for not completing his assignment. Bourke sent him out again to finish the job, but Mitchell decided instead to chart the Lachlan River, then follow the Murray and a little bit of the Darling.
He then headed out along the Murray and, while following the Loddon River, discovered Victoria’s rich western plains, naming them Australia Felix (meaning Happy Australia). Mitchell also named the Grampians in western Victoria after a mountain range in Scotland.
After returning to England and receiving a knighthood, in 1845 Mitchell mounted one final expedition, discovering more valuable farming land in central-west Queensland.
Thomas Mitchell was a fiery character who upset many and fought one of the last duels in Australia, in 1851. He contracted an illness during a survey in southern New South Wales, developed pneumonia and died in 1855.
As well as the Mitchell Highway and the Queensland town of Mitchell, his name is given to the deep-rooted grass throughout much of western Queensland, and our most beautiful cockatoo, the Major Mitchell.