The "Official" Story
Everyone knows that Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth were the first Europeans to succeed in crossing the impenetrable Blue Mountains, and thus opened up the way for the colony to expand onto the vast fertile slopes and plains of the west. Previous expeditions had tried, of course, but all failed. The only way across was via the three explorers' innovative ridge-top route.
Well, it makes a nice story.
John Wilson. 1792 to 1797
John Wilson was definitely not the sort of person to whom the authorities would have wanted to give credit. Convicted of stealing 9 yards of 'velveret' cloth, he was transported to Sydney on the First Fleet. After gaining his freedom in 1792, he went bush soon after. Judge Collins recorded that:
Attempting to abduct two young girls, he and another man were imprisoned again. They escaped soon after, and retreated to the bush.
Wilson's exploits were a thorn in the flesh for the authorities and settlers over the next few years. During this time he evidently went exploring, partly to stay out of reach of the authorities.
In 1797, Wilson recounted tales of his exploits in the bush to Governor Hunter and Judge Collins. He claimed to have been upwards of 160km in every direction around Sydney, and described some of the landscape and animals he had seen. Whilst his stories were considered suspect, some details were recorded by Collins. In retrospect, it appears likely that Wilson was telling the truth.
Wilson appears to have reached the granite country of the upper Cox's River valley near Hartley. The two main Aboriginal highways were the Bilpin Ridge from Richmond, and Cox's River valley from the Burragorang Valley. Other records offer clues that he followed the Cox's River route. This is, in fact, the easiest route through the Blue Mountains, and completely avoids the need to cross over them. A third possibility is the via the Colo River gorge, and some evidence suggests that Wilson may even have travelled all three!
John Wilson was an excellent bushman and observer of nature. In addition, he was a linguist (although probably illiterate), a diplomat who could relate to government, convict and Aboriginal persons, and a leader capable of great kindness and compassion.
John Wilson, John Price, & party. 1798
In 1798, Governor John Hunter despatched an expedition to end rumours of a white settlement to the southwest. Ironically Wilson, by his exploits, may have played a key role in starting these rumours.
Just beyond the Nepean River, at Mt Hunter, three of the four convicts decided this was too much like hard work, and chose to return in the company of the four soldiers.
Price's diary indicates that Wilson was familiar with the Burragorang Valley and the Bargo/Avon brush country, but that he was breaking new ground when they ventured into the Berrima and Mittagong areas.
Reaching Mt Jellore (near Thirlmere) on a second expedition, they made a decision to follow the ridges. They followed the Marulan Ramp to Mount Towrang, 12km north of Goulburn, from where it is a pretty easy run to the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers. Whilst they had by-passed the Blue Mountains rather than crossing them, they had undoubtedly found a route for expansion to the west, and a much easier one than a direct assault on the Blue Mountains.
This was not necessarily good for a governor who was responsible for a penal colony. The official line was that the mountains surrounding Sydney were impenetrable, and that any escapees who tried to get through would perish (as some apparently did) or be killed by the Aborigines.
So the mountains remained, officially, impenetrable.
Wilson's life came to an abrupt end at the age of 30, when he once again demonstrated his disregard for the rights of women and community morals. Judge Collins recorded:
Whilst all this was going on, the descendants of some escaped cattle had found their way into the Burragorang and were working their way up the Nattai, Wollondilly and Cox's River valleys. As the years went by, large herds developed, and discovered the natural stock routes through the region.
Francis Barralier, 1802
Francis Barralier was a refugee from the French Revolution, with a knowledge of engineering, surveying and navigation. He came to New South Wales to assist the Corps.
The main source of information for this work is Chris Cunningham's "The Blue Mountains Rediscovered", 1996, Kangaroo Press. We recommend the book to anyone interested in pursuing this topic. See our Shopping Arcade for booksellers.
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Blue Mountains, Greater Western Sydney, NSW, Australia