Scottish-born Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell was Surveyor-General of the Colony of New South Wales from 1827 until his death in 1855. Taking up the post at age 36, he became responsible for a territory that extended from Bass Strait to the middle of Queensland.

It was on his third major survey in 1836 that he crossed the Murray River into what is now Victoria, beginning one of the most important expeditions in Australian settlement history.

Mitchell’s military training set him up as an acute observer of topographical features, and he was an accomplished draftsman. His task on this expedition was to trace the course of the Darling River, which was suspected to eventually run into the Murray, and follow it to its source, surveying land that might prove fertile for pastoral settlement.

With him was a party of Aboriginal guides and white explorers, including convicts, and a team of bullocks. Of particular importance to his expedition was a Wiradjuri man known to Mitchell by the English name of Piper, who originated from Bathurst, New South Wales. Piper assisted the party to move through already settled Aboriginal peoples' lands.

Having traced the Darling to the Murray, Mitchell and his party crossed the mighty river near Swan Hill. As they moved along their trail, they met with many groups of First Australians. Some of these encounters were peaceful, but others were not without bloodshed. A number of Aboriginal people were killed, in particular, by ambush at Mt Dispersion on the Murray in 1836.

The party continued south-west and discovered fertile river-fed country. Mitchell recorded in notebooks and sketches his impressions of the region’s varied and verdant landscape, which contrasted greatly with the dry interior he had earlier mapped. He named the region Australia Felix and believed himself to be ‘the first European intruder on the sublime solitude’ of the area.

It was upon his approach to Portland Bay on the region’s southern coast that his notion was disproved. Although the area was known as a whaling post, it had not been officially settled by Europeans. When cattle tracks and boot prints were identified, however, the party was led to discover the Henty brothers.

This family of English squatters had established a flourishing pastoral community, and Mitchell shared with them his knowledge of the fertile grazing lands through which he had travelled. The Hentys are now regarded as Victoria’s first European settlers.

Mitchell’s party had surveyed south from Swan Hill to Mt Hope, Pyramid Hill, the Grampians, the Glenelg River, Fort O’Hare and Cape Nelson to reach the river’s end at Portland. From there, they headed north-east to the top of Mt Macedon, from which height they could see smoke rising from the Indigenous settlements in Melbourne, before setting their sights north again towards Sydney.

You can follow parts of Major Mitchell’s historic expedition across Victoria via signposts and markers along the Major Mitchell Trail.

Major Mitchell's Victorian routes