The Henty family are known as Victoria's earliest European settlers and pastoralists, emigrant squatters who played a defining role in the establishment of Portland and the development of the region's wool trade.

Facing challenges as a farmer in early 19th-century England, West Sussex grazier Thomas Henty (1775–1839) turned his sights south to the colonies, where he believed his seven sons would have a brighter future as sheep breeders and wool producers. He had been the first to introduce merino to the south of England, and would do so in the colonies also.

The family applied for land in Western Australia, sold their farm and assets in West Sussex, and the first of them set sail with livestock and labourers on the Caroline in 1829. They had been granted 34,000 hectares of land near the Swan River from the British government. But their attempts to farm were short lived; they lasted only two seasons due to the apparent poor quality of the soil.

From there the Hentys packed up for Van Diemans Land, where the land was known to be good. But by the time of their arrival the practice of granting free land parcels to settlers had ceased.

As sheep breeders and wool producers, they would need land of some size. Across Bass Strait, the country on the southern coast of what was then New South Wales (now western Victoria) was little known to Europeans and seemed the best place to seek opportunity.

While Thomas Henty pursued with the British authorities legal means to settle there, however, his sons decided to forge ahead with their plans.

Edward Henty and his brother Stephen arrived in Portland Bay in November 1834 aboard the Thistle after a tempestuous 34-day passage across the Strait; their brother Francis arrived a month later. The brothers brought labourers with them, as well as cattle, sheep, bullocks and a single-furrow plough, seeking to claim land for their own.

Though their settlement was illegal, the family made a success of their pastoral endeavours, away from the eyes of authorities who were unaware of the brothers’ presence. They set about building a community, planting gardens, raising cattle and merino, and also turned their hands to whaling.

When in 1836 Major Thomas Mitchell lead his overland surveying expedition south and west from Sydney across the Murray and down to Victoria's southern coast, it was with surprise that he encountered the Hentys. He found at Portland Bay a thriving township and a flourishing agricultural industry.

Upon hearing Mitchell's description of the fecund land further north and its potential for grazing, the Hentys quickly moved to occupy land at Wannon River. There they established the Merino Downs squatting run, roughly 50 miles (80 kilometres) north of Portland, and eventually owned more than 30,000 sheep.

The historic homestead of Merino Downs still stands today, and you can walk the Merino Old Stock Route Walking Trail running north of Portland, once the only accessible route to the station and its fertile grazing lands. You'll see the name Henty across the region, including the Henty Highway and the Henty wine region, named after Edward Henty.

Walk through history among Portland's many significant heritage buildings – and keep an eye out for whales, which visit the coast from June to August.