Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792 – 1855)

Thomas Mitchell was born in Scotland. He joined the army and learned how to be a surveyor. He was a talented artist and writer, and was also a geologist and botanist. The books he wrote about his journeys were very popular. He married in 1818, and had 12 children; 6 girls and 6 boys. He was known for losing his temper quite explosively.

In 1827, Major Thomas Mitchell arrived in Australia to become the Surveyor-General of the colony of New South Wales, taking over from John Oxley. He held the position for 27 years, and was responsible for the placement of roads, bridges and towns throughout the colony.

He led four expeditions of exploration and carried out most of the surveys of Eastern Australia, which led to new grazing lands being established in southern Victoria.

Mitchell's First expedition

Mitchell’s first expedition was in 1831. He set off to explore a river north west of Sydney, that had been reported by an escaped convict. The expedition passed a number of rivers and Mitchell believed that they were all part of the Darling River system. His path was blocked by a war party of Aboriginal people who killed two of his men and stole their supplies. Without fresh supplies,  Mitchell had to turn back and return to Sydney.

Mitchell's Second expedition

On his second expedition, in 1835, Mitchell planned to trace the course of the Darling River to the sea. He followed the Darling for about 500 kilometres. Again Aboriginal people were sighted.  The party saw a group of Aboriginal people and this time Mitchell’s men opened fire and killed several. Again Mitchell was forced to turn back.

Mitchell's Third expedition

Black swans kept Major Mitchell awake one night so he named the place Swan Hill. © Getty Images

Black swans kept Major Mitchell awake one night so he named the place Swan Hill. © Getty Images

On his third expedition, Mitchell travelled to where the Lachlan, Murrumbidgee and Darling Rivers joined the Murray River in what is now Victoria. Camped near a hill on the banks of the Murray, at a place today known as Riverside Park, he was kept awake by the loud calls of some black swans. On 21st June 1836, Mitchell wrote in his diary: ‘I therefore named this isolated and remarkable feature Swan Hill.’ Swan Hill is today a large and thriving town.

Mitchell found that the local Aboriginal people were friendly. He mapped the western part of Victoria and named the Grampian Mountains, on the other side of which he found rich grazing land. The expedition travelled south west, and crossed mountains and rivers that no white people had ever seen. They reached the Glenelg River and rowed down to the sea at Portland Bay. Here Mitchell was surprised to find the Henty brothers and a thriving community that had been settled there since 1834. The Henty brothers were raising sheep and cattle and catching whales. They supplied food and other goods to the whalers who sailed there.  

When Mitchell returned to Sydney with news of the excellent farming land he had seen, it started a land rush.

Mitchell's Fourth expedition

A watercolour painting by Major Sir Thomas Mitchell of a Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo

A watercolour painting by Major Sir Thomas Mitchell of a Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo

Mitchell’s fourth expedition was into central Queensland with a party of 29 men, two of whom were Aboriginal guides and 23 of them convicts. They took bullock drays and carts, and two iron boats that could be bolted together when needed. They took enough supplies to last a year, including 250 sheep. They found and named Victoria River before returning to Sydney a year later. This expedition led to the opening up of rich pastoral land in Central Queensland.

Counting the steps

On his expeditions, Mitchell counted how far they had travelled by counting the beat of his horse’s hooves. When he reached 100, he would move a counter such as a bean from one pocket to another, take a new compass reading and then start counting again. He estimated that every1.6 kilometres travelled was 950 paces of his horse.

In 1837 Mitchell was knighted for his discoveries and became Sir Thomas Mitchell.

In 1855 Lieutenant Colonel Sir Thomas Mitchell developed pneumonia and died.

A Major Mitchell's cockatoo, named for Mitchell.

A Major Mitchell's cockatoo, named for Mitchell.

How Thomas Mitchell remembered?

  • The town of Mitchell in Queensland is named for him.
  • There is a highway in Queensland and New South Wales named for him too.
  • The Major Mitchell's cockatoo is named for him.


Read more about Thomas Mitchell and see a map of his expeditions: