The first European crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 is a key event in early Australian history. It took 25 years after the settlement of Sydney Cove in 1788 to move beyond the 50 kilometre wide coastal strip. The Sydney basin was hemmed in by rugged mountain ranges which formed natural prison walls around the prison settlement. Although other expeditions had tried and perhaps even succeeded, it was the idea of 'keeping to the ridges' devised by Gregory Blaxland which led to the first recognised European crossing. Much of the current Great Western Highway still follows the basic route blazed by Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth in 1813.
From the colony’s inception in 1788 at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), the Blue Mountains represented an impenetrable barrier of sandstone and scrub: both a natural containment for the colony’s convict inhabitants and an obstacle to the much-needed resources required to feed them. In just three years, from 1813 to 1815, European settlers broke through the barrier, constructed a road linking the colony to the western plains, and founded the colony’s first major inland town of Bathurst.
In May 1813, Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth set off on the first successful European crossing of the Blue Mountains. Tracing what is now the Great Western Highway route between Glenbrook and Mount Victoria, the explorers reached Mount York before descending into the Kanimbla (now Hartley) Valley and then ascending Mount Blaxland, arriving back at the colony a month later in June.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie then commissioned surveyor George Evans to document the party’s discoveries. Evans’ expedition from November 1813 to January 1814 reached the present site of Bathurst, extending European knowledge of the interior.
On Macquarie’s orders, William Cox began the construction of a 165-kilometre road from the eastern foothills of Emu Crossing (now Emu Plains) to Bathurst in July 1814. Cox completed this job in just six months with the labour of 30 convicts.
In May 1815 Macquarie, his wife Elizabeth and an expedition party spent 11 days travelling the length of the new, bumpy and occasionally steep ‘Great Western Road’. Macquarie proclaimed the site of the first major inland settlement in Australia, which he named ‘Bathurst’ after the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Macquarie officially sanctioned the colonial settlement of the western plains, in particular by crop-growers.
In his Port Regulations and Orders of 1810, Governor Macquarie specifically stated: “The natives of this territory are to be treated in every respect as Europeans; and any injury or violence done or offered to the men or women natives will be punished according to law in the same manner and in equal degree as if done to any of his Majesty’s subjects or foreigners residing there”, and this extended to Aboriginal people encountered during the crossings.
The crossing of the Mountains led to the foundation of Bathurst as the first inland settlement and the subsequent opening up of the western plains for pastoralism, agriculture, mining and other industries which contributed significantly to the development of NSW during the nineteenth century. Gaining access to the vast and fertile lands of western New South Wales not only ensured the colony’s survival but also allowed industries such as mining and wool to develop, which brought great wealth to Australia well into the 20th century.
However, European expansion also had a profound effect on the lives and freedoms of Aboriginal people by claiming ownership of their traditional lands and resources, and dramatically changing the landscape and environment. As with the British arrival at Sydney Cove, the crossing also led to the dispossession of the existing Aboriginal inhabitants and to environmental change and degredation, issues which the present community seeks to acknowledge and redress.
From human achievement to cultural and environmental misunderstandings, marking the bicentenary of 1813 to 1815 is therefore an opportunity to acknowledge the diverse perspectives, meanings and impacts of these historic events and engage with the stories of Australians past, present and future.
Fear of French Invasion
The first recognised European crossing of the Blue Mountains could have been conducted by the French if a planned invasion had gone ahead. In 1813, a report was given to Governor Lachlan Macquarie from Earl Bathurst detailing a proposed invasion of the Hawkesbury River by France. The planned invasion, which did not happen, targeted the Windsor granary to cut off supply to Sydney, a disastrous plot which would have meant starvation for the colony. The Windsor granary was the most important food store in the fledgling settlement at the time, supplying most of the colony’s food from the rich farmlands throughout the Hawkesbury. Windsor, about 60km north-west of Sydney, was also accessible by coastal shipping via the Hawkesbury River, which was used as an aquatic highway to Sydney. The planned invasion shows why exploration and settlement west of the mountains was crucial.
The first recognised European crossing of the Blue Mountains didn’t set off until May 1813, but arrangements started earlier that year. The government prepared for the exploration and settlement of land beyond the mountains by first declaring the area west of the Nepean River, what is now Emu Plains, out of bounds to everyone except those on government business. Even those with stock grazing on “Emu Island” had to remove them. The land was first visited by a European in 1797 by Henry Waterhouse, Captain of the Reliance, who wrote: “I am at a loss to describe the face of the country other than as a beautiful park, totally divested of underwood, interspersed with plains, with rich luxuriant grass”.