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Burke and Wills Dig Tree


Place Details
Place ID 601073
Registration Type State Heritage
Place Name Burke and Wills Dig Tree
Place Classification Landscape
Place Category Exploration/Survey/Early settlement
Place Type Blazed Tree/Dig Tree
Themes 2 Exploiting, utilising and transforming the land / 2.1 Exploring, surveying and mapping the land
Register Entry Date 28/02/2003

Location
Address Nappa Merrie Station
Town / Suburb THARGOMINDAH
Post Code 4492
LGA BULLOO SHIRE COUNCIL

Cultural Heritage Significance
Principal Period
of Significance
1861 (Historical)
Criterion A The Dig Tree is important in demonstrating the evolution of Queensland history, because the Burke and Wills expedition contributed to the opening up of the Australian inland to pastoralism. During the 1860s settlers, including the Duracks and Costellos in 1865, had pushed into the Channel Country grazing their sheep and cattle along Coopers Creek and the myriad channels and streams. Only twelve years after the deaths of Burke and Wills, the land encompassing the Dig Tree and depot area had been taken up as Nappa Merrie station.
Criterion H The Burke and Wills Dig Tree and Camp 65 is important for its special association with explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, who completed the first north-south crossing of the Australian continent and who both died during their return journey, in 1861. Their journey was remarkable not only as a feat of endurance and story of incompetence, but for the way in which it has permeated Australian historical consciousness, how it is celebrated in high art by verse and painting, and how it has contributed to the perpetuation of the Australian bush legend of struggle against the wilderness. The Dig Tree is a revered social landmark for many Australians, as evidenced by the many visitors to the site every year.

History
History The Burke and Wills Dig Tree on the banks of Cooper's Creek is associated with explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills. The tree was blazed on 21 April 1861 by William Brahé and party who had remained at Cooper's Creek while Burke, Wills, Charles Gray and John King forged ahead to the northern coast of Australia. Brahé's party was finally forced to abandon the depot and trek homewards, leaving a message pointing to a cache of hidden stores. Burke was born in 1821 in County Galway Ireland, of Protestant gentry. Following an education at the Woolwich Academy, the young Burke served as a lieutenant in the Austrian cavalry and later the Irish Mounted Constabulary, before emigrating to Australia in 1853. After several postings with the Victorian Police, Burke was appointed to lead the Victorian Exploring Expedition, a position he had anxiously and diligently pursued. Wills, born in Devon England in 1834, trained in medicine. He migrated to Australia in 1853 and after a short stint working as a shepherd at Deniliquin, New South Wales, Wills assisted his father with his medical practice at Ballarat, Victoria. Wills later studied surveying and astronomy, and accompanied the expedition as astronomer, surveyor, and third-in-command, behind camel master George Landells. The Victorian Exploring Expedition was undertaken in the spirit of previous epics such as Edward Eyre's journey between Western Australia and South Australia in 1840, and Ludwig Leichhardt's 1844-5 trek from the Darling Downs in Queensland to Port Essington near Darwin. Organised by the Royal Society of Victoria and supported by the government, the expedition's objectives were hazy, beyond the desire to make the already-prosperous colony mightier by taking the lead in exploration efforts. The expedition would prove extremely expensive both financially and in lives, yet was ultimately successful in its bid to beat South Australia's McDouall Stuart to the first north-south crossing of the continent. A large Melbourne crowd farewelled the explorers on 20 August 1860. The party comprised fifteen men, twenty-six Indian camels with their drivers, packhorses, wagons, food and supplies. In early October the party reached Menindee on the Darling River. Burke had already begun to shed baggage, determined to travel light and fast, leaving behind much of the equipment and some provisions at Balranald. Burke left more provisions at Menindee. He also quarrelled with Landells, who subsequently resigned. Burke promoted Wills to second-in-charge and engaged local man William Wright as third officer. Despite having received clear instructions that he was to establish his main base camp at Cooper's Creek, Burke pressed on quickly with an advance party of eight, leaving the remainder of the men and stores under the unreliable charge of Wright. Wright lingered at Menindee for three months, contrary to Burke's orders to proceed to Coopers' Creek as soon as possible. Wright failed to arrive at Cooper's Creek with the all-too-important reserve provisions and transport before Burke returned from the Gulf of Carpentaria. On 6 December 1860 Burke and his seven men established Camp LXV (65) at Cooper's Creek, having halted at several other spots along the Creek during the preceding three-and-a-half weeks while searching for the best location for a longer-term depot. Here Burke split his party once again, and on 16 December pressed on to the Gulf accompanied only by Wills, King and Gray. Brahé, Thomas McDonough, William Patten and Dost Mahomet were instructed by Burke to wait for at least three months (the more cautious Wills preferred four months), before retracing their steps homewards via the Darling River. During their stay at Camp LXV, Brahé's party erected a timber stockade to protect themselves and their supplies from the unwanted interest of local Aborigines. Four months later on the morning of 21 April 1861, William Brahé and his party of three others including the seriously-injured Patten, left for Menindee. Before embarking on this four-hundred-mile return journey, Brahé carved three separate messages into a Coolibah tree on the banks of Cooper's Creek. The inscriptions marked the location of the cached stores, the camp number, and the dates of the arrival of the advance party (6 December 1860) and Brahé's departure. Brahé noted in his journal that the party left the depot at 10 o'clock a.m., leaving 50 lbs. of flour, 50 lbs. of oatmeal, 50 lbs. of sugar, and 30 lbs. of rice buried near the stockade, at the foot of a large tree, and marked the word "Dig" on the tree. Brahé headed towards Menindee, taking all the camels, horses and clothes, and the bulk of the remaining food stores. He later testified that he did not leave the message and stores in any real expectation of Burke's return, given that he was already well overdue. Rather, only for any party that should come up - that was most likely to come up from the Darling - to know what had become of us. I was very likely to miss any party coming up, he told the 1861-2 Royal Commission established to inquire into and report upon the deaths of Burke and Wills. Burke's party, by now reduced to three with the death of Gray on 17 April 1861, reached Camp LXV on the evening of 21 April 1861. Only two exhausted camels survived and the men were perilously low on stores. They discovered that Brahé had departed that same day, leaving the messages carved into the Dig Tree pointing to the cache of supplies. Subsequent events would prove to be a litany of missed opportunities and failure to communicate. A week after their departure from Camp LXV, Brahé met with Wright's party, heading north and finally en route to Cooper's Creek. Brahé and Wright then returned to the camp, but having noticed no evidence of Burke's return on 21 April, left no further messages or indications and retraced their steps southwards. Brahé arrived in Melbourne late in June 1861 to report on the missing men. On April 23 Burke's trio began the 150-mile westward journey to Blanchewater Station, near Mount Hopeless in South Australia, preferring to take this direction over the longer, but known, journey to Menindee. Twice they were forced back to Cooper's Creek due to lack of water to the west. They then remained along the Creek throughout June. On 30 May 1861 Wills had returned to Camp LXV. He found no evidence of Brahé's return in early May, and placed his journals and a new note in the buried cache for fear of accidents, and returned to his companions waiting further along Cooper's Creek. After surviving on ground nardoo, which was slowly poisoning them due to their lack of expertise in its preparation in leaching out the toxins, Wills died alone on the banks of Cooper's Creek on 27 or 28 June. He had insisted that his companions head further down the creek to seek assistance from the Aborigines. A day or two later, Burke also succumbed, having sent King on to look for help. With the assistance of Aborigines, King survived along the watercourse until found on 15 September 1861 by Alfred Howitt's search party. When it became known that the Burke and Wills expedition had foundered, such was the prominence of the undertaking that a number of search parties were quickly organised. Howitt left from Melbourne, John McKinlay from Adelaide, Frederick Walker from Rockhampton, and William Landsborough from Brisbane. Howitt's party, which included Brahe and King, arrived at Camp LXV on 13 September 1861. The Royal Commission was told that they found the depot as Mr Brahe had left it, the plant untouched, and nothing removed of the useless things lying about, but a piece of leather. The party located Wills' remains where his body had been covered by King, some miles downstream of Camp LXV. They buried Wills on 18 September 1861, and inscribed a tree. Field books, notebooks and various small articles were recovered. Three days later and approximately seven miles away, Howitt found Burke's remains near Innamincka Waterhole (two miles north of Innamincka) in South Australia. Burke was buried wrapped in a Union Jack, under a box tree on the south-eastern bank of Cooper's Creek. Howitt blazed this tree at the head of Burke's grave. The Royal Geographical Society, organised to promote exploration, awarded Burke a posthumous RGS Founder's Medal in 1862. Wills was awarded nothing, as the Society's policy was to award only one medal to an exploration party. King received a gold watch, as did McKinlay, Landsborough and Walker for leading their various search parties. These search parties helped open up vast areas of inland Australia for settlement, as a result of the increased knowledge of the country they brought back with them. McKinlay had travelled northwards across the Cooper, to Gray's grave, and on to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Landsborough came from the north, via the Barkly Tableland to the Cooper and then Menindee, and Walker arrived to find Burke's last camp, thence returning eastwards. By the time the public funeral for Burke and Wills was held in January 1863, pastoralists were driving their sheep and cattle up the Bulloo. Within a decade or so there were established homesteads on the banks of Cooper's Creek, including Nappa Merrie sheep station, taken up by John Conrick in 1873. Prospectors working their way north of Menindee found enormously rich deposits of silver, lead and zinc at Piesse's Knob, later better known as Broken Hill. Called in 1911 by the Sydney Mail "William Brahé's Tree", an accompanying photograph showed the "DIG" inscription on the right-hand branching trunk partly overgrown with bark, obscuring the "D". Another blaze on the left-branching trunk showed some indecipherable letters and/or numerals. Surviving remnants of Brahé's stockade also are visible in the photograph. In 1928 the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia referred to the tree as better known as the 'Depot Tree', alluding to its function of marking a major stopping and storage place for the expedition. Frank Clune's 1937 book Dig has been credited with changing the tree's popular, and still-current name, to the 'Dig Tree'. This particular tree had initially received less attention because it was not immediately associated with the deaths of either man. But by the 1880s the various explorers' trees marked by members of the expedition and by the various search parties had become valued by Australians as relics worthy of protection. The Dig Tree eventually came to be regarded as central to the story of the expedition, partly as a result of John Longstaff's iconic 1907 painting exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria, The Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted Camp at Coopers Creek. The Dig Tree has been considered of historical significance to Queensland for much of the 20th century. In 1937 the Conrick Plaque, erected by members of the family to first settle the area, was placed on a cairn near the Dig Tree. On 2 July 1964 the Queensland Government declared an area of approximately one acre surrounding the Dig Tree a reserve for memorial purposes, the land placed under the trusteeship of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland. The Stanbroke Pastoral Company currently manages the site on behalf of the Society. The Department of Environment & Heritage erected interpretative signage in 1993. In 1996-7 further signage was prepared by the Department of Environment, in consultation with the Royal Queensland Historical Society, Bulloo Shire Council, and the Stanbroke Pastoral Company. Funded by Dick Smith's Australian Geographic publication, these new interpretative panels were erected c1997. Subsequently, boardwalks were built to protect the Dig and Face* Trees, and toilets were built in February 2001. * The Face Tree is located on the same reserve as the Dig Tree. It portrays the face of Robert O'Hara Burke and the letters ROB, thought to have been carved in 1898 by John Dick.

Description
Description The Dig Tree is located approximately four to six kilometres southwest of Nappa Merrie homestead, on a Reserve for Memorial Purposes. The Reserve of 4470m² is excised from Nappa Merrie cattle station, which comprises almost three-quarters of a million hectares of channel country. The homestead is close to the South Australian border, lying some 380 kilometres west of Thargomindah and forty-four kilometres east of Innamincka. The Dig Tree is a mature Coolibah (Eucalyptus microtheca), believed to be 200 to 250 years old, common along this section of the Cooper and widespread in arid and semi-arid areas near watercourses and in seasonally-inundated areas. The tree stands high above the creek, on the southern bank of the Bulloo Bulloo waterhole. Brahé cut three blazes into the tree in 1861. On the creek side of the trunk "B LXV" denotes Brahé and Camp 65. On the land side of the trunk "DIG 3FT NW" was the message to the returning party to find provisions buried approximately a metre to the northwest. On an upstream-side limb "DEC 6.60 APR 21.61" marks the date of establishment of the camp, and that of Brahe's departure. Much of the lettering is now obscured by overgrowing bark. A boardwalk has been constructed around the tree to prevent the ground from being compacted as a result of visitor impact. A stone cairn is located 40ft northwest of the Dig Tree. Further to the northwest is the Conrick Plaque, a metal sign attached to a large stone. Recent signage near the Dig Tree tells the story of Burke and Wills and their ill-fated expedition. The Face Tree (Eucalyptus microtheca), stands on the banks of the waterhole downstream (southwest) of the Dig Tree. It portrays a rendition of the face of Robert O'Hara Burke and the letters ROB.

Element
Element Name Burke and Wills Dig Tree
Design Period 1840s - 1860s Mid-19th century
Construction Period 1861 April 21 - 1861 April 21
Place Components Signage - interpretative
Plaque
Cairn

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Last updated: 15 March 2013

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