In 1864 the small well organised expedition led by John Graham MacDonald, crossed the Gregory River at South Lat. 18° 50′ / East Long. 139° 20′.
A man of many careers, MacDonald was an irrepressible entrepreneur, an adventurer. As an explorer, a pioneer pastoralist, a forward looking businessman, a parliamentary candidate, a magistrate and a Gold Commissioner, MacDonald’s name was known throughout Queensland and to most residents of the far north. His enterprises had a huge impact on the Gulf country.
MacDonald was born in NSW in 1834, later becoming a farmer and grazier near Geelong. His elder brother also schooled him in basic surveying during the Geelong years. He did well there, became a Justice of the Peace and took a prominent part in local affairs. Being an ambitious young man, he looked at the opportunities opening up to the north of NSW. Queensland was about to become a separate colony.
The young man sold up to join his brother P. F. MacDonald, already established in Queensland. On the way he dropped in on the gold rush at Canoona, close to where Rockhampton now stands. He does not seem to have stayed long there.
Then MacDonald got land fever, hurrying to take up vast tracts in the headwater country of the Einasleigh, the Lynd and the Burdekin Rivers. This was part of the big land rush which took place before the separation of Queensland from NSW on December 10, 1859. The race for land was spurred on by the creation of a new colonial government which was about to change all the rules on settlement and land holding.
The allure of this wild country and the excitement of exploration, was a far cry from the more settled and comparatively tame areas in Victoria. MacDonald joined an expedition 1861, to assist Dalrymple, who was employed to explore the Burdekin Valley.
Always thinking big, MacDonald took up large stations in Kennedy and Cook, including the famous Carpentaria Downs. This he did in association with Sir John Robertson. This cattle station was the most northerly in Australia at the time and the place from which the Jardine Brothers moved through the Peninsula with their stock.
Ever restless and looking for more business opportunities, 1863 saw his involvement in a company with Captain Robert Towns, founding father of Townsville. He became the managing partner.
Two colleagues from Towns and Co. went off with MacDonald on August 11, 1864, to explore the Albert and Gregory Rivers. He led the party of three (two white, one black), seventeen horses and provisions.
They crossed the Copperfield, cut over the Robertson River and struck south west to the Gilbert, which they followed north, leaving the site of Georgetown to the east.
MacDonald named the Langdon River as he travelled and then tracked west across the Gulfland to meet the Gregory.
Doing it the hard way, slogging through the red dust and scrub, they must have been pleased to hit the Gregory at this delightful place.
They then rode north for a few miles below the Gregory’s confluence with the Nicholson. A depot was set up there and MacDonald proceeded to mark an area of about 1,000,000 acres, which was subsequently subdivided into a number of large stations. The first of these was named Floraville.
Towns and Co. were merchants and shippers, who passionately believed that northern Queensland was ripe for development by their company.
‘… Dreaming of a flourishing port (on the Albert River) close to the Asian markets and closer to world markets than the older colonies. During 1865 … those dreams were to be realised.’
They were men with ‘a vision splendid’ and their dreams continued with their successful shipping ventures. The new runs in the Gulf had to be stocked and the schooner Jackmel Packet of 115 tons, laden with supplies and men, arrived at the Albert in June 1865 ‘… Her wide assortment of cargo included, pigs, dogs, fowls, houses and stores, drays and rations of rum and other spirits …’ There they founded Burketown.
MacDonald himself, as many before and since have done, failed in his pastoral gambling and the stations he took up with Towns were abandoned.
However, with his usual resilience he retrieved his situation by going into the public service in 1872 and making a new career. In that year he became Gold Commissioner at Gilberton on the Etheridge Gold Field, and then was appointed a Police Magistrate, first at Charters Towers, then Springsure, Bowen, Townsville and Warwick. His last appointment was to south Brisbane in 1904 and from that position he went into retirement in 1905.
He died in 1918 aged 84 years, a remarkable man who made a remarkable contribution to Australia.