Landsborough Tree (site of) | Environment, land and water | Queensland Government

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Landsborough Tree (site of)

  • 600374
  • Burketown, Burketown


Also known as
Landsborough Tree / Site of Landsborough’s Blazed Tree, Albert River Depot
State Heritage
Register status
Date entered
21 August 1992
Exploration / survey / early settlement: Blazed tree / dig tree
Parks/gardens/trees: Tree
2.1 Exploiting, utilising and transforming the land: Exploring, surveying and mapping the land
Landsborough, William (explorer)
Construction period
1862, Carved inscription
Historical period
1840s–1860s Mid-19th century


Burketown, Burketown
Burke Shire Council
-17.73753638, 139.56175806


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Criterion AThe place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

The site of Landsborough or Albert River Depot Blazed Tree is an important location in the history of non-indigenous exploration and occupation of the Gulf country and western Queensland. The tree, marking the site of the northernmost depot established by the Landsborough expedition in its search of missing cross-continental explorers Burke and Wills in 1862, is important in demonstrating the difficulties encountered in the early exploration of Queensland and the contingencies adopted to ensure survival. Despite the destruction of the tree, the site retains its symbolic significance as the location of Landsborough’s base camp.

Criterion HThe place has a special association with the life or work of a particular person, group or organisation of importance in Queensland’s history.

The site of Landsborough’s Blazed Tree has a special association with the exploration work of William Landsborough, the first European to make a successful north to south crossing of the Australian continent in 1862. Although a number of blazed trees were marked for or by Landsborough on his expeditions, this was one of the few ‘DIG’ trees, which provided direction to instructions for retrieving a small buried cache of food and ammunition.


The site of the former tree stump which marked the Albert River Depot of the expedition of William Landsborough is located approximately two kilometres east of Burketown, near a silted cut-off meander of the Albert River. The original tree, thought to have been a Coolabah (Eucalyptus Microtheca), was blazed on 8 February 1862 by Lieutenant Charles Cecil Gascoyne, Second Lieutenant of HMCS Victoria, the support vessel for Landsborough’s expedition. The site was used as a base camp for Landsborough’s initial expedition towards Central Mount Stuart and his subsequent crossing of Australia from north to south in 1862, in an attempt to find cross-continent explorers Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the gulf country of northwest Queensland was occupied by the Garawa, Gangalidda and Mingginda Peoples. The area around Burketown was occupied by the Minggindda people.[1]

Burke and Wills, who had set out from Melbourne on 20 August 1860 to cross the continent from south to north, were reported missing in June 1861. Four official relief expeditions were organised to search for them: Alfred William Howitt’s party formed in Melbourne; John McKinlay’s party formed in Adelaide; Frederick Walker’s party formed in Rockhampton; and William Landsborough’s party formed in Brisbane (appointed by the Victorian and Queensland governments). The Victorian government appointed Captain Norman of HMCS Victoria as Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Expedition Parties (the Walker and Landsborough expeditions). Howitt received information on the fate of Burke and Wills in September 1861, but the other expeditions had left before news could reach them.[2]

William Landsborough, the son of a Scottish clergyman, was an experienced bushman, explorer and pastoralist. He arrived in Queensland in the mid-1850 and entered into partnership in a station on the Kolan River in the Burnett district. From 1856 he undertook private exploration in search of new pastoral land, exploring and naming Mount Nebo in 1856, the Broadsound district in 1857, the Comet and Nogoa Rivers in 1858, and the Bonar (Bowen) River in 1859. From Rockhampton he and Nat Buchanan traced Aramac Creek and the Thomson River to the Plains of Promise. In 1861 he applied for 15 runs of 100 square miles (259 km²) each on the Plains of Promise. He, Buchanan, and Edward Cornish formed the Landsborough River Company to stock these runs, which Landsborough named ‘Bowen Downs’.[3]

In 1861, Queensland Surveyor-General Augustus Charles Gregory recommended that Landsborough lead the Brisbane expedition in search of Burke and Wills. Landsborough’s party left Brisbane in the brig Firefly on 26 August 1861. The party made for the Albert River, where it was set to rendezvous with Walker’s party, who had proceeded overland from Rockhampton, and Lieutenant Norman, who was provisioning the exploration parties. The Firefly reached the east coast of Cape York, but was wrecked off Sir Charles Hardy Islands (east of Cape Grenville) on 4 September 1861. The expedition was rescued by Norman three days later.[4] The Firefly was refloated and taken under tow by the Victoria to Sweers Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Landsborough explored the Albert River during the first week of October 1861 and recommended that a depot be established at the confluence of the Albert and Barkly Rivers, about 26 miles (42km) in a straight line from the mouth of the Albert. Above this junction the Albert River was not navigable, even for small boats.[5] The Firefly was towed by the Victoria to the mouth of the Albert River and commenced a slow journey upstream on 14 October 1861. Twelve days later the Firefly had reached about 15 miles (24km) in a straight line from the mouth of the river, but had difficulty proceeding further. On 8 November the decision was taken to establish the depot where the Firefly was anchored, midway between the mouth of the Albert and the juncture with the Barkly, on the west bank of the river.[6]

From 16 November 1861 to mid-February 1862 Landsborough explored southwest towards Central Mount Stuart. During his travels he marked numerous trees with a distinctive broad arrow before an L. His second in command, George Bourne, stayed at the Albert River depot. Captain Norman of the Victoria also camped at the Albert River depot for much of this period, waiting for Walker’s party which was yet to reach the rendezvous point.[7] During this time Norman had one of the iron ship’s water tanks sunk into the ground at the depot and filled with provisions. If the exploratory parties were delayed and he had to leave the Albert River before either returned, the supplies would be protected from Aboriginal raiding parties. One large tree near the sunken tank and other nearby trees were marked to identify the buried provisions.[8]

On 19 January 1862 Landsborough and his party returned from the expedition to the southwest. He had followed the Gregory River and named the Barkly Tableland but near the site of Camooweal found desert with a network of dry channels. Realising that rain could flood the country and isolate his starving party, Landsborough struggled back to the Albert River depot, having found no trace of Burke and Wills. In the meantime Walker’s party had reached the Albert and reported finding tracks on the Flinders River. Replenishing supplies from the Victoria, Walker resumed his search. On hearing this news Landsborough was eager to search to the southeast. Despite insufficient supplies and against Commander Norman’s advice, he made preparations to leave.

On 7 February 1862 Norman sent 2nd Lieutenant CC Gascoyne of the Victoria to disband the Albert River depot and assist Landsborough’s preparations. In the eventuality that Landsborough was forced to return to the depot after the Victoria had left, Gascoyne placed a small quantity of provisions and ammunition (20 pounds of biscuits, 250 pounds of flour, nine half pound canisters FG powder, and two boxes percussion caps) in another ship’s tank. The tank was then sealed, pitched and covered over with earth. Gascoyne placed details of their location in a bottle marked ‘DIG 2 FT N’. The bottle was buried near a tree close to a waterhole and to the camp. In the evening, Gascoyne and his men returned to the Victoria.

At 4pm on 10 February 1862 Landsborough’s party commenced their overland journey south.[9] They did not return to the Albert River depot. They reached an occupied station on 21 May and learned that Burke and Wills had perished. Continuing south, they arrived in Melbourne in August 1862. The journey made Landsborough the first European explorer to cross the Australian continent north to south, and his reports on the valuable pastoral land he had encountered sparked a rush for land in the Gulf country.

The success of Landsborough’s 1862 expedition was due largely to his reliance on indigenous knowledge of the terrain he traversed. His journal reveals that he rarely travelled without Aboriginal guides. On this trip, his guides included Jemmy, Jacky and Fisherman, and local Aboriginal people were reported leading Landsborough’s party to water or to showing them the best route. When he lost access to this local knowledge, in his attempt to head south-south-east from the Warrego in May 1862 (Camp 67 – QHR 602716 and Camp 69 – QHR 602715), his party came close to perishing.

Landsborough’s explorations also contributed to the extension of Queensland’s western boundary. At the time of separation from New South Wales in 1859, this had been set at longitude 141˚ east (just west of Normanton). In September 1860 AC Gregory had recommended to the Queensland Government that the border, which passed through the Plains of Promise, be moved to 138˚ east, to provide the district with access to a port in the Gulf. A year later, realising that the northern relief expeditions in search of Burke and Wills would increase knowledge of the area, Governor Bowen wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies advising that Queensland legislature would protect any settlers who moved into the area, provided the western boundary of Queensland was extended to 138˚ east to include access to the Gulf.[10] This was agreed to, and the boundary was altered on 12 April 1862, placing the Albert, Gregory and Herbert (Georgina) rivers and much of the Barkly Tableland within Queensland.

On 1 January 1864 the new pastoral district of Burke was opened for settlement. A syndicate took up 1,000,000 acres (404,685.64ha) in August, which later became the stations of Floraville, Beames Brook and Gregory Downs. In 1864 a township was established on the Albert River to service the newly established Gulf runs. With pastoral occupation underway, the schooner Jacmel Packet set out in May 1865 for the Albert River, with cargo to provision the new settlement. The square mile town reserve was surveyed as Burketown in 1866-7 and formally gazetted in August 1868. The town site was not far from the wreck of the Firefly, and glimpses of the ship’s remains in the Albert River were mentioned into the early 20th century.[11]

In September 1865, William Landsborough returned to the Albert River as Police Magistrate and Commissioner of Crown Lands in Carpentaria, based at the town of Burke. He appointed controversial sub-inspector Wentworth Uhr to lead a local band of Native Police. Relations between the European settlers and Aboriginal people were fraught, with conflicts and deaths reported throughout the 1860s. Disease also impacted on the isolated township. Europeans deserted Burketown for some years after a mystery illness swept the fledgling township in the mid-1860s, returning in the mid-1870s. It is believed that this disease, as well as conflict, contributed to the demise of the Mingginda people. They were succeeded by the Ganggalida people.[12]

In 1892, a 22 acre site which included the former Albert River depot site and Landsborough tree was leased to the Carpentaria Meat Works Company. The company set up a Boiling Down Works near the wharf on the southern part of the site, within eyesight of the blazed tree. The former Boiling Down Works (QHR 600375) was designed by Messrs Burns and Twigg of Rockhampton and the first mobs of cattle were processed in Burketown in May 1892. The tree was noted as ‘Landsborough’s Tree’ on the plan of the leased site.[13]

By the late 19th century the blazed tree near Burketown had become a tourist attraction. Around 1900 the tree was photographed by Alphonse Chargois, a photographer based at Croydon. At this time the inscription was still visible on the trunk of the tree and tallied with Lieutenant Gascoyne’s description of the markings made on 8 February 1862.

In 1917 the tree featured in the Queenslander’s pictorial section, and by 1926 visitors regularly picnicked near the tree, according to the Townsville Daily Bulletin:

A Landsborough tree advises people to ‘dig 2ft’., but visitors, judging by the number of bottles surrounding the tree, appear to have been satisfied to drink each other’s health, taking it for granted that the vicinity had been well prospected years ago. The old “coolibah” [sic] has a wealth of mistletoe, and is flourishing, notwithstanding its great age. [14]

In May 1926, the site was gazetted as a pound for the Burke Shire Council.

In August 1984 the blazed tree, or dig tree, at Burketown was placed on the National Trust of Queensland’s Register of Significant Trees.

The blazed tree was vandalised in December 2002. The tree was chopped down and the remaining trunk set on fire. The interpretation sign and its concrete foundations were pulled from the ground. The tree did not recover, and no charges were laid in relation to its destruction. In November 2003, a local wood turner used remnants of the tree to create two new gavels for the Burke Shire Council; one to be used at its meetings and the other to be displayed with an interpretive sign, indicating the significance site of the tree. A new tree was planted on the site of the old tree, c.2009.

In 2015 the Federal Court recognised non-exclusive native title of the Gangalidda people on the site, successors to the Mingginda people. The site remains in the trusteeship of the Burke Shire Council.


The tree remnant is located near a silted cut-off meander of the Albert River on black clay soil floodplains approximately 1.5km east of Burketown, accessed from Truganini Road. Grass grows sparsely in the vicinity. Low bushes and trees are lightly scattered across the site.

Only a few pieces of the tree remained in situ in 2005. The largest was about one metre long. A welded mesh fence 1.2m high and approximately 2.5m square surrounded the remnants. The fence was supported by metal pipe posts at each corner. The fencing, which existed at the time of the destruction of the tree, was removed.

A timber post in the north-west corner of this enclosure may have been evidence of an earlier post-and-rail timber fence around the tree. What appeared to be the remains of a second post was visible in the north-east corner of the enclosure.

A new tree was planted on the site of the old tree, c.2009.


[1] Trigger, ‘Change and Succession in Australian Aboriginal Claims to Land’, 2015, pp55-59; Taylor on behalf of the Gangalidda and Garawa Peoples #2 v State of Queensland [2015] FCA 730, para 9.
[2] Landsborough, Journal of Landsborough’s Expedition from Carpentaria, in search of Burke and Wills, 1862, p1.
[3] Sally O'Neill, 'Buchanan, Nathaniel (Nat) (1826–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, and Gwen Trundle, 'Landsborough, William (1825–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,
[4] Landsborough, 1862, pp3-4.
[5] Landsborough, 1862, pp5-7; Bourne, Journal of Landsborough’s Expedition in search of Burke and Wills, 1863, p17.
[6] Landsborough, 1862, pp8-10; Bourne, 1863, p13-18; Laurie, Landsborough’s Exploration of Australia from Carpentaria to Melbourne, with especial reference to the settlement of available country, 1866, p17.
[7] Landsborough, 1862, p9; Bourne, 1863,
[8] Landsborough, p14, pp55-6; Bourne, p25.
[9] Bourne, p26; Laurie, p68.
[10] Bill Kitson & Judith McKay, Surveying Queensland 1839-1945: A Pictorial History (Brisbane: Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water and the Queensland Museum, 2006), p60.
[11] Pike, Queensland Frontier, 1988, p166, Survey Plan B1363, 1866; Survey Plan B14418, ‘Feature Survey of Burketown and its vicinity’, 1866; Daily Northern Argus 21 February 1893 p6; North Queensland Register 17 December 1900 p12; Northern Miner 17 February 1911 p3.
[12] Trigger, ‘Change and Succession in Australian Aboriginal Claims to Land’, 2015, pp55-59; Taylor on behalf of the Gangalidda and Garawa Peoples #2 v State of Queensland [2015] FCA 730, para 9.
[13] Survey Plan B1369 (1892).
[14] The Queenslander, 15 December 1917 p28; Townsville Daily Bulletin, 14 January 1926 p10.

Image gallery


Location of Landsborough Tree (site of) within Queensland
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last updated
20 January 2016
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