Skip to Main Content

John McDouall Stuart: Aftermath

Explore the resources in the collections of the State Library of South Australia about South Australia's most famous explorer, who successfully crossed the continent from south to north, through the centre, and returned alive.

Stuart's tree

Stuart reached the north coast of Australia 24 July 1862. The coast was bordered by thick scrub and mangrove swamp and Stuart was unable to proceed along the coast to the mouth of the Adelaide River as he wanted to, because of the thick mud. Instead the following day some two miles from the original arrival point a mangrove tree was stripped of its branches and the flag was raised. This tree subsequently collapsed, and the note contained in a tin and buried at its base has never been found. Another tree, some distance inland from the point at which the expedition reached the coast, was blazed with Stuart's initials. It was a large tree some three feet in girth: this is the tree referred as Stuart's tree.

The first settlers and surveyors in the Northern Territory were unable to find the tree until 1883. Doubt arose in the meantime as to whether Stuart had indeed reached the coast. The problem lay in the manner in which he had described the terrain. G R McMinn Acting Government Resident and Chief Surveyor and an admirer of Stuart's work and the accuracy of his mapping of his route across Australia, made determined efforts to locate the tree. Eventually with the aid of an Aboriginal man the blazed tree was found in December 1883, and the news sent down the telegraph wire to Adelaide. Stuart was vindicated.

Over the next few years efforts were made to keep the scrub back from the tree to give it some protection as an historic tree. Sadly it was destroyed by fire sometime in 1902. A branch was salvaged and returned to Adelaide. Some pieces of this are held by the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia.


Stuart was granted the 2000 pounds reward offered by the South Australian government for the crossing of Australia through the centre of the continent. The money was invested on his behalf and he received the interest only. Pastoral leases he had been granted in the course of his explorations were sold to John Chambers.

John McDouall Stuart returned to England in April 1864, still ill and seriously weakened by his years of toil and privation. He died in England on 5 June 1866, mourned by only a handful of people. The monument over his grave in Kensal Green Cemetery was erected by his sister, not by the South Australian government. Recognised as Australia's, certainly South Australia's greatest explorer, it was not until 1895 that the suggestion of a monument in Adelaide for him was raised. From a meeting of surveyors toasting Stuart's memory a committee was formed and met in the offices of W. P. Auld, one of the survivors of the 1862 expedition. The committee raised 182 pounds in one shilling subscriptions. The South Australian Royal Caledonian Society took over and raised a further 570 pounds; the state government contributed another 500 pounds. The contract was let to Mr W J Maxwell, who made the clay model, but he died before the marble arrived from Italy. The statue was then worked in Carrara marble by Mr James White of Sydney. The statue was unveiled 4 June 1904.

After Stuart's tree was located in 1883 (see box) anniversary celebrations were held regularly among his companions. Gradually over the years as their numbers dwindled with the last, John Billiatt dying in 1919 the celebrations ceased. A centenary dinner was held in 1962.

Death of Stuart: South Australian Register 29 August 1866 p. 3 : Stuart the explorer. Summarises his explorations 'deserves more than a passing notice in this colony.'

Northern Territory and the Overland Telegraph Line

See the Overland Telegraph Line guide for further resources. 

As a result of Stuart's explorations South Australia was enabled to annex the Northern Territory. Prior to this control in this region rested with New South Wales. Official control commenced in 1863. Surveyors were sent north to locate the ideal place for the main town and to survey it and thousands of acres of country sections for pastoralists. South Australia established settlement on the north coast at Darwin and vast areas of the north were opened up for pastoral and mineral development

The western border of South Australia was also re-located to 129 degrees east, removing the no-man's land between it and Western Australia control of which had also rested with New South Wales.

The Overland Telegraph Line was constructed: terminating in Palmerston (Port Darwin) where it connected with the undersea cable from Asia, it linked Australia--through South Australia--to the world. No longer was Australia reliant on weeks old newspapers arriving by ship. Construction of the Line was managed by Charles Todd South Australia's Post Master General. The line largely followed Stuart's route, except through the MacDonnell Ranges where an easier pathway was found, and in the far north where the construction teams pioneered a route across to Palmerston on Port Darwin, rather than to Van Diemen's Gulf, where Stuart had arrived in July 1862. The Line was completed in August 1872. Surveyors on the Overland Telegraph Line were amazed at the accuracy of Stuart's charting.

The original Central Australia Railway (Ghan) from Adelaide to Alice Springs largely followed the route pioneered by Stuart. This was finally completed in 2004. The Stuart Highway also follows his route through central Australia


Archival sources

C 87 Sketch showing relative positions of Stuart's marked tree and buried papers in flask [map]/ compiled by C.H. Harris. Shows approximate location, in longitude and latitude, of mangrove tree where John McDouall Stuart hoisted a flag and buried an airtight flask. Also marked tree further south. Shows natural features including position of Charles Creek. Compiled by C.H. Harris from Stuart's map and journal, PP 21/63, by direction of the Surveyor General, and approved by S. King and W.P. Auld

C 88 Tracing showing position of Stuart's marked tree [map] Shows Stuart's marked tree and place where flag hoisted. Includes Port Darwin and Palmerston, Port Daly, Point Stuart, Chambers and Finke Bay and Adelaide and Mary River. Ink on paper with Stuart's tracks shown in red ink

PRG 630 Sir Charles Todd : SUMMARY RECORD Papers of Sir Charles Todd, comprising letter of appointment, family correspondence, public testimonial and toast list relating to completion of the Overland Telegraph, congratulatory messages etc

Renner, Frederick Diaries of the Overland Telegraph Line construction D 7919(L)

Crowder, W.A. Diary D 8065(L) Crowder worked on the construction of the Roper River section of the Overland Telegraph Line

Rutt, Walter Diary kept by Walter Rutt, Overseer of the Overland Telegraph Construction Party, Section 1. D 2575(L)