"It is always adventurers who do great things, not the sovereigns of great empires."
Rockhampton was founded by the Messrs. Archer, but, except indirectly, they had little to do with the building up the town. Still they discovered the locality and gave the place a name, and seeing they were the pioneers, many people think it would have been fitting if the prospective town had been called after that enterprising family. In a certain sense it may be said that the discoverer of the district was Dr. Leichhardt, who left Sydney in 1844 and proceeded overland to Port Essington. The expedition kept away from the coast, but crossed and named the Dawson, Mackenzie, and Isaacs rivers. On Dr. Leichhardt's return from Port Essington, a year or two later he informed the Archers, who were then settled in the Burnett district with their flocks and herds, of the discoveries he had made in what is now the Central Division, and expressed the opinion that as the Dawson and the Mackenzie were flowing in nearly opposite directions, but somewhat easterly, they would ultimately meet and form one large river, which as readers are aware is the fact.
A few years later - in 1853 - Messrs. Charles and William Archer, relying on Dr Leichhardt's opinion as to the probable character of the country, went on an exploring trip, accompanied by a blackboy. At that time Rannes, occupied by the Messrs, Leith-Hay, was the most northern settlement. The explorers spent some little time there, where they were joined by Mr. Spencer. Continuing north for fifteen or twenty miles, they reached a high mountain, which they named Mount Spencer, in honour of their companion. This mountain is about eight or ten miles west of the present little township of Dundee. The view from the summit was very extensive, and gave the travellers a good idea of the position of the country. They decided to proceed more to the east than they had been going, and followed up the present Dee River, which they named the Stanks, on account of it's evil smell, till a range, now known as the Dee Range, was reached. Those who have ever had the pleasure of a view from any of the peaks of that chain of hills can understand the noble panorama that opened before the explorers. Away to the east was the ocean, and running down to it a large river. This was undoubtedly the river that Dr. Leichhardt was so confident existed, and which the explorers subsequently named the Fitzroy, in honour of the then Governor of the colony, Sir Charles Fitzroy. Having descended from the range, the party made towards the river. On their way they arrived at what is now Gracemere. The fine lake naturally attracted the attention of the explorers, and no doubt it was decided to make a settlement there should they ever return.
After making a camp at Gracemere, the travellers pushed on to the river they had seen from the range. It is believed they first struck the river some miles above the present site of Rockhampton, but soon found their way to the rocks, with the now fine town reach opening out before them. It requires but little imagination to picture the delight with which such a party would view the noble expanse of this new river, the largest, be it remembered, on the eastern coast of Australia. This river, with its various tributaries, drains an expanse of country measuring 54,000 square miles. At that time the banks were fringed with mangroves. The country from the Dee Range must have seemed to the newcomers an ideal spot for a large sheep station, with its lagoons and creeks in profusion, with a tidal river to carry away wool and bring up stores at a cheap rate, and with heavily grassed pastoral and agricultural lands all along the frontage.
The Next thing was to lay off the country in blocks preparatory to applying to the Government for it. This work enabled the explorers to fully gauge the advantages the locality presented as a site for a township. This completed, the party returned to their station on the Burnett River. Whether the idea of taking up the new country was abandoned for a time, or the Messrs. Archer were slowly maturing their plans, the fact remains that no more was made for the Fitzroy till 1855. On the 2nd of July in that year a start was made for what was to be the new home of this notable Queensland family. Mr. Charles Archer was in charge of the party, with the late Mr. H. W. Risien - who was for so many years identified with the progress of the town and district - as second in command.
In addition to the leaders there were in the party Mr. Charles Beeman, storekeeper; fourteen Europeans, including Mr J. F. Danker, who is the only survivor; four native police, with their gins; and four Burnett blackboys. This strong party was taken because the new country was inhabited by large numbers of hostile blacks. In the Burnett and Wide Bay districts a number of murders and outrages had been committed, and he Messrs. Archer therefore had to be prepared to defend themselves, the blacks being numerous in this district also.
The party brought several thousand sheep, together with bullock teams, horses, and all the varied impedimenta for starting a home in the new country. Progress was of course slow, and five or six weeks were spent in reaching the old camp of the exploring party at Gracemere. Owing to the scarcity of water a temporary camp was made at Watertown, where Mr E. Kelly - who came over a year later with the second party - subsequently took up his residence. This is only a mile or two from the present station at Gracemere. The party did not remain there long, but returned to Gracemere, where the head station was established.
The land taken possession of the Messrs. Archer extended from the Bajool scrub to near Mornish. The Fitzroy River for a length of about seventy miles formed the eastern boundary and the territory ran back from the river a long way. Truly a noble domain, which many a European prince might envy! The newcomers, however, had little time to rejoice over their possessions. There was an abundance of hard work to be done. Land had to be cleared, huts built, and yards erected for the protection of the stock. With plenty of suitable timber close at hand, work went on merrily, and by degrees the little settlement began to look like a miniature township. The sheep had then to be shorn, and the wool prepared for dispatch to a southern market.
Meanwhile, the Crown Lands Commissioner, Mr. W. H. Wiseman, came to Gracemere, and assisted in a search for another site for headquarters, but no more suitable spot could be found than that selected at Gracemere. Mr. Wiseman was a very old colonist, and held several responsible positions under the Queensland Government. He came to Australia from England in 1840. A few years later he came to what is now Queensland, holding an appointment as Clerk of Petty Sessions at Drayton for a time. He was subsequently appointed Commissioner for Crown Lands for the Leichhardt District. Mr. Wiseman and Mr Charles Archer chose the site of the town of Rockhampton. Mr. Wiseman was appointed Police Magistrate at Rockhampton in 1864, a position he held till his death in September, 1871. He was never married.
Before Mr. Archer left the Burnett, his brother, Mr. Colin Archer, went to Maryborough to get a cutter built, so that the vessel might go round the coast and up the Fitzroy with provisions. It had been arranged that the cutter, which was named the Elida, should arrive in the river soon after the overland party. Apparently, there was unexpected delay in preparing the vessel for sea, and it was really the 1st of September before she arrived opposite the present town with the much needed provisions for the settlers. Mr Colin Archer brought only Mr Elliott and one sailor with him in the cutter. This cutter was afterwards the property of the late Captain R. M. Hunter, and was renamed the Florence. She was eventually wrecked on No. 8 Island.
In November the first export of wool was despatched in the Elida, in which it was taken to the rising town of Gladstone for transhipment to Sydney. Soon after, Captain Philip Hardy, of the schooner Albion, who traded to Gladstone, came to Rockhampton - the place having been so named by Messrs. Archer and Wiseman - to make arrangements for the conveyance of the balance of the wool to Sydney. A temporary wharf was erected nearly opposite the present Belle Vue Hotel and the wool, which had been deposited on the bank of the river from the drays and covered with tarpaulins was got on board. The Albion set sail for Sydney just before the close of the year. Thus in less than six months the enterprising settlers had travelled a couple of hundred miles into a new country, established a little settlement, shorn their sheep, and sent away the first clip. This gives an idea of how hard the pioneers of Queensland had to work, under a sun which southern people speak of as little short of roasting.
As Mr. J. F. Danker was a member of this pioneer band, a few particulars of Mr. Archer's party kindly furnished by him may be of interest. Mr. Danker says:- "Mr Charles Archer, the head of the Messrs. Archer Brothers, was the leader of the party, which left the Burnett in July, 1855. Mr Risien was the second , and Mr. Beeman the third in charge. The cook, who came from Limestone (now Ipswich), was named Kirk, and Curtis and Lynch had charge of the bullock team. Rowley and Fulton were engaged as bushmen. There were eight Germans; Meyer and Kirchner, both carpenters; Danker, cabinetmaker; Honigboum, ploughman, Willy, brewer; Monk, sailor; Senut, sailor; John Muller, sailor. Mr. Colin Archer, at the time of the arrival of the party at Gracemere, was in Maryborough supervising the building of the cutter Elida. He arrived with that vessel on the 2nd of September with provisions. Although Mr. Charles Archer had arranged matters very carefully, he was in a critical position with his men, owing to the Elida being some days behind the time arranged. The supply of provisions at the settlement had run out, and the settlers had been living for ten days on mutton and rice, without salt. There was no tea, coffee, sugar, flour, or other necessaries. The Britons were all ticket-of-leave men, and put Mr Charles Archer in a serious position. They tried to induce the Germans to revolt, but to their honour the Germans were as true as gold to their master, and no wonder, for a more gentlemanly and genial master never led a party to a strange district. I have often wondered that so little mention is made of him; also of Mr. Colin, who afterwards became a most popular manager. There was plenty of water in the Gracemere lagoon at this time, but the party removed to Watertown to enable the men to watch the whole flat where the sheep were running, till a sheep station was built."
The Messrs. Elliott, who were the first to follow Mr. Charles Archer to the new country, camped at first at Windmere, or Lower Gracemere, before settling at their own place at Canoona. In 1856, Mr. Philip Elliott and his small party consisting of three or four men, were very nearly annihilated by the blacks. The natives attacked the encampment in great numbers, and killed one of Mr. Elliott's men, named Belfield. Mr Elliott himself was severely wounded by spears, one of which entered his mouth and went through his cheek. Providentially, when the blacks had nearly overcome them Lieutenant Walker appeared with his native troopers, and soon turned the black's victory into a rout. Mr. Elliott always suffered from the effect of the spear wounds. Belfield was the first white man to die at the settlement. The blacks became very hostile and vindictive after this, and remained so for several years.
In an account of the early days given by the late Mr. Risien, he tells how the first Christmas dinner was eaten at Gracemere, among those present being: Mr. Wiseman, then Crown Lands Commissioner for the Leichhardt District; Messrs Elliott Brothers, who had taken up land beyond Yaamba, under the name of Canoona Station; Captain Hardy, of the brig Albion; and the Gracemere settlers themselves.
The year 1856 was a busy one, and many improvements were carried out. The year was drought stricken, so much so that the mere in front of the head station was completely dry nearly all the year. At Christmas of that year a race meeting was got up and the course was staked out on the dry bed of the mere.
About the middle of 1856 Mr. Colin Archer, with Mr E. Kelly as his lieutenant, came across from the Burnett with the remainder of the stock and baggage. Meanwhile the Albion, which had taken the first clip to Sydney, came back with supplies, and carried away the clip of the Messrs. Elliott - which had been shorn at Gracemere - on the return trip to Sydney. The Messrs Elliott then shifted their sheep to their new run, and settled down at Canoona Station, about seven or eight miles from Yaamba, on what is now the Marlborough Road. According to the custom for many years the census was taken every five years, and in April, 1856, Mr. Risien took the first census. The only white people in the district at the time outside the Archer party were the Messrs Elliott and their employees. There were thirty-five whites, the oldest being a man named Duffy, a soldier's son, a native of New South Wales, who was sixty-two years of age.
The settlement of the Archers and Elliotts in this district, and the suitableness of the township as a place for business, had been noised abroad, and so attracted the attention of the enterprising class who were steadily pioneering the colony in a northerly and westerly direction. Mr Richard Palmer and an officer of the Native Police named Lieutenant Powell, arrived at Gracemere about the middle of the year, almost on the same day that Messrs. Colin Archer and Kelly arrived with the balance of the stock from the Burnett. Mr. Palmer came to start a store, which he erected on what is now the northern side of Fitzroy street, opposite the present Criterion Hotel. It was only a short time ago that the last of it was levelled - a stout old building it was. It was a big store for a beginning. In 1858 Mr Richard Palmer sold out to his brother Mr John Palmer, who was a valued member of the young community till the day of his death, which occurred in 1870 from intermittent fever.
The first anniversary of the settlement soon came round, and the shearing of the sheep and dispatch of the wool were carried out as before. This was all done without mishap, but after the wool was shipped two of the vessels were wrecked on the voyage to Sydney. These were the Sable Chief and Sea Belle. The latter had on board Mr Norman Leith-Hay of Rannes Station. The Sea Belle and all on board were never heard of again. This was not the only disaster during that stormy weather, for the schooner Jenny Lind was driven ashore at Rodd's Bay, south of the entrance to Port Curtis. The Messrs Archer purchased the wreck and succeeded in floating it. After the necessary repairs had been effected to the vessel she continued to trade between Rockhampton and Sydney under the command of Captain Curran, for many years. She was finally wrecked on Seal Rocks, near Gladstone.
During 1857 the extension of sheep stations northward and eastward continued. Mr. D. Connor took up Princhester to the north of Canoona; but soon after disposed of it to Mr. Van Wessem. Mr. Connor was till this year Inspector of Distilleries at Mackay. The late Mr. James Atherton started for the new country in that year with a number of sheep but was delayed on the Burnett by rain for some months and did not get to Gracemere, or rather what is still known as the Cattle Station, fifteen miles from town, till February, 1858. Mr Atherton was accompanied by his brother John who is now at Mareeba. The Messrs. Archer gave permission to Mr. Atherton to remain at the Cattle Station as long as he pleased and he availed himself of the privilege by staying there till April 1859, the place being on the high road from Gladstone. Mr Atherton died last December at his residence, Copland, Yeppoon, having lived in the district for over forty-five years.
Having received a store, the next thing the little township of Rockhampton needed was a public house. This was supplied in 1857, when Mr. R. A. Parker came here from Gayndah and built the Bush Inn on the site of the present Criterion Hotel. The primitive Bush Inn and the present fine hotel, if they could be set down side by side, would strikingly and truly represent the then and now in the history of the town. The Bush Inn was built of hardwood slabs and bark, and though unpretentious enough was fully equal to the requirements of the township at that period. Mr. Parker, it may be mentioned, was the father of Mrs. G. S. Curtis. He died a few years subsequently. Of course during all this period the present state of Queensland was still a portion of New South Wales. Captain O'Connell, afterwards Sir Maurice O'Connell, being the Government Resident, with his headquarters at Gladstone. In 1857 the town of Rockhampton was officially proclaimed and Mr. F. Clarke commenced the survey, which was subsequently completed by Mr. A. F. Wood. The town slowly increased in population during the remainder of the year and on till the middle of 1858, when suddenly Rockhampton and Port Curtis became household words in the mouths of half the people in Australia. Rich gold had been found at Canoona.