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19 Mar 2022

The colonial quest for fertile lands

Proving impermeable to colonial explorers for decades, early journeys into the Blue Mountains were undertaken by Governor Philip (1738-1814), Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836) and, Captain William Paterson (1755-1810), who traveled with a party of Scottish Highlanders in tow. 

Naturalist and collector on behalf of Joseph Banks, George Caley (1770-1829) was one of the first to make any real progress in 1804, but his successes were for the most part fleeting. The nature of the terrain was confusing and every time he thought he had made some headway, the misty mountains seemed to have "moved". 

Although ultimately unsuccessful at finding a passage through the Mountains, Caley kept a meticulous diary that included compass bearings and detailed descriptions of the vegetation he encountered, which he then sent to Banks. This journal and some of Caley’s specimens are now held in the collections of the British Museum of Natural History.

Driven largely by a voracious appetite for land suitable for farming, Governor King (1773-1837) declared the area "confused and barren" and "as chimerical as useless" as a result of his disappointment while reading Caley’s report of an unsuccessful journey. It is unclear whether Caley’s faster progress along the ridges of the area was communicated to others at the time, but this is also the method suggested by Gregory Blaxland (1778-1853), William Lawson (1774-1850), and William Charles Wentworth (1790-1872), who successfully blazed a trail to the peak of what is now known as Blaxland Mountain in 1813.

It was not until ten years later, when 19-year-old Archibald Bell Junior (1804-1883) enlisted the help of the local Darug Peoples, that the colonial desire to forge a pathway to the fertile land that had been sighted by the Blaxland party was finally sated. 

There are a few sources from the time that mention Bell’s ‘discovery', one of which was serialised in the Hawesbury Herald in 1903-04. The author, Samuel Boughton refers to ongoing skirmishes between the Aboriginal Peoples of the area, whose lands lay in what the colonisers called Piper’s Flat and Belmont. Boughton's account describes the Piper’s Flat Peoples' capture of six women from the Belmont area and the subsequent escape of one, whose sudden appearance in an area not thought to be accessible on foot, surprised all who saw her emerge as if from out of nowhere. 

When asked how she came to be there, she pointed at Kurrajong Heights, saying "that fella", sparking Bell’s curiosity. Accounts from the time variously describe either the recently escaped woman or two Aboriginal men from the area acting as Bell's guides to Tomah. With the passing of time it is difficult to know which is to be believed, but what is undeniable is that it is as a direct result of the Darug Peoples' knowledge of the terrain that Bell and his team were able to traverse the area that became what we now know as Bells Line of Road.  


Barani – Sydney's Aboriginal History
The Mount Tomah Book
The State Library of New South Wales 

We would like to acknowledge the Darug and Gundungurra Peoples of the Eora Nation within Sydney and pay our respect to Elders past, present and future.

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