State Library of Victoria \ Dig: the Burke & Wills research gateway
Skip to main content
» Burke's Tree

Burke's Tree

Question: 

Hello Dave,
I'm the volunteer librarian of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia. We have a piece of tree described below.  As the note says I've assumed these are not the original markings. I would be interested in finding out more about it. Hope you can help.

Description:
Part of the tree marking the grave of Robert O’Hara Burke, leader of the unsuccessful Victorian attempt to cross the continent from south to north and return. Burke and William John Wills died near Cooper’s Creek in June 1861. Carved into the tree are the initials of Alfred Howitt whose search party found the bodies of Burke and Wills in September 1861. The date 21. 9. 61 is carved into the tree and R O’H B indicating that this is Burke’s gravesite. Howitt later returned to this site to retrieve the remains of Burke and Wills and take them back to Melbourne. John McKinlay, who led the South Australian Relief Expedition found the tree marked by Howitt in December 1861 and added his initials. (The engravings appear to be copies of the originals on the main trunk of the tree). McKinlay carved his initials in the ‘burial tree’ in December 1861. The artefact is approximately 87 cm long and 8-10 cm in diameter, with the branch 50cm long and 6.5 cm in diameter.

Image reproduced courtesy of RGSA (SA Branch).

Kevin Griffin
Answer: 

Dear Kevin,
Burke died on Cooper Creek and was buried under a coolibah tree by Howitt in September 1861. Howitt marked the tree, as did McKinlay who visited later. Howitt returned to the tree in 1862 and exhumed Burke's remains for re-burial in Melbourne.

There appear to have been at least seven occasions when pieces of this tree have been taken as souvenirs, at least two of those pieces have been handed to the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (SA Branch).
********

Background to Burke's Tree.
Burke died (most probably on 1 July 1861) on the southern bank of Yidnaminkie Waterhole at Cooper Creek in South Australia. John King left him unburied as Burke had requested. King returned to Burke's body some weeks later with the Yandruwandha and they placed boughs over Burke's body. Alfred Howitt, leader of the Victorian Contingent Party, discovered King living on Cooper Creek on 15 September 1861. King directed Howitt to Burke's remains, and on 21 September 1861 Howitt buried Burke under the coolibah tree. Howitt wrote:

We dug a grave ... and interred the remains wrapped in the Union Jack ... On a box-tree, at the head of the grave the following inscription is cut;
R O'H B
21/9/61
AH

When John McKinlay, leader of the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition heard of Howitt's discoveries he headed to the Cooper. McKinlay visited Burke's grave on 7 December 1861 and buried a bottle under the tree with a note. Although he didn't mention it in his journal, McKinlay blazed the tree with his conjoined initials (MK) and the word 'Dig' to indicate the buried bottle. When Howitt returned to the Cooper in 1862 to exhume Burke and Wills' remains for burial in Melbourne, he mentioned that McKinlay had blazed the tree (MK conjoined, DIG under in square).

Burke's Tree since 1862.
The tree under which Burke was buried was originally considered much more significant than the Dig Tree, in fact the Dig Tree wasn't even called the Dig Tree until the 1920s.

The oldest surviving image of Burke's Tree is a sketch made by surveyor Alexander Hutchinson Salmond in 1879 and it shows some of the marks made by Howitt and McKinlay. (Reference 6404 Salmond, Box 10921, Heritage Collection, State Library of Queensland). The tree was photographed for the first time by South Australian Government Photographer Emanuel Spiller in 1887. The location of the tree was fixed by Deputy Surveyor-General, J H McNamara in March 1896.

Burke's Tree is subject to deposition as a result of flooding, and the ground level has continued to rise and cover the blazes with each flood event. Howitt's blaze was covered in the 1906 flood and McKinlay's blaze has subsequently been covered as well. (The blaze has been dug out several times, but when Joe Mack dug it out in 1960, there was nothing of the original carving left to see).

Burke's Tree is at 27° 43' 16"S, 140° 46' 50" E (GDA 94).


Burke's grave,
Photograph by Emanuel Spiller, c. 1887, H1665, Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Wooden souvenirs
In 1881 a drover named Henry Ledger visited Burke's Tree and "cut off a limb with a penknife while sitting on horseback" (Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1922: 14). The first record of a piece of Burke's Tree being placed on display was when Hiram Mildred of the Relics Committee of the Old Colonist's Association exhibited items at the Adelaide Town Hall as part of South Australia's Jubilee Celebrations in December 1886. Among the relics was a "piece of the tree under which Burke and Wills, the explorers, met their tragic death," (SA Register, 28 December 1886, pp. 5-6). Mildred claimed the piece was "cut some years ago by a pioneer squatter," (SA Register, 18 August 1887, p.3).

A third piece of the tree was sent to the mayor of Adelaide, Edwin Thomas Smith on 15 August 1887.

On Monday evening His Worship the mayor received from Mr Alfred Walker, Manager of Innamincka Station, a, branch of the tree under which Robert O'Hara Burke was buried. Mr Walker wrote "I am sending you a limb from Burke's tree. The limb represents the tree as it now stands, showing, initials, &c, as they were put on by the different explorers that came to look for Burke and Wills." The mayor intends to forward the relic to the Exhibition.
(SA Register, 17 August 1887, p. 6)

In 1903, Mr. Peate of Innamincka moved to Mildura, taking with him a photograph of the tree and "a piece of the tree also, on which is a facsimile of the inscriptions as they appear on the trunk" (Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 25 December 1903: 28). Peate notes "at various times large limbs have been cut off and portions taken away by visitors as relics."
Sidney Kidman had a piece of Burke's Tree which he cut from the tree himself sometime between 1904 and 1910. The piece Kidman had was "part of two forked branches of a tree" (Jill Bowen, Kidman: The forgotten king, 1967).

In 1929 the Government Inspector of Pastoral Leases, Cecil Goode, reported that "a vandal had sawn off a limb, five or six inches in diameter, from Burke's historic tree" (The Register News-Pictorial, 26 February 1929, p. 28).

The following year the State Library of Victoria exhibited a "portion of the tree under which Burke was buried." (Argus, 11 February 1930, p.7).


Portion of tree under which Burke was buried
[realia], wood; 14.5 cm. (diameter), H5102, State Library of Victoria.

The RGSA (SA Branch) wooden souvenir
In 1903 the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (SA Branch) were presented with two separate pieces of Burke's tree. On 20 July 1903 RGSA member A T Magarey presented "a portion of a branch of a tree at the grave of Burke and Wills at Innamincka," which had been donated by Trooper H A Schumann (Advertiser, 22 July 1903, p. 6; Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch) Vol. 7, 1904, p. ix). Five months later Professor Edward Charles Stirling wrote to the Society offering to loan "a branch of the tree under which Burke died," (Advertiser, 14 December 1903, p. 6; Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch) Vol. 7, 1904, p. x). This loan was made with the assent of Edwin Thomas Smith who had presented the piece to the museum.

It would appear from all the available evidence that the piece of wood you currently have in the RGSA collection is the one cut by Alfred Walker of Innamincka Station on or before 1887. It was sent to Adelaide in 1887, presented to the museum by the mayor, and loaned to the RGSA in 1903 by Dr Stirling (Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch) Vol. 7, 1904, p. xxxi). The carvings were already on the piece when it arrived in Adelaide. The piece was mentioned in 1929 by Dr Charles Fenner of the RGSA.

"The piece of tree in our rooms is from Innamincka, and is no doubt a genuine part of the tree marked by Howitt at Burke's grave" (Fenner, 'Two Historic Gumtrees Associated with the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1861,' Proceedings of the RGSA (SA Branch), Vol. 29, (1927-8), p. 5).

Fenner states the tree had a printed and framed bill associated with it which stated the piece of tree was "sent down in 1888 [sic]" (Two Historic Gumtrees, p. 6). The first known photograph of the tree shows a limb had already been removed by 1887.


The carvings on the RGSA artefact are not completely accurate, as Howitt's initials and McKinlay's initials have been transposed, and the dates are separated by a period not a forward-slash. However the conjoined initials are reproduced correctly and McKinlay's instructions to DIG are also included, which are rarely mentioned in other narratives. The artefact also shows McKinlay carved an arrow, which is not mentioned in any other archive, but most probably was carved on the original tree to indicate where the buried bottle was located. Below are two attempts at deciphering the contents of the blaze, one an enhanced photograph and the other by Dr Fenner; neither is correct.


Unidentified man and Herbert Kenny under the Dig [sic] Tree, 1887,
D3-5-86, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.


Sketch to show the base of Burke's tree, with Howitt's and McKinlay's 1861 inscriptions,
Fenner, Two historic gumtrees, 1929, p. 14.


Burke's Tree,
© Dave Phoenix 2016.

*********************************************************************************************************