State Library of Victoria \ Dig: the Burke & Wills research gateway
Skip to main content
» Where did Burke cross Cooper's Creek ?

Where did Burke cross Cooper's Creek ?


Hi Dave,
We have just returned from a trip to Innamincka and all the Burke and Wills sites, including the Dig Tree.  We have also read Sarah Murgatroyd's book on the expedition. However we are unable to solve the mystery of where and how Burke's final party crossed Cooper Creek on his way north to Carpentaria.  We have read that 1860 was a good year for the Cooper and that water was abundant.  So had the Creek dried up enough by the time Burke left Depot 65, to enable him to cross in between waterholes; or did Burke simply march alongside the Creek without ever needing to actually cross the Creek?

Peter and Vicki Simpson

Dear Peter and Vickie,

Burke did cross the Cooper, but he did it at his first Depot Camp (Camp 63), which is where the Cooper meets the Wilson River. The main issue which causes confusion for people trying to identify where the expedition travelled in this area is that Burke's 'first camp on the Cooper' (Camp 57) was not on the Cooper, but was actually on what is now called the Wilson River.


Burke and Wills already knew about Cooper Creek from earlier visits by European explorers; Charles Sturt in 1845 and A C Gregory in 1858. In 1845 Sturt traced the Cooper upstream, reaching a point on 3 November 1845 which he called the Macleay Plains. Sturt thought he was still on the Cooper, but by this stage the Cooper was away to the north-east and Sturt was actually on the Wilson River.

When Burke and Wills left the Bulloo River and headed west across the Grey Range, their intention was to find water near Sturt's Macleay Plains. On 11 November 1860, after several days in the ranges without water, they descended onto the plains and found a narrow watercourse (near today's isolated little settlement of Noccundra). As they were only about 30 kilometres from Sturt's furthest camp, Wills naturally thought he had found the Cooper. Consequently, Wills' field-book records 'Camp 57, first camp on the Cooper', even though they were on the Wilson River, not the Cooper, and still more than 100 kilometres from the Dig Tree.

Wilson River. A channel of the Wilson River where Burke and Wills first found water on Sturt's Macleay Plains. Burke and Wills made their 'first camp on the Cooper' on 11 November 1860 within a couple of kilometres of this spot.
© Dave Phoenix 2012.

Burke and Wills had a difficult time over the next week-and-a-half tracing the myriad of watercourses in the channel country before they reached a site downstream which Burke considered was suitable to make a depot camp. This was at the confluence of the Cooper and the Wilson, and they made Depot Camp 63 on the spur of land between the two rivers.

Burke and Wills made several reconnaissance trips to the north, so they would have had to cross the Cooper as soon as they left camp, and as there would have been water here they would have had to swim the horses and camels across to the northern bank of the Cooper each time they left camp.

The confluence of Cooper Creek and the Wilson River - the site of Burke's Depot Camp 63
© Dave Phoenix 2012.

They stayed at Depot Camp 63 from 20 November to 4 December 1860, before the long-haired plague rats (Rattus villosissimus) forced them to move downstream to their second depot camp at the Dig Tree. Wills was away on another reconnaissance trip when Burke moved downstream, so there is no record of exactly where Burke travelled between Camps 63 and 65 (~30 kilometres). He could have travelled on the south bank of the Cooper, but that would have meant crossing the Wilson and then crossing the Cooper further downstream, or he could have crossed the Cooper at the camp, which he had done several times previously during the reconnaissance trips. I suspect Burke crossed to the north bank at the camp (see the photograph above).

Once on the northern bank, Burke had no need to cross back to the south bank, and so the camps he made on the Cooper while on the way to Carpentaria (Camp 64 near Maappoo; Camp 65 at the Dig Tree; Camp 66 at Kullyu-marru (Cullyamurra); and Camp 67 at Thilka) were all on the northern bank of the creek.

William John Wills, Field-book. Wills' original field-book on the left, with an annotated copy on the right showing how Burke and Wills travelled from Camp 62 to Camp 63 on Tuesday, 20 November 1860; they left Camp LXII at 6.00 am, crossed the Wilson River at 7.30, skirted around to the north of some low hills and then reached the main channel of the Cooper at 10.15 am where they made Camp LXIII, their first Depot Camp.
William John Wills, Field Notes No. 4: Bilbarka to Torowoto to Cooper's Creek (14-20 November 1860), MS13071, State Library of Victoria.

Unfortunately Murgatroyd's book doesn't depict these events very well, but only adds to the confusion. The way she describes Burke arriving at the Cooper is more a reflection of the first time she saw the Cooper in 1997 rather than a portrayal of Burke's 1860 experience. Her description of the Cooper 'winding its way through the wilderness like a fat orange snake' has no similarity to Wills' description of their first encounter with the creek; '... at the point at which we first struck Cooper's Creek it was rocky, sandy, and dry'.

Wills had great difficulty following the Wilson River downstream and became frustrated as the channels petered out and the water dried up between the sandhills and on the black-soil plains. In addition, the place they first encountered the watercourse was in Wangkamura country, not Yandruwandha country as Murgatroyd suggests.

A note on orthography: Cooper Creek or Cooper's Creek?
I am often asked about the correct use of Cooper or Cooper's, and I tend to use them interchangeably, depending on the context.

The Yandruwandha name for Cooper Creek is Kinipapa (although because the creek is more than 1,200 km long, it has many indigenous names along its course). On 9 November 1845, the first European to see the creek, Captain Charles Napier Sturt called the creek Cooper's Creek.

Before we finally left the neighbourhood ... I gave the name of Cooper’s Creek to the fine watercourse we had so anxiously traced, as a proof of my great respect for Mr Cooper [Justice Sir Charles Cooper], the Judge of South Australia. I would gladly have laid this creek down as a river, but as it had no current I did not feel myself justified in so doing.
(Charles Sturt, Narrative of an expedition into central Australia, performed under the authority of Her Majesty's Government, during the years 1844, 5, and 6: together with a notice of the province of South Australia, in 1847, (London: T and W Boone, 1848), 2 volumes.)

Modern geographical place name guidelines remove the apostrophe and possessive 's and call the creek Cooper Creek.

So historical references to the creek will call it Cooper's Creek, but contemporary references call it Cooper Creek.