Crossing the Blue Mountains had proved a challenge to the white colonists, although aboriginal people had been moving through the range for millennia. In 1813, according to popular lore, the first explorers to make the crossing were Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Charles Wentworth. They successfully crossed the mountains to Sydney’s west, opening up new agricultural and grazing lands and augmenting the colony’s food supplies.
However, local historians have challenged the view that the three explorers were the first white men to make it to the other side of the range. According to their account, an escaped convict, John Wilson, may have been the first to cross the divide in 1797.
Wilson appears to have reached the granite country of the upper Cox’s River valley near Hartley. The two main Aboriginal highways were the Bilpin Ridge from Richmond, and Cox’s River valley from the Burragorang Valley. Other records offer clues that he followed the Cox’s River route. This is, in fact, the easiest route through the Blue Mountains, and completely avoids the need to cross over them. A third possibility is the via the Colo River gorge, and some evidence suggests that Wilson may even have travelled all three!
A subsequent expedition authorised by Governor Hunter reached the area near Mittagong, not crossing the Blue Mountains but going around them. The same account reveals that, in 1802, a Frenchman, Francis Barrallier, penetrated further into the Blue Mountains than Blaxland et al as an emissary to the leader of the local Aboriginal people. It suggests that it was in the interests of authorities to maintain the idea that the mountains were an impenetrable barrier to deter convicts from attempting to flee inland.
Where many previous attempts at crossing the Blue Mountains had followed the river valleys, the 1813 expedition followed a ridge-line. The party reached a mountain summit with a view of forests and grasslands to the west. Blaxland later wrote that the land they saw was rich enough to ‘support the stock of the colony for the next thirty years.’
The same year, Governor Macquarie directed the Deputy Surveyor of Lands, George Evans, to survey the track Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth had followed. He pushed on for more than 90 miles past the point reached by the expedition, crossing the Great Dividing Range and discovering the Bathurst Plains. In 1814, work commenced on a road which was formally opened in 1815.
The first grant of land in the Bathurst District was given to one Maurice Charles O’Connell of the 73rd regiment, in March 1814. Initially, the new lands were primarily used for grazing. There were small farms and large estates, with the first windmill on the western side of the Blue Mountains being erected in 1824.
In 1826 it was estimated that 25,000 head of cattle and about 70,000 sheep were owned by the settlers. The district became famous for its cheese. Known as Rankin’s Cheese after its maker, a Mrs Rankin, it sold for up to one shilling a pound.