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McMillan, Angus (1810–1865)

by Theo Webster

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Angus McMillan (1810-1865), by unknown photographer

Angus McMillan (1810-1865), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 24595

Angus McMillan (1810-1865), explorer and pioneer pastoralist, was born on 14 August 1810 at Glenbrittle, Isle of Skye, Scotland, the fourth son of Ewan McMillan. He emigrated to New South Wales from Greenock in the Minerva, his journal on this voyage indicating intensely religious, narrow and intolerant views. He arrived in January 1838 with letters of introduction to Captain Lachlan Macalister, who made him a manager on Clifton station near Camden. McMillan was 'disgusted at the inhuman treatment of the convict labourers', and requested a transfer away from the settled colony. Macalister appointed him manager at Currawang in the Maneroo (Monaro) country and he began there in February 1839. In this year he learned much bushcraft, befriended Aboriginal tribes and after an eventful journey in May climbed Mount McLeod (The Haystack) and glimpsed the plain and lakes country of Gippsland. On this journey his Aboriginal guide, Jimmy Gabber, attempted to murder him in his sleep and, realizing that the Aboriginal was terrified of the strange country, McMillan turned north to Omeo after nine days although he had provisions for six weeks.

Macalister, in the drought-stricken colony, received the news of prospective new pastures with enthusiasm and agreed to finance an expedition to explore the plains and seek a route to Corner Inlet from which stock and produce could be shipped.

With convict assistants, McMillan brought a bullock wagon from Currawang to Omeo in August 1839 and set up a station at Numbla Munjie (Ensay) with Monaro cattle and equipment ready for the summer expedition. After an abortive start in December 1839, he reinforced his party with two Omeo Aborigines, Cabone Johnny and Friday, and moved down the Tambo River on 10 January 1840. His other men were Alan Cameron, Matthew Macalister and Edward Bath. They experienced little trouble, and Aboriginals did not attack them, but spoiled beef limited the explorations and lack of food forced a return after the Thomson River had been crossed. A few more miles would have given McMillan a view of the port essential to the new country. McMillan crossed the Tambo, Nicholson, Mitchell, Perry, Avon, Macalister and Thomson Rivers, realized the possibilities of the lakes system and reported enthusiastically to Captain Macalister on the quality of the country. In 1840 McMillan set up a station at Nuntin near the mouth of the Avon River for Macalister and selected his own property, Bushy Park, farther up-stream. He made two unsuccessful attempts, under leaders appointed by Macalister, to reach Corner Inlet, but finally found the way through the range with Tom Macalister and reached the port on 13 February 1841.

In March 1840 Strzelecki led his party though Numbla Munjie and, after Matthew Macalister had guided them, they followed McMillan's tracks through the new country and Strzelecki gave his own titles to salient features already named by McMillan. In his report to Governor Sir George Gipps and in a circulated pamphlet, Strzelecki made no mention that he had followed another man's trail and much of the credit properly due to McMillan was denied him. The two never met and McMillan remained hostile to 'the foreign imposter' until he died. He had called the area Caledonia Australis but Strzelecki's title Gippsland, in honour of the governor, was preferred, although McMillan's other names were officially adopted.

McMillan settled at Bushy Park and until 1860 lived according to the social standards of the day. He engaged in the cattle trade to Hobart, grew wheat, bred sheep for wool and tallow, and at one time held leases over five properties. He smoked a pipe, enjoyed a convivial drink and raced horses against his neighbours' favourites. He entertained widely and was for many years president of the Gippsland Caledonian Society. His home became a haven for newly-arrived Scots to learn the language and aspects of the new life. McMillan took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines. He was elected as the first representative for South Gippsland to the Victorian Legislative Assembly on 22 September 1859 but resigned after fourteen months. McMillan had invested heavily in cattle and his properties were deeply mortgaged. Disastrous fires and unsuccessful speculations depleted his resources and all his properties except Tabberabbera passed to mortgagees in October 1861. Frustration, disappointment and nagging illness were to accompany him through his last years.

In 1864, to his obvious delight, he was offered the leadership of the government's Alpine Expedition to open tracks in the mining areas of Omeo, Dargo and Matlock. He recruited his party at Stratford, and near the Crooked River in March his men discovered a rich gold deposit which they named the Pioneer. A rush to the area resulted in McMillan losing most of his original party by the end of May and he had difficulty in engaging new hands. Nevertheless over 220 miles (354 km) of track were cut by the Alpine Expedition in the next twelve months. The work was arduous and at times McMillan blazed the route crawling on hands and knees through thick scrub. Early in 1865 his health deteriorated rapidly, he could not hold his men and he found difficulty in administration; details of his expenses were challenged by officials, who were unduly slow in approving wages and provision allowances. In May 1865 the party was disbanded and McMillan set out alone to complete the last task: blazing a trail from Dargo to the Moroka River. One of his pack-horses fell and rolled on him causing severe internal injuries. He set out for Bairnsdale but reached only as far as Iguana Creek, where he died in Gilleo's Hotel a few hours later on 18 May 1865.

He was buried in Sale cemetery after a Presbyterian service. He was survived by his wife Christina, née MacDougald, whom he had married in 1857, and by two sons, Ewan and Angus. They were left without sufficient means and a month after his death the government voted £2000 for their benefit.

McMillan pioneered Gippsland and spent the rest of his life contributing to its welfare. His popularity was testimony to the change wrought by the country in the narrow, bigoted young man who arrived in the colony. He died while extending the boundaries of the province he had discovered. Although he received little wealth from Gippsland and resented the credit given to Strzelecki as an explorer of the new district, his journals and letters and those of his contemporaries reveal him as courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country.

A portrait in oils is in the shire of Alberton chambers, Yarram, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • T. F. Bride (ed), Letters from Victorian Pioneers (Melb, 1899)
  • R. Mackay, Recollections of Early Gippsland Goldfields (Traralgon, 1916)
  • C. Daley, ‘Angus McMillan’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 11, no 3, Mar 1927, pp 143-56
  • Shillinglaw papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Theo Webster, 'McMillan, Angus (1810–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcmillan-angus-2416/text3203, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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