Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilson, John (?–1800)

by A. H. Chisholm

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

John Wilson (d.1800), wild white man and explorer, was convicted in October 1785, at Wigan, Lancashire, England, of having stolen 'nine yards of cotton cloth called velveret, of the value of tenpence', and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He reached Port Jackson in the Alexander with the First Fleet in January 1788.  

Soon after his term expired Wilson, who had formerly been a mariner, took to the bush and lived with Aborigines, possibly at intervals, for several years. He may have been, as David Collins said, 'a wild, idle young man who preferred living among the natives to earning the wages of honest industry'; but in so doing he lived 'the hard way', and in his wanderings he acquired an extensive knowledge of much of the country within about 100 miles (161 km) of Sydney. He established good relations with the Aborigines, to whom he was 'Bun-bo-e', and so definitely did he become a member of a particular band that his body, clad only in a kangaroo skin, was heavily scarred by tribal markings. In 1795 Wilson accompanied Charles Grimes to Port Stephens, and there he possibly saved his leader's life by wounding a native who was about to hurl a spear. He became a 'vagabond of the woods' again soon afterwards, was declared an outlaw in May 1797, but in November returned to the settlement.

In January 1798 when a number of Irish prisoners were becoming restless in their anxiety to escape and to seek what they believed to be a 'New World' of white people situated about 200 miles (322 km) south-west of Sydney, Governor John Hunter, in order to 'save worthless lives', sent off four of them under an armed guard and with Wilson as guide to see what could be found. The Irishmen soon grew tired of the enterprise and returned with the soldiers to Port Jackson, but Wilson and two companions pushed on into unknown country. Through a misprint in historical records it was long supposed that one of Wilson's two colleagues was named 'Barracks', but he was in fact John Price, aged 19, who had come to Australia as Hunter's servant. Price kept a journal of the expedition, and this record, given by Hunter to Sir Joseph Banks and later acquired by the Mitchell Library, indicates that the three explorers reached the Wingecarribee River, more than 100 miles (161 km) south-west of Parramatta, endured severe privations and were saved only by Wilson's bushcraft. The diary contains the first record of the shooting of a lyrebird, taken by Price on 26 January 1798, and the first written reference, on the same day, to the existence of the 'cullawine' (koala).

Soon afterwards Hunter sent Wilson and two other men into the same country, and this time the expedition reached Mount Towrang, near the present Goulburn. Those two journeys, which revealed the nature of much of the rich southern tablelands of New South Wales, represented Wilson's last useful service. He reverted to a wild life again in 1799 and next year he was killed by an angry Aborigine when he attempted to take a young woman of the tribe, against her will, for his 'exclusive accommodation'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 3
  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol 2 (Lond, 1802)
  • A. H. Chisholm, The Romance of the Lyrebird (Syd, 1960)
  • R. H. Cambage, ‘Exploration Beyond the Upper Nepean in 1798’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 6, part 1, 1920, pp 1-36.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Wilson, John (?–1800)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-john-2803/text4001, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 August 2016.

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

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