Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Atherton (1837–1913)

by Lucy Atherton

This article was published:

John Atherton (1837-1913), grazier and overlander, was born on 9 August 1837 in Lancashire, England, second son of the nine children of Edmund Atherton, yeoman farmer of Black Rod Farm, Wigan, and his wife Esther, née Ainscough. The family arrived at Sydney in 1844 in the brig Briton. Atherton was educated on the family property, Bald Blair, near Armidale in the New England district, and gained experience with sheep, wheat and mixed crops. At 20 with his brother James he overlanded sheep to the newly-opened Rockhampton district where James settled, while John persuaded his father to sell the Armidale properties and join them. This second party of twenty-two persons, three horse teams, a bullock team, drays and stock was guided north by John Atherton. The journey took six months and all the agricultural implements were lost when crossing the flooded Fitzroy River at Yaamba. The father settled at Mount Hedlow and John at Bamoyea on Limestone Creek. At Rockhampton in September 1862 he married Catherine, daughter of Captain W. Grainger, sometime superintendent of police at Belfast, Ireland. Taking his bride to Woodlands (near Emerald) he soon sold out and took up an adjoining property which he named Corio.

Adventurous and courageous, the pattern of his life was already set. A noted authority on the habits and customs of the Aboriginals and keenly interested in grazing land, he could not resist the lure of the unknown country to the north. He opened up the coast road to Yeppoon with his brothers and in 1864 the road from Broadwater to Mackay, living for a time at West Hill, between St Lawrence and Mackay. Genial, quick-witted and full of initiative, he found a market for his cattle by overlanding them to the Palmer River goldfield in 1873, repeating the feat when the Hodgkinson field opened in 1875. Unlike James Mulligan and others, he was a cattleman first; past experiences had made him wary of mining ventures, but contrary to popular belief the ubiquitous prospecting dish attested to his interest. A brother-in-law was mining warden at Bendigo for some time. Atherton drove his Shorthorn herd north into the wilds once again, the party including his two sons aged 12 and 10, and took up Basalt Downs (Cashmere) on the headwaters of the Burdekin River, selling out after eighteen unprofitable months. Meanwhile he had explored over the ranges to the tableland country, where he finally settled at Emerald End on the banks of the Barron River, the long pilgrimage over. He remained on this property for thirty-seven years, visiting Cairns in 1877 and later shipping his cattle from Redbank on the Cairns inlet. Many roads, including the Gillies Highway to the coast near Cairns, follow this noted pathfinder's trails and he also shortened considerably the existing road over the range from Atherton to Herberton. Many of his place names remain today.

Known as the 'Squire of Emerald End', Atherton discovered tin while prospecting in 1879, joyfully naming the stream Tinaroo Creek, now the site of the storage dam for the irrigation areas of Mareeba-Dimbulah. Later he led a party to the great tin deposits known to him and thus Herberton became established. He was acknowledged as the founder of Mareeba and the vast tableland area situated between the Palmer River and the headwaters of the Burdekin was named after him. An ingenuous man with a native tendency to call a spade a spade, he insisted that he 'saw little of either place', but the speed of the area's development was greatly aided by his efforts. Unlike others, mainly transient prospectors and cedar-hunters, he was undeterred by drought, flood and the loss of his stock through Aboriginal depredations. His fine homestead, built with Chinese labour, withstood the great cyclone of 1878, and on the river flats he experimented with sugar cane and various crops. Noted for his hospitality, he erected the first building at Granite Creek (Mareeba) in 1880, his private generosity being severely overtaxed with the sudden augmentation of passing traffic.

Atherton's E.E.2 brand horses were famous throughout Australia, and in his enterprising way he also bred mules with the advent of the mines. However, the discovery of mineral wealth in the area was the cause of much personal anxiety about his homestead and land. Originally in the unsettled areas as a crown lands lessee before the Act of 1884, he was still agitating for completion of arrangements in 1895 and had lost faith in promises of the government. Neither the Lands nor Mines Departments accepted responsibility for the area until eventually, after enlisting the aid of various friends, his runs were acknowledged to be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Lands. The arrival of the railway and the closeness of the township caused him to move his stock to Nyechum. His son William took up Chillagoe near by on the tributaries of the Mitchell River. There the discovery of copper resulted in the growth of the township.

John Atherton continued to dress like an overlander and was a colourful figure, carrying all his life a facial scar, the result of a stone tomahawk thrown from ambush. President of the Turf Club in 1908, he was also patron of the Mareeba District Mining, Pastoral, Agricultural and Industrial Association. A member of the Church of England, he died at his homestead on 16 May 1913 and was buried in the family cemetery at Emerald End, Mareeba. He was predeceased by his wife in 1902, and survived by four sons and four daughters, all of whom were pioneers in the various districts in which they settled. His youngest son, Ernest Albert (1878-1954), was elected to the Queensland parliament in 1929 as member for Chillagoe, and was secretary for mines in 1929-32.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1886, 2, 1113
  • John Atherton family letters, 1862-1958 (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

Lucy Atherton, 'Atherton, John (1837–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Atherton, n.d.

John Atherton, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 19570

Life Summary [details]


9 August, 1837
Lancashire, England


16 May, 1913 (aged 75)
Mareeba, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.