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 Ross (1817–1903)

by G. W. Symes

This article was published:

John Ross (1817-1903), by unknown artist

John Ross (1817-1903), by unknown artist

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14129

John Ross (1817-1903), explorer and station manager, was born on 17 May 1817 at Bridgend, on the north shore of Cromarty Firth, Scotland, eldest son of Alexander Ross, millwright and farmer, and his wife Sarah. He arrived in Sydney on 31 August 1837 in the Earl Durham and worked as a shepherd for George Macleay. In 1838 he joined Charles Bonney in the first cattle drive from the Goulburn River to Adelaide.

Ross successfully treated scabby sheep, drove stock and explored various parts of South Australia. In the early 1850s he managed stations for C. B. Fisher and J. Hope and was then associated with J. H. Angas at Mount Remarkable, near Melrose. In 1868-70 he worked for Thomas Elder and in 1869 took 30,000 sheep from his station, Umberatana, 300 miles (483 km) to the Macumba River. Whilst there he explored the Stevenson River to Eringa and Mount Humphries. He named mountains after his children, Sarah, Rebecca, Alexander and John; they remain on maps as a curious group of names in a remote and lonely region.

Ross's recounted experiences led Elder to recommend him to Charles Todd who in July 1870 appointed him leader of the advance exploration party for the overland telegraph line to blaze a route with water and sufficient timber for the telegraph poles. He followed J. M. Stuart's tracks except through the MacDonnell Ranges. With a party of four he penetrated the Simpson Desert, discovering the Todd River, the Phillipson and Giles creeks and the Fergusson Ranges, which he crossed thrice without finding a suitable route, though he significantly narrowed the search area.

Ross started again in March 1871 and this time passed through a gap between the MacDonnell and Fergusson ranges at Alice Springs, only to find that W. W. Mills had preceded him. Continuing northwards without a surveyor he shortened the route of the line and met the northern telegraph party near the Katherine River. He went on to Darwin, completing his third and most successful expedition, and became the second to cross the continent through the centre.

At 57 Ross was engaged by Elder to lead an expedition to explore west of the Peake and to go on to Perth. Struggling against sandhills and mulga scrub he reached the South Australian border but barren country and brackish water forced him back. After a spell of sheep-farming he sought work in Victoria and eventually reached Roma in Queensland where he drove cattle but returned to central Australia. Later he lived at Norwood with his daughter-in-law. He was almost blind, deaf and destitute when a newspaper appeal for 'a little practical help … [as] a deserving tribute to a worthy man' came too late. He died on 5 February 1903 after a fall.

In the early 1850s he had married Rebecca McKinlay Affleck (d.1869), who bore him three daughters and two sons. In October 1869 he married Georgina Strongitharm by whom he had two daughters. Alexander, his elder son, accompanied him in 1874 and was also a member of the successful Giles expedition in 1875-76. Ross was an excellent bushman with an uncanny 'nose' for water. Opportunities came too late in life to be grasped to the full, but his exploits proved him to be an able explorer and a sagacious and energetic leader.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Threadgill, South Australian Land Exploration 1856-1880, vol 1 (Adel, 1922)
  • ‘Letter from Mr. John Ross, concerning the country north-west of Cooper's Creek, Australia’, Royal Geographic Society, Proceedings, 1871, p 96
  • G. W. Symes, ‘The exploration and development of the northern part of South Australia … and the early life of John Ross’, PRGSSA, 58 (1956-57) and ‘John Ross — a refutation and a chronology’, PRGSSA, 59 (1957-58) and ‘Exploring in the Macdonnell Ranges 1870-1872’, PRGSSA, 61 (1959-60)
  • A. V. Purvis, ‘Forgotten Explorer’, North Australian Monthly, June 1958
  • Register (Adelaide), 3, 6 Feb 1903
  • biographical notes on John Ross (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

G. W. Symes, 'Ross, John (1817–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Ross (1817-1903), by unknown artist

John Ross (1817-1903), by unknown artist

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 14129

Life Summary [details]


17 May, 1817
Bridgend, Perthshire, Scotland


5 February, 1903 (aged 85)

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.