Rugged, precipitous and densely wooded, the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney could easily seem an inhospitable and rather frightening place to someone unaccustomed to the ways of the Australian bush.
An article by a ‘Sydney correspondent’ in the Brisbane Courier in 1876, in which the writer reflected on the significance of the expedition of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, described the Blue Mountains as ‘that seemingly impenetrable succession of gaunt ranges, dense forests, and rocky fastnesses.’ In 1813 settlement was confined to the area between Newcastle to the north, Shoalhaven to the south, ‘and the base of the grim, defiant Blue Mountains in the west.’ There were settlers on the Nepean and Hawkesbury Rivers, but in the west ‘those gloomy sentinels stood barring the passage and forbidding further progress.’
An authoritarian government added to this sense of inaccessibility by declaring the country west of the Nepean out of bounds to all but a favoured few. Preoccupied with issues of public order and land use, the early Governors did not want convicts or settlers escaping from lawful oversight beyond the bounds of approved settlement.
At the foot of the mountains, on the western bank of the Nepean, lay a grassed area known as Emu Island. In an Order of 11 April 1812 Governor Macquarie noted that some settlers and others had been in the habit of sending ‘Horses and Horned Cattle’ to graze on this and other crown land west of the Nepean. In future anyone found guilty of such trespass would be severely punished. Moreover, no one was allowed to cross the Nepean River or travel in the country west of it without a written pass from the Governor or Lieutenant Governor. The only exception was for those associated with the sheep farms of Messrs. M‘Arthur and Davidson in the area known as the Cowpastures. Wild cattle grazing west of the Nepean were government property, and anyone found hunting, stealing or killing them would be prosecuted for felony, ‘and punished in the most exemplary Manner.’
The more the Blue Mountains were magnified in the public imagination as a near insuperable obstacle, the greater the achievement of Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth might seem after the explorers found a way through. And the more energetic the Government was in claiming crown rights over the country west of the Nepean, the more subordinate the mountains and plains might seem to the dictates of officialdom. So proceeded the grand conquest of the mountains and the opening up of the territory beyond for pasturage and agriculture.
‘Crossing the Blue Mountains sixty-three years ago’, Brisbane Courier 15/4/1876, p. 6; also in The Queenslander 22/4/1876, p. 14. ‘Government and General Orders’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 18/4/1812, p. 1.