Brief History of the Murray River

Forty million years ago, through the forces of water and geophysical uplifting, the valley that cradles Australia’s greatest river began to take shape. The Murray is a river whose character encompasses environmental beauty, rich heritage and history, busy townships and major regional centres, with amazing tourism richness and recreation experiences, and a world class agriculture and wines. Here’s a very simple overview of the history of the Murray River region.

It creates a natural border between New South Wales and Victoria and is the world’s 16th-longest river at 2,520 kilometres. It is fed by several rivers including the Darling and Murrumbidgee on it’s journey from the Australian Alps before flowing through South Australia to the Southern Ocean. It sits in the Murray-Darling Basin, draining most of inland Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland from the western side of the Great Australian Divide.

Aboriginals and the Murray

From millennia Aboriginal people have relied on the river’s abundance. The many various groups included Ingalta, Moorundie, Goodwarra, Parrian-kaperre, Tongwillum, and Yoorlooarra. In the Riverland (SA), the Ngarrindjeri people lived on and along the lands around the Murray and the Coorong and are, today, South Australia’s largest Aboriginal community.

The First Paddle steamers

Paddle steamers were used to carry wool, wheat, and other goods up and down the river system including the Murray, Darling and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Since settlement of the river basin was so late, the introduction of the railroad came much sooner to the river towns and had a large impact on the steamers along the Murray.

European Explorers

First discovered by European explorers Hamilton H. Hume and William H. Hovell in 1824. It wasn’t until five years later, however, that Captain Charles Sturt navigated down the Murrumbidgee to encounter the Murray and named it after Sir George Murray, when his exploration party encountered the Darling connection on 23 January, 1830. Some other well know explorers and bushrangers have links and history with the Murray River region:

Explorers & Pioneers

  • Charles Sturt (1795-1869)
  • Edward John Eyre (1815-1901)
  • Sir Thomas Livingston Mitchell (1792-1855)
  • Sir Paul Edmund de Strezelecki (1797-1873)
  • Hamilton Hume (1797-1873)
  • William Hovell (1786-1875)
  • Robert O’Hara Burke (1821-1861)
  • William John Wills (1834-1861)
  • William Randell (1824-1911)


  • Ned Kelly (1855-1880)
  • Captain Moonlite (1842-1880)
  • Mad Dog Morgan (1830-1865)


  • Jack Riley (1841-1914) Man from Snowy River
  • Banjo Paterson (1864-1914) Writer and Poet
  • Tom Roberts (1856-1931) Painter Shearing the Rams


Irrigation was introduced in 1887 by Canadian George Chaffey around Mildura (Victoria) and Renmark (South Australia). This greatly accelerated settlement and exploitation of the river’s water supply.

Locks & Weirs

In 1918, a commission was formed to manage water supply and it also coordinated the construction of storages, locks and weirs to reduce the effects of drought and flood. Today, the water flow is still managed by these locks on the river from Yarrawonga in Victoria to Blanchetown (Lock 1) in South Australia. Millions of people rely on the Murray as a source of water for domestic and industrial use and it plays a significant part in Australia’s economy.

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