Skip links and keyboard navigation

Nature, culture and history

Culture and history

Gold on the Palmer!

News of the discovery of payable alluvial gold on the Palmer River by James Venture Mulligan and six companions on 29 June 1873 spread quickly through the new colony of Queensland. Many would-be diggers flocked to the field in search of their fortunes.

The site of Cooktown was chosen as the logical port to service the goldfield. Government officials and prospectors hastily blazed a track from Cooktown, reaching Palmerville on 14 November 1873.

Life on the Palmer

The goldfield was harsh and remote. Early diggers had to overcome disease, isolation, lack of supplies, tropical heat, monsoonal rains and floods. Many died of starvation or were shot by ruthless claim-jumpers. Some struck it rich and were ripe for exploitation upon reaching 'civilised' Cooktown. Drunken sprees and enticing prostitutes parted many prospectors from their newfound wealth, forcing them back in search of gold.

Racial conflict

Chinese workers arrived by the shipload. Sponsored by Chinese merchants, each had to repay his debt before prospecting for himself. The Chinese industriously re-worked European sites as the Europeans moved from claim to claim chasing richer finds. As gold reserves diminished, anti-Chinese feelings developed. The government tried to quell European unrest by imposing extra charges and taxes. The Chinese persevered and became the major gold producers on the field.

Life for Aboriginal people who had hunted and fished the area for generations was completely disrupted. Game was killed or driven away, and once clear waterholes turned muddy. The Aboriginal people fought back with spears to defend themselves and their land. Their efforts were no match for gunpowder.

Reefing and decline

Alluvial mining began to wane after 1875 and interest moved to the gold in the Maytown reefs. Reef mining was also fraught with difficulty. Miners struggled with hard rock, which could only be worked in isolated areas with expensive machinery and necessitated groundwater. Financial difficulties in the 1880s spelt the end of the Palmer era. Prospectors left for other fields, particularly the Hodgkinson. Coastal shipping activity now focused on Cairns and Port Douglas, and Cooktown was superseded as the major seaport.


In contrast to the goldfields at Charters Towers and Ravenswood near Townsville in Queensland, the Palmer has been left with no imposing structures or ornate buildings as evidence of its prosperous and colourful past. Its history is echoed by old mine sites, rusting machinery and other relics from more than a hundred years ago.

Last updated
26 April 2017