History of West Australia/John Ernest McDonald

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IN difficult and dangerous enterprises there is a great deal of difference in the degree of merit, which should be ascribed to those who take the lead and those who merely follow. This is especially true of the prospectors of a few years ago and those of to-day. The explorers, who were the first to force their progress through the interior in search of gold, had neither the incentive nor the knowledge of those who came after them to profit by their perils and discoveries. At the outset it was merely an experiment to go and look for new eldorados in the desert; the expense, the heat and burden, and the risk of crossing waterless tracts had to be borne without much of the sustaining presence of hope, without the evidence that has since been forthcoming that there is a very large extent of remarkably rich auriferous area in the interior of the colony, and that any day a great prize might be within the reach of the hand that was strong enough to make the grasp. All might be risked and nothing won, but still day after day the march, through the desert under the pitiless sun was kept up by those sturdy pioneer bands of gold seekers in spite of every obstacle, until some of them, like the subject of this notice, reached the goal for which they were striving.

John Ernest McDonald HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

John Ernest McDonald, the son of Peter McDonald, of Lancashire, was born in Bury, Lancashire, in 1861. His father was largely interested in the cotton trade, a circumstance that was destined to have an important influence on the fortunes of the son by giving him the opportunity of pushing his way in Australia. Thirty years ago Queensland was attracting a great deal of attention as a new cotton growing country, and Mr. Peter McDonald went to Queensland as the representative of a Manchester Cotton Company, and established a plantation. By one of those strange and sudden vicissitudes of trade which have wrecked so many well laid plans, cotton fell so low in price that it did not pay to grow it in Queensland, and the plantation was abandoned. John was nine years old when his father died. He was educated in Brisbane, and passed examinations as school teacher. But eager for any spirited enterprise outside the ordinary routine, he accepted the offer of his elder brother, Peter James McDonald, to go into partnership with him in sugar growing at Blackall Range. The property was worked with great success at first with white labour, and afterwards with Kanakas and Cingalese, until the price of sugar declined, when the brothers lost heavily, and J. E. McDonald had to begin the world afresh. John Ernest McDonald came to Western Australia, and his scholarship enabled him to obtain a teacher's appointment in a Perth school. If his active nature had not chafed against the monotony of the life of a pedagogue he would have probably lived and died a schoolmaster, for his first class education qualified him to acquit himself with credit in the post. But he longed, as he would express it, to be a free man again, in other words his own master, and keenly watched for an opportunity to escape from the trammels of his desk and birch. The chance came with the discovery of the Murchison goldfields, and the readiness of capitalists to equip prospectors who might discover new treasure spots in the far North. Mr. McDonald joined Mr. Leslie Robert Menzie, and for three years they were prospecting in the neighbourhood of Cue on the Murchison, and discovered some payable ground. They took over the management of the Star of the East mine, and when that property was acquired by an English company, Messrs. McDonald and Menzie returned to Perth to equip a prospecting party to explore the Coolgardie district. That expedition proved to be the loadstar of the destiny of the friends who had shared so many dangers and privations together. A month to the day after the party had left Perth they lighted upon the site of the great gold field, to which the leader of the party has given his name. Like many other notable discoveries Menzies was come upon by accident. The members of the party were leading their camels and moving at a slow pace through the scrubby country, which did not look promising enough to cause them to call a halt, in order that they might thoroughly examine the formation. It seemed to be enough to use the napping hammer here and there upon any likely bit o[ stone that lay upon the track. It was a bright September day in 1894, on which a lucky blow of the hammer brought to light thick-ribbed shining veins of gold in a fractured stone, and made wealthy men of the prospectors who had braved so much and waited so long for a great reward. They pegged out thirty-six acres on the sites of what are now the celebrated Lady Shenton and Florence mines, and then sought to hide their trail until they could get into Coolgardie with a dazzling collection of rich specimens to secure the valuable leaseholds. Leaving an Afghan and blackboy in charge of the pegs Messrs. McDonald and Menzie hastened back to Coolgardie, encountering on the way another party of prospectors, who, seeing them returning, guessed that they had "struck it lucky," and were naturally anxious to share in the spoil, but the secret was for the time well kept.

At Coolgardie Mr. W. R. Wilson was taken into the confidence of the finders of the new goldfield, and he despatched Mr. D. M. Hall to the scene, with the result that 120 acres of ground were secured for the Octagon syndicate in the immediate vicinity of the leaseholds of Messrs. McDonald and Menzie, whose return to their property was anxiously awaited by nearly 150 miners, who closely dogged their footsteps. En route another sensation was experienced. When Menzies had been nearly reached, one of Mr. McDonald's Afghan camel-drivers picked up a stone showing gold, whereupon the crowd of followers immediately started pegging out in all directions, amid a scene of the wildest excitement. All over the country parties were out eagerly searching for the site of the leaseholds which Messrs. Menzie and McDonald had registered at Coolgardie, crossing and re-crossing the locality like hounds in a covert, and on one occasion some of the pursuers were within three miles of the quarry, but they were foiled, and it was not until the Afghan camel-driver, who had been left in charge, emerged from the scrub to meet his employers when they were almost "home," that the site of Menzies became known to outsiders, by which time Mr. Hall, who had slipped out of Coolgardie unobserved, and had not been followed, had all the pegs Of the Octagon Syndicate in their places, and he was half-way back to the Warden's office to secure the ground. As soon as the rush set in to Menzies, an offer of £10,000 was made for the Lady Shenton lease before a pick had been put into the ground. The would-be purchasers were shrewd men, for the property was afterwards sold for £160,000, while the Florence was floated by the Hon. H. J. Saunders, mayor of Perth, for £120,000. Encouraged by their great success, Messrs. McDonald and Menzie started on another exploring and prospecting expedition, but Mr. Menzie was at a very early stage of the journey seized with rheumatic fever, and had to return to Perth, and Mr. McDonald went on alone for four months longer, travelling in a north-easterly direction from Menzies, and returning by a southerly route. On this journey he found auriferous country, carrying fine gold, but no show that would be likely to be profitable to work in the interior. He went as far as the spinifex country, beyond the most easterly point touched by Sir John Forrest in his exploring expedition of 1869, namely about 400 miles north-east of Coolgardie. The natives a short time previously had had a fight near Lake Carey, and corpses disclosing ghastly spear wounds strewed the plain,but very few blacks were seen, as they had nearly all made their way out east and to Victoria Springs. Around Lake Carey there were a great many emus, but east in the desert no other signs of life, save the small spinifex snakes which the natives allege to be venomous, but none of the party ever suffered any hurt from these reptiles.

On the completion of the trip Mr. McDonald resolved to retire on his laurels as a prospector, and to enjoy the ample means which his courage, endurance, and a certain measure of good luck has brought him. He settled in Perth, bought a valuable estate of city property, and is about to build a palatial suite of shops and warehouses upon it, while, however, continuing to manifest his confidence in the gold fields of Western Australia by retaining large mining interests and accepting a seat upon the directorship of several of the most important companies. As an old and successful explorer and prospector Mr. McDonald will be heard with respect in giving it as his conviction that there is in this colony auriferous country all the way between Port Esperance and Kimberley.