The rush to the Palmer River, in North Queensland, began in June 1873 when a party of prospectors, led by James Venture Mulligan, found payable gold there. Within months there were 5,000 people (mostly men) prospecting along what became known as the ‘River of Gold’.
Officially, gold production on the Palmer River Goldfield yielded 3.5 million ounces, however, it has been estimated the actual yield was probably four times this amount. Official records don’t take into account those who prospected without licenses, or the gold that was reportedly smuggled out of Australia. It was one of the richest goldfields in Queensland.
Locally, prospectors came from as far as Townsville, Bowen, Ravenswood and Charters Towers in the rush to the Palmer. The alluvial gold was rich and plentiful, though it was hard won. Competition for claims was fierce, and simply surviving the harsh conditions of such desolate countryside was no mean feat. Many who set out never even made it to the field. A great number died as a result of fevers – possibly of a malarial nature.
Chinese miners and storekeepers far outnumbered their European counterparts on the goldfield. Between 1874 and 1876, about 25,000 Chinese are said to have landed at Cooktown and walked 168 miles to the Palmer goldfield. But it was probably far more profitable to have been a storekeeper, butcher, blacksmith or carrier than a prospector on the goldfields. By providing food essentials and other supplies, they generally made a better living than most of the miners. During the wet season, a shortage of provisions meant certain death. Miners laden with gold starved to death because there was no food to buy. It is hard to imagine that even the lure of gold could have made the diggers and their families willing to endure such hardships. And yet they did.
My Great Great Grandmother, Amanda Whilhelmine Mikkelsen, arrived in Townsville from Hamburg, Germany in February 1874. She was soon married and lived on a number of different North Queensland goldfields, but she missed the first rush to the Palmer by at least eight months. A paper trail of certificates led me to realise that the family legend about Amanda being ‘one of the first white women on the Palmer River goldfield’, was nothing more than a good story passed down from generation to generation. But it did lead me to a deeper understanding of what she was really like.
Amanda was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, to parents Jacob Hoyer Mikklesen and Anna Donaldson. When Amanda was just a babe in arms, her mother Anna died from cholera in Copenhagen during the third cholera pandemic. From shipping records, I was able to find that at just 20 years of age, Amanda travelled alone aboard the ship Lammershagen to Australia. The journey probably cost the equivalent of £1 and she would never see her home country again.
Eleven months after her arrival in Australia, she married a miner named Andrew Gresley at Millchester, near Charters Towers in Queensland. Between 1875 and 1881 they had five children, all born in Charters Towers. In 1881 when their fifth child, Charles William Gresley, was only five days old, Amanda’s husband Andrew died from pneumonia.
In 1882, no doubt faced with the prospect of raising her children alone in outback Queensland, Amanda married Julius Wilder (also a miner) at Ravenswood. The Gresley children were raised with the surname of Wilder. Amanda and Julius’s first son, Carl Powell Wilder, was born in Ravenswood in 1884 but tragically died just eleven months later in Charters Towers. Two more sons followed. Charles Christian Wilder was born in 1887 at ‘Croydon King’ – a mining camp on the Croydon Goldfield. Herbert Christian Wilder (my Great Grandfather) was born in 1891 at Biboohra, near Mareeba, North Queensland.
Amanda was a physically sturdy woman who was more than capable of hard work – I’m told that while carting water and digging for gold, she usually had one of her small boys strapped to her back. It was a hard life. But with a resilient spirit, Amanda built a life for herself during a time of pioneers, prospectors and frontier gold towns. And Amanda was no stranger to tragedy. Her only daughter – Hannah Elizabeth Gresley – died as an infant. She buried two husbands (though I believe she was probably relieved to be rid of the second one), and outlived all but one of her children. Amanda was naturalised on 16 August, 1907 at the age of 55. She died in Charters Towers in 1928, at the age of 67 years. What an amazing woman she must have been.