Initial Settlement and Exploration
The South Australian government resolved that its new Northern Territory would be developed from a settlement base in the north. Costs would be met from the sale of land in the vicinity, so land sales in Adelaide and London were held from March 1864. The land sold readily to speculators, even though the region was barely explored.
Once land had been sold, the government's first priority had to be the survey of that land so that a good title could be given to those who had bought it. So, a survey and pioneer settlement party to carry out this work was formed and sent north, leaving Adelaide by ship on 29 April 1864. The party of 40 men was led by B.T. Finniss, who was appointed the first Government Resident of the Northern Territory.
Finniss, a former British Army officer, had been one of South Australia's first settlers in 1836, then a surveyor and then first premier of South Australia. His instructions were to disembark the party at Escape Cliffs and to establish a settlement there, unless the area was clearly unsuitable. He was to survey agricultural land which had already been sold to speculators and intending settlers.
The Escape Cliffs area was chosen because it was thought likely to be very suitable for farming - men from the ship Beagle had explored the area in 1839, and it was reasonably well known. Stuart had spoken well of the lands along the Adelaide River - by mistake, because he was actually on the Mary River when he thought he was on the Adelaide.
However, there was a solid body of opinion in Adelaide, and within the men of Finniss' party, that the Victoria River (also explored by Wickham and Stokes in 1839, then by Gregory in 1865/6 and very much praised by him) would be a more suitable place to begin settlement. The conflict which this unresolved difference of opinion caused was one of the fundamental factors which ultimately doomed the Escape Cliffs venture.
On 20 June 1864 Finniss and his party arrived at Escape Cliffs. Finniss quickly judged that there would be insufficient fresh water at Escape Cliffs and so he resolved to move further upstream. A camp was established at a point about 65 km up the Adelaide, but this was abandoned in August / September 1864 when water was found at Escape Cliffs and Finniss decided to move back there to establish the permanent settlement base.
Problems quickly emerged. There was early conflict with Aborigines, especially with the people from the eastern side of the Adelaide River. The first wet season showed that most of the proposed agricultural area would be under several metres of water for much of the year. Many of Finniss' men were agents for land speculators and they had no real desire to do the hard work of surveying. They resisted Finniss' military discipline, while officers in the party disputed Finniss' choice of site - with the result that before very long morale and discipline had broken down. Forty more men arrived in late 1864 - but they seem to have compounded the problems.
Finniss was recalled in late 1865, by a government which was becoming concerned about the situation. Senior surveyor J.T. Manton took over, and recommended that the settlement be moved to Port Darwin. In the meantime, men were leaving - one party of three sailed to Western Australia in an open boat, the Forlorn Hope.
However, there was one productive outcome of the whole episode - survey and exploration work did make the far north better known. In particular, parties from Escape Cliffs traversed the area which is now Litchfield Shire and literally put it on the map.
But nothing more than that was achieved because the Escape Cliffs settlement was finally abandoned in 1867. For almost two years the South Australian government prevaricated about the Northern Territory, then finally yielded to pressure from land purchasers to make a fresh start.
In February 1869 a new survey teams, led by George Goyder, landed in Port Darwin. Finally, permanent white settlement in the Territory began.