Image The 'Dig' tree in 1878

TLF ID R3036

This is a watercolour by Arthur Esam (1850-1938), created in 1878 and measuring a modest 32.5 cm x 26.7 cm. It shows a coolibah tree with two sections of bark missing - the famous 'Dig' tree of the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1861. A man (perhaps Esam himself) is standing holding the reins of a horse, and appears to be studying the tree.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset contains an image of an iconic tree in Australian history as it appeared in 1878 - the tree, which is still alive, stands on the bank of Cooper Creek in Queensland's south-west corner, not far from the South Australian border, and is thought to be more than 200 years old.
  • It depicts a tree that is a historical reference to the Burke and Wills Expedition - the Expedition, also known as the Victorian or the Australian Exploring Expedition, comprising 19 men with 23 horses, 26 camels and 20 tonnes of equipment (the most lavish expedition of its age), set out on 20 August 1860 to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and so become the first to cross the continent from south to north; it was promoted and organised by the Royal Society of Victoria and led by an eccentric Irish police officer, Robert O'Hara Burke, and a serious English surveyor, William John Wills.
  • It illustrates the site of camp LXV - the Expedition's advance party arrived at Cooper Creek on 11 November 1860 and made camp, the 65th camp of their journey, and the Roman numerals 'LXV' were blazed into the tree with an axe; this inscription can still be read today.
  • It shows where most of the men and animals of the advance party were left behind, while Burke, Wills, ex-soldier John King and former sailor Charlie Gray set out on 16 December 1860 to try to reach the Gulf of Carpentaria about 1,500 kilometres away - around mid-February 1861, they reached the mangrove area close to the Gulf (Flinders River) and became the first Europeans to cross the continent from south to north.
  • It shows base camp LXV which, on the night of 21 April 1861, Burke, Wills and King (Gray had died on the return journey) staggered into to find the warm ashes of a fire and a further inscription carved on the trunk of the coolibah tree - there is debate about exactly what was inscribed on the tree; 'DIG UNDER 40 FT W' is what John Conrick said could still be read on the tree when he took up the land in 1873 but the Melbourne Royal Commission evidence recorded the inscription as 'DIG 3 FT NW'; other variations on these wordings have been recorded in published sources; the inscription is no longer legible, although the blaze can still be seen.
  • It depicts the area in which a cache of supplies and a message were buried by the rest of the advance party before they left camp LXV - having waited three months, as Burke directed, and having stayed on for as long as their own supplies permitted, the rest of the advance party had begun the return journey to Melbourne only nine hours before Burke, Wills and King arrived.
  • It shows the tree that could have saved the lives of Burke and Wills - the explorers left the camp on 22 April and, although they buried notes that they were proceeding down the creek and were badly in need of food and clothing, they failed to leave any inscription on the tree; on 8 May, members of the rest of the Expedition arrived back at the camp to check if anyone had returned; they saw no sign that any other Europeans had been there, did not bother to dig up the cache and left no inscription; Wills arrived at the camp on 30 May for 'one last look' and found no indication that anyone had been there since he left in April.
  • It shows Cooper Creek in the background - further down the creek, Burke and Wills starved to death in early July 1861, while King survived with the help of the local Indigenous people and was found by a relief party on 15 September 1861.
Year level

F; 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12

Learning area
  • History
  • Studies of society and environment

Other details

  • Author
  • Person: Arthur Esam
  • Description: Author
  • Contributor
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Description: Content provider
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
  • Description: Data manager
  • Person: Arthur Esam
  • Description: Author
  • Copyright Holder
  • Name: National Library of Australia
  • Organization: National Library of Australia
  • Publisher
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Resource metadata contributed by
  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
  • URL:
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements