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Macdonald, Peter Fitzallan (1830–1919)

Mr. Peter Fitzallan MacDonald, of Yaamba Station, pioneer pastoralist and explorer, passed away at his residence, "Morningside," Rockhampton, shortly before noon Friday week. His health had been failing for some time, though he never lost touch with his business concerns, or of public matters in general, until near the end. He was born in Campbell, New South Wales, and attained the ripe age of nearly eighty-nine years. For this sketch of the career which follows we are indebted to one who was admitted to intimate friendship to the deceased gentleman.

Arriving here in 1857, Mr Macdonald saw the town of Rockhampton grew from a small bush public house and store to its present dimensions, and so far as can be ascertained, there is not a single person known to be living of those who were in the district when he arrived.

Mr. John Graham Macdonald, an elder brother, came to Queensland about the same time. He also became an explorer and pastoralist, but was subsequently appointed Police Magistrate and Gold Commissioner, positions he filled with credit for a number of years. Another brother, Mr. Alexander C. Macdonald, remained in Victoria, and gained distinction as a surveyor and scientist, which gave him a world-wide reputation.

Mr. P. F. Macdonald arrived in Queensland before its separation from New South Wales and came on to Rockhampton during the Canoona rush. He spent a few years exploring in search of "fresh fields and pastures new," after which he ultimately settled down at Yaamba Station, near Rockhampton, which place has been the head quarters of his extensive and successful business operations for a period covering nearly sixty years.

He was married at Geelong, Victoria, in January, 1861, and is survived by Mrs. Macdonald and two sons and two daughters. The sons are Mr. Arthur Macdonald, grazier, Rockhampton; Mrs. Stuart, wife of Dr. S. Stuart; and Miss Jessie L. Macdonald, both of whom reside in Rockhampton.

Before he married and settled down as a pastoralist, Mr. Macdonald was for some time intimately associated with Messrs. J. A. Macartney, Thomas Vicary, and Robert Graham, Sir John Macartney, and others. They undertook many hazardous exploring trips in the north and west of the Central district, taking up country when they favoured, and afterwards disposing of it advantageously. In those days land could be taken up without going near it or stocking it. During this period the blacks were exceedingly troublesome, and the explorers had many narrow escapes. It was about this time that Mr. Wills and seventeen others perished at the hands of the natives at Culli-la-ringo, near Springsure.

Mr. Macdonald was early recognised as a fearless explorer and was the leading spirit in many encounters with the treacherous natives. He was one of the party who went out to avenge the slaughter of the Wills family, and it was generally recognised at the time that the work was well done. The party abovenamed explored the whole of the county watered by the Mackenzie, Isaacs, and Connor rivers, and took up the country between Collaroy and Waverley, where Mr. J. A. Macartney ultimately settled. In conjunction with Mr. Mayne as partner, Mr. Macartney subsequently occupied Waverley Station from 1859 to 1898, a period covering thirty-eight years.

Amongst the numerous station properties which Mr. Macdonald established and owned may be mentioned Fernlees, near Springsure; Marmadilla, in the same district; Columbra, on the Mackenzie River; Fernleight, near Tilpal; Lake Learmouth, and Yaamba on the Fitzroy; and many others. His extensive business included the breeding of horses, cattle, and sheep, and although at various times his flock and herds suffered disaster from droughts, floods, and other adverse happening to which the pastoralists and early pioneers were particularly liable, it may be said that his career was one of steady progress throughout. His accumulation of wealth may not be considered anything extraordinary in these days of inflated values, when fortunes are made and lost in quick time; but those who know something of the difficulties and dangers of the early pioneers will appraise his work at its true value. In his prime Mr. Macdonald enjoyed robust health. He was tall and well-built, with a commanding appearance, though outwardly reserved. Although his demeanour was not of the hall-fellow-well-met variety, he was a congenial companion, with a fund of dry Scotch humour, always at command in the presence of his friends. He was a staunch friend to struggling settlers less fortunate than himself, and there are still many in the district who can testify how effectively he extended a helping hand in the time of need, and in doing s0 lived up to the injunction "Let not thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth." He was a good fellow with a soft heart and a generous hand. Ostentation he despised, and make-believe had no place in his constitution.

In the year 1873 Mr. Macdonald was elected the first member of Parliament for the electoral district of Blackall, which was then constituted one of the principal electoral divisions of Central Queensland. He held the position until 1878. when he was succeeded by Mr. Archibald Archer. Although splendid work was done in Parliament during his term of office, including the passing of the State Education Act, a comprehensive Local Government Act, and many other useful measures, he did not take kindly to the duties of a legislator, and could never appreciate the subtleties involved in the maze of Parliamentary intrigue which was rampant at that time probably as much as it is to-day. The holding of office by favour, or even compromise, never appealed to him. He was always definitely for or against a motion, and stood four-square to every public question within his ken. He proved himself to be a well-read and intelligent student of national affairs, with a strong will, indomitable courage, and a genius for detail and perserverance which made him a veritable tower of strength in any cause which he espoused. A fair fighter himself, there was nothing which he detested in others more than perfidy, or what he considered vacillation in regard to questions of public importance. As a public speaker he was not brilliant, though always cogent and effective. He was an excellent correspondent, and one of the most methodical business men to be met with outside the ranks of modern commercialism.

Although Mr. Macdonald could never be induced to again enter the political arena he remained an active outside worker to the end, and the candidates he favoured had invariably good reasons for appreciating us support. He-rendered steady service to the party cause in the Central District, by helping such men as Messrs. John Murray, George Fox, J. Brennan, and others to hold their seats against allcomers for a number of years. In organising the outside places in the Normanby, Keppel, Port Curtis, and other electorates he was remarkably successful, and the writer had many opportunities for knowing that the final results were largely attributable to his handiwork. His purse and pen were always available during an election campaign. On a recent occasion he went as far afield as Bowen, and by sheer force and initiative succeeded in dislodging a rampant labour-socialist in favour of a liberal. Referring to this incident in conversation with the writer a short time ago Mr. Macdonald jocularly described the sequel. He had flattered himself that on that occasion he had done good work. Subsequently, however, when travelling from Brisbane, he had the incident presented to him from another point of view. He met the politician whom he had been the means of dislodging. He did not know the man, who introduced himself by thanking Mr. Macdonald for the service he had rendered him. He explained the matter in this way. When he lost the Bowen seat owing to Mr. Macdonald's interference he stepped out of the State Parliament and £300 a-year, into the Federal Senate with £600 a-year and six years' lease of Parliamentary life assured. He was naturally thankful for the transition. Although the revelation was somewhat discomforting for the moment, to Mr. Macdonald it evidently left no bitterness behind.

The Divisional Boards Act of 1879 brought about great changes to local government, and the Gogango Divisional Board was brought into existence soon after the passing of that measure. Mr. Macdonald was one of the original members of the Board, and performed good work in that connection. He was also an active member of the District Marsupial Board from its inception, and continued to act at chairman until the Board was practically abolished. In fact, it day be safely said that during his long residence of over sixty years in the district he was invariably in the front ranks whenever matters of public importance called for attention, and he took an active part in most public movements that justified support.

At times Mr. Macdonald found himself on the side of the minority, notably so in the case of the establishment of Port Alma, when Broadmount had failed to meet requirements as a deep-water port. Although he was on the losing side in regard to this issue it was generally recognised that he and others put up a splendid fight, and to-day there are some of his erst-while opponents ready to admit that he had a better case in favour of Broadmount than they had hitherto given him credit for.

Another incident in his career which caused widespread interest at the time deserves mention, as it will serve to emphasise the thoroughness and persistency with which he conducted his affairs. A portion of one of his stations in the Springsure District wad resumed by the Government. Lambing was going on at the time, and, in consequence of being compelled to re- move his sheep, the losses were consider- able. He entered an action for damages and gained a favourable verdict. Owing to a change of Parliament and other causes, it was a long time before he obtained a settlement. When this occurred, however, it is generally understood that the verdict, with interests and costs included, brought him over £20,000.

In addition to his numerous stations and pastoral interest he acquired many valuable town properties, both in Rockhampton and elsewhere, and also helped many others to start business on their own account. At one time he owned the "Daily Northern Argus," which, under the editorship of the late Mr. W. H. Robison, was run with considerable vigour in the interests of his political party. He sold out to a syndicate of local business men who ran the paper for some time, but ultimately sold out to the late Messrs. Hartley and Buzacott, who, with Mr. Macdorald's assistance, renewed the plant and changed the name of the paper to the "Daily Record." Mr. Macdonald parted with his interest in the paper in 1910.

The following extracts from a letter written by Mr. Macdonald to his brother in 1859 convey a good idea of his personality as a young man, and well deserve a place in this brief sketch of his life in Queensland. The incidents related cover one of his early trips as an explorer, and reveal many admirable traits of character which his after life served to develop and emphasise. He was at all times a careful observer, and a lover of nature in all its multifarious forms : —

".... I have just returned from an expedition which I shall never forget. We left Marlborough the last week in November, with five weeks' rations, and travelled westward in view of Lake Salvator and the beautiful peaks eastward, a distance of 260 miles in a direct line from Keppel Bay. I believe that from 100 to 200 miles back from the coast is superior to any part of Australia, except some stations in Victoria, that I have yet seen either for sheep or cattle. Nearly one-fourth of the country over which we travelled is unavailable for pastoral purpose in consequence of the thick scrub, great scarcity of water, and innumerable native dogs and savage blacks, yet nearly the whole of it has already been taken up.

"I send you a rough sketch of the country over which we have travelled during the last four months; some of it is superior to anything that I could have imagined. There is a richness and velvet- like freshness in the foliage, which together with the beautifully-shaped hills, conical peaks, and fine deep rivers, form a landscape grand and picturesque beyond the power of description ; such scenery as an artist or a lover of the beautiful in nature might gaze on for a lifetime without wishing for a change. Indeed, I often felt repaid for many a weary day's journey when I met with such lovely spots on the way. The air was fined with rich fragrance from the herbs and flowers crushed under our feet. I have a good collection of seeds; but they are all mixed together and would puzzle a botanist to class. The bottle-tree contains a history in itself.

"But I must now give you a more direct account of our exploration. When we arrived at the junction of hie Comet and Mackenzie rivers the rain commenced and continued without one hour's interruption for twenty-one days. During nineteen days we never saw sun, moon, or stars. We had only about seven days' provisions which we intended to divide into nineteen days' allowance, expecting by that time to reach a station. The country was everywhere under water It was impossible for our horses to travel, as they floundered at every step, and be- came as poor as old working bullocks - literally nothing but skin and bone, having lost every hair except from their manes and tails.

"After many ineffectual attempts to make a few miles towards home, we were compelled to encamp on a clear patch of about half-an-acre, in the midst of thick scrub, surrounded by water, for nineteen days, during which time we scarcely saw a living thing— birds and animals had evidently gone to seek a higher spot and firmer ground.

"I spent many a weary day hunting for food, and saw only the tracks where animals had been. A few small birds might occasionally be heard calling or answering each other in mournful strains; but it was music to our ears. So careless did they seem of life that I often crept near enough to kill them with a stick. Opossums were not to be seen: fish (that is, tadpoles), commonly called bullfrogs were numerous, but very difficult to catch where there was much water; crayfish of an inferior kind, huge frogs, iguanas, crows, snakes, and lizards were eagerly sought after, but very rarely found. Had it not been for small berries, roots of briars, and the bottle-tree, I doubt very much if we would have been able to exist. If we had commenced killing our horses in the first instance, we had no way of preserving the flesh, our salt and sugar having melted with the rain, and in the absence of both fire and sun it would have been impossible to dry it or keep it from decomposition. I have lost two horses, one of which strayed, and was probably eaten by the blacks; the other, a valuable animal, got into a bog near the Isaacs River, and I was obliged to kill him. If we had had salt and bread, horse flesh would have been a luxury,and I might have taken something equivalent to the value of my money out of him in steaks, &c. As it was, we lived upon it for eight days; the latter part of the time it was rather high flavoured. The tongue and some parts of the inside were delicious. For eleven days three of our party dined off an emu, without tasting either flour, tea, or sugar, and it was the only bird or animal above the size of a crow that we were fortunate enough to shoot during that time. By the way, I ate more of the latter (crows) than of any description of bird— I may say than all other birds put together— although I was much prejudiced against them, for from the day we started, we were followed by as many crows as there were men in the party, and strange, if we separated at any time, the crows would also separate according to our number. If I travelled alone a single crow was sure to follow me. I could not help noticing this, and although not generally superstitious, I regarded it as an ill-omen. Whenever my unwelcome fellow-traveller came near enough, I lost no time in cultivating his acquaintance with a rifle bullet, and gave him a warm reception on the coals. Invariably the noise of my rifle or the smoke of my little fire would attract another solitary companion of the same species, which would continue to follow me until I settled his account in the same manner.

"When I reached the farthest out-station yesterday week I met with the party that had been organised to go in search of me, equipped by public subscription. It was well known that we had started with but five week's provisions and had then been out twelve weeks. I was, of course, gripped by the hand until the blood all but oozed from under my finger-nails. Some of the party came to meet us with half-baked damper; another with partly-baked meat taken out of the pot to appease our supposed cravings, until a lot more could be got ready; but I scarcely ate anything, for I experienced that gnawing craving hunger which one will sometimes feel when a few days without food has passed away, and left weakness and exhaustion in its stead.

"I was alarmed only to think that our absence and delay had been attributed either to starvation, death by floods, or murder by the Blacks, and could not help looking round occasionally as if I expected to fee you near me. . .

"I started from Marlborough the following day and reached Canoona late last night. I am reduced in weight from 15 st. to 11 st 4lb. This will give you some idea of the kind of animal hunger has transformed me into; but I hope to be as jolly as ever in a few weeks, I am well-cared for wherever I go, and pressed in the kindliest manner to eat something, as if people thought I should be able to eat day and night. My health is first-rate, and my appetite gradually increasing. I hope this letter will reach you before any other reports relative to our misfortunes.

"P.F.M."

As age crept on he gradually relinquished his activity in connection with pastoral pursuits in favour of his sons, and for the past few years he lived with his family at "Morningside," Rockhampton. He had many staunch friends, to whom his death will cause sorrow.

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Citation details

'Macdonald, Peter Fitzallan (1830–1919)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/macdonald-peter-fitzallan-13063/text32378, accessed 20 August 2018.

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