George Moonlight was one of the most historically influential men in this region, including naming the town 'Murchison'. He was born in Scotland in 1847 but ran away to sea as a youth.
Getting to the Australian goldfields via the USA, he made enough money to buy a boat to trade spices from Indonesia. In 1861 he came to New Zealand to hunt for gold again.
His strike in the Shotover triggered the Otago gold rush, but being a true ‘prospector’, once he had declared his find and others rushed in - he moved out!
Goerge came to the Buller region when the Lyell strike was declared. He explored the Mangles valley and blazed trails from Lake Rotoroa over the Braeburn saddle, through the Tutaki, joining it with the Matakitaki and Glenroy valleys. He then cut a way across what is now known as the Maruia saddle.
Later he found an easier route through the Rappahanock saddle at the end of which he built an accommodation building which he ran with his wife.
In 1855 he found one of the richest strikes ever in the Paparoas. As always, the whisper that ‘Moonlight has been there’ was enough to start a rush and within days 300 miners had converged on the spot. Typically - he left!
It was required in those days that miners declared their strikes as soon as they could, but of course if they were in the bush salting away a lot of gold before they could do that, then who would know?!
He invested in a pack train but having being a ‘digger’ himself with memories of the vastly inflated prices that were charged at mining camps, he was popular as his prices were more reasonable.
His cousin Tom, who he had left home with, had stayed in the USA and distinguished himself in battle at Shenandoah and then later at Rappahannock. George commemorated his cousins’ achievements by naming local passes after these places.
George moved to Hampden in 1877 opening a general store and in 1878 bought the Commercial hotel. On a low flat at the confluence of Matakitaki and Buller rivers, there was a flood within a month and it got washed away. Within a year he had rebuilt it and some stables on their present site.
Honest and fair - miners would bring him gold to weigh and take to the bank for them; he was regarded as Hampden’s ‘unelected sheriff’.
When telegraph arrived in 1883, the town had to change its name as there were three towns named 'Hampden' in New Zealand. As postmaster, he chose ‘Murchison’ as he attributed his success in finding gold to reading ‘Classification of rock strata’ published by the Scottish geologist Sir Roderick Murchison.
He went prospecting at Big Bush up the Buller in May 1884 and didn’t return. He’d collapsed of a suspected heart attack.
For more on these stories, visit the Museum in Murchison or check out exploremurchison.co.nz.
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