George Fairweather Moonlight 1832-1884
Good as Gold
Legends clung around George Moonlight, from the provenance of his unusual names- it was rumoured he was born on a fine night (Fairweather), abandoned and found in the moonlight; to his reputation as a self-sufficient explorer and gold prospector of uncanny ability.1
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Born in Scotland into the Moonlight family, he arrived in New Zealand via the Californian and Australian goldfields in 1860.2. Moonlight and his cousin Tom headed for the Otago goldfields in 1861 and there was soon news of a rich find near Lake Wakatipu – named Moonlight Creek in his honour3. Moonlight’s discovery started a gold rush into the area.4
Moonlight’s hallmark was the repeated rapid discoveries of major gold areas, then leaving them for hundreds of diggers5.His appearance and dress also attracted notice: tall and muscular, he dressed as a Californian gold miner, in a crimson shirt, buckskin breeches and a maroon sash.6
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In 1863, while prospecting in the Murchison area, Moonlight found a new route from Nelson to the central Grey area.7 It is said he named the Shenandoah and Rappahannock rivers in the area either from his adventures working on a trading vessel between New York and Mexico, or for a cousin involved in the American Civil War.8
Moonlight’s most remarkable gold discovery came in April 1865 in the Paparoa Range, near Blackball. “Virgin gold lay round the parent reef with ‘quars’ (quartz) still embedded in its large nuggets.”9 The ravine was named Moonlight Gully (Atarau)10. About eight tons of gold was eventually obtained from the gully by 100 –150 diggers, with the 87½ oz Victoria nugget found in 1917.11
It was said of Moonlight that his solitary journeys were as much about his desire to pit himself against the elements, as for personal gain.12He liked to travel alone at night and work his claim on his own. When other prospectors arrived, he would pack up and vanish.13
In February 1865, Moonlight married Elizabeth Gaukrodger. They built a hotel, store and stables in the Maruia Valley, before moving with their children, Totty and Jack, to Hampden14 where they bought the Commercial Hotel, around which the village of Murchison grew.15
Between 1866 and 1882, Moonlight carried on a brisk trade as storekeeper and hotelier. He was postmaster, unofficial judge and law enforcement officer, with his methods much like those of an American Wild West sheriff.16
Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 176305
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On 13 May, 1882, Moonlight’s beloved wife, Elizabeth, died of typhoid fever.17 With Elizabeth’s steady influence gone, Moonlight was soon in financial trouble. He was owed large amounts of money by the diggers, but the easy gold finds were a thing of the past and New Zealand was entering the long Depression of the 1880s.18 His creditors did not want to embarrass a respected client, but Moonlight was declared bankrupt in 1883.19
“No two people of my acquaintance ever worked so hard as Mr and Mrs Moonlight did, day and night. When the crisis came, and he could work no longer, he went through the Bankruptcy Court, and was left almost penniless. However he started working again as bold as ever, but one could see that his failure had made a great impression on him, for in a short time his hair had turned very grey,” wrote ‘A Friend” to the Colonist on 22 September 1884.20
In 1884 he went prospecting in the Glenhope area with an old friend, Jack Bailie. When he was reported missing, his 18 year old daughter, Totty, rode to Nelson and back within a day to organise a police search. Three months later, his body was found in the bush at Cow Gully. He had died of exposure.21
Judge Broad wrote of him: “George Moonlight was a type of the true miner – hopeful always, fearless, and light-hearted; honest as the day; kind to the weak and suffering; not quick to take offence, but ready to defend himself, if need be, with his strong right arm.”22 He is buried at Whakapuaka Cemetery.
Updated May 5, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Boyd, J. Paton. (1971). Moonlight: New Zealand's pre-eminent gold prospector. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison Historical and Museum Society, p 7
- Lash, M. (1992). Nelson notables, 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography. Dawn Smith (Ed). Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p 109
- Boyd, p. 14
- Boyd, J. Paton. (1970) George Fairweather Moonlight. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society,2(4), p.27-30
- Boyd (1971) p. 7
- Grigg, J. R. (1947). Murchison, New Zealand: how a settlement emerges from the bush. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison School Committee, p 22
- Moonlight, George Fairweather. In A. H. McLintock (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
- Young, D. (2006, 25 Feb.). A tale of two rivers. Listener 202 (3433):pp.58-59.
- Boyd (1971), p 17
- Grigg, p 23.
- Boyd (1971), p 17
- Salmon, J. H. (1963.). A history of goldmining in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Govt. Print, p 128
- Dunmore, J. (2006). Wild cards: eccentric characters from New Zealand's past. Auckland, New Zealand: New Holland, p 62
- Lash, p110
- Boyd (1971), p 20
- McLintock, A.H., Te Ara
- Boyd (1971), p 20
- Dumore, p 64
- Boyd (1971), p 20
- Friend, A. (pseud.) (1884, 23 September.)The late Mr G. Moonlight. Colonist XXVII (3943). p. 3.
- Boyd (1971), p 21
- Grigg, p 25
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Further sources - George Fairweather Moonlight 1832-1884
- Barclay, A. (2012) The Moonlight legacy. Stoke, NZ: The Copy Press
- Boyd, J. Paton. (1971). Moonlight: New Zealand's pre-eminent gold prospector. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison Historical and Museum Society.
- Dunmore, J. (2006). Wild cards: eccentric characters from New Zealand's past. Auckland, New Zealand: New Holland. 60-64.
- Grigg, J. R. (1947). Murchison, New Zealand: how a settlement emerges from the bush. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison School Committee. 20-25.
- Hewitson, J. (1998.). Far off in sunlit places: stories of the Scots in Australia and New Zealand. Carlton South, Victoria: Melbourne University Press. 263-264
- Lash, M. (1992). Nelson notables, 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography. Dawn Smith (Ed). Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society. 109-110.
- McNeish, J. (1966.) Tavern in the town. 2nd ed. Wellington, New Zealand:A. H. & A. W. Reed.137-140.
- Millar, J. Halket., & G. D. Spencer. (1979.). High noon for coaches 1879-1979. 2nd ed. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed. 28.
- Nolan, T. (1976.). Historic gold trails of Nelson and Marlborough. Wellington, New Zealand: Reed. 81-83.
- Salmon, J. H. (1963.). A history of goldmining in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Govt. Print. 264.
- Sutherland, T. (1963).The golden bush. Wellington, New Zealand: A.H. & A.W. Reed. 51-58.
- Moonlight (1971) New Zealand's Heritage, v. 4. Sydney: Hamlyn Paul. pp. 1080-1082
Murdoch, T. (1988) On the golden trail : the gold rushes in New Zealand. New Zealand Genealogist 19 (185) p.442-445
- Smith, D. (2015) Matakitaki gold. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 8(1), pp.11-25
Vidgen, J. (1994, 30 Nov.). Man of iron who sought gold for adventure value. In Otago Daily Times. p.27.
Young, D. (2006, 25 Feb.). A tale of two rivers. In Listener 202 (3433):pp.58-59.
Boyd, J. Paton.(1970). George Fairweather Moonlight. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 2 (4). p. 27-30. Retrieved from
- Brown, Margaret C. Moonlight, George Fairweather 1832 - 1884. In Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m51/moonlight-george-fairweather
- Finding the body of Mr G. Moonlight.(1884,18 September.). Colonist, XXVII,(3939). P. 3 https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TC18840918.2.9
Friend, A. (pseud.).’The late Mr G. Moonlight’.(1884, 23 September.). Colonist XXVII (3943). P. 3. https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/TC18840923.2.13
Moonlight, George Fairweather. In A. H. McLintock (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/1966/moonlight-george-fairweather/1