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 

Geo. Moonlight & dog, April 1868. The Nelson Provincial Museum, W E Brown
Collection: 11061
Click image to enlarge

Born in Scotland into the Moonlight family, he arrived in New Zealand  via the Californian and Australian goldfields in 1860.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 honour. 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

Moonlight's house, Maruia. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Copy
Collection: C1589
Collection: 11061
Click to enlarge

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 

Geo. Moonlight's Party. The Nelson Provincial Museum, Print
Collection: 282265
Click image to enlarge

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 

George & Elizabeth Moonlight Memorial. The Nelson
Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 176305
Click image to enlarge

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

  1. Boyd, J. Paton. (1971). Moonlight: New Zealand's pre-eminent gold prospector. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison Historical and Museum Society, p 7
  2. Lash, M. (1992). Nelson  notables, 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography. Dawn Smith (Ed). Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p 109
  3. Boyd, p. 14
  4. Boyd, J. Paton. (1970) George Fairweather Moonlight. Journal of the Nelson Historical Society,2(4), p.27-30
  5. Boyd (1971) p. 7
  6. Grigg, J. R. (1947). Murchison, New Zealand: how a settlement emerges from the bush. Murchison, New Zealand: Murchison School Committee, p 22
  7. Moonlight, George Fairweather. In A. H. McLintock (Ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, originally published in 1966. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  8. Young, D. (2006, 25 Feb.). A tale of two rivers. Listener 202 (3433):pp.58-59.
  9. Boyd (1971),  p 17
  10. Grigg, p 23.
  11. Boyd (1971), p 17
  12. Salmon, J. H. (1963.). A history of goldmining in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Govt. Print, p 128
  13. Dunmore, J. (2006). Wild cards: eccentric characters from New Zealand's past. Auckland, New Zealand: New Holland, p 62
  14. Lash,  p110 
  15. Boyd (1971), p 20
  16. McLintock, A.H., Te Ara
  17. Boyd (1971), p 20
  18. Dumore, p 64
  19. Boyd (1971), p 20
  20. Friend, A. (pseud.) (1884, 23 September.)The late Mr G. Moonlight. Colonist XXVII (3943). p. 3. 
  21. Boyd (1971), p 21 
  22. Grigg, p 25

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  • I am the grandson of one of the Moonlights

    Posted by Graham Duncan , 10/12/2019 8:23am (4 years ago)

  • I love that this is here - George Moonlight is my grt-grt uncle. He was born in Newmill, Glenbervie, Kincardineshire, Scotland on 5th Aug 1832 and his parents were James and Jane Moonlight. His brother was my grt-grt-grandfather, and I think George named a mountain in NZ after his sister. I *LOVE* that the myth (being found in the Moonlight) travelled with him to New Zealand because this is the family legend not about the birth of George, but about the origins of the Moonlight family going back to the 1500s. I was told this story, and absolutely love that it is also here and so George must have been told the same thing all those years ago and taken it with him to NZ. At some point it must have got applied to him.

    The Moonlight Party picture is so wonderful because his build is exactly like my dad's was. Even his hair in that picture - my dad always used to ask me to get the scissors out and 'trim his wings off' where the barber had left hair that flicked upwards just over his ears! George has those wings - it must have been genetic after all! Reminds me so much of my dad. Thank you for all this wonderful information being here.

    Posted by Ani Williams, 22/03/2019 2:18am (5 years ago)

  • awesome story!

    Posted by alex, ()

  • I was born across the grey river from Ahaura,looking for more information on my great grandfather Lyvian Warne post master at Longford for 30yrs 1878

    Posted by Joe McKinnon, ()

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Further sources - George Fairweather Moonlight 1832-1884




  • 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.

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