Lieutenant (later Commander) John Lort Stokes of the Beagle discovered this river in 1838 during an expedition to chart the northern coastline of Australia. He named it after Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, the second commander of the Beagle, and a man he undoubtedly greatly admired.
“Our success afforded me a welcome opportunity of testifying to Captain FitzRoy my grateful recollection of his personal kindness; and I determined, with Captain Wickham’s permission, to call this new river after his name, thus perpetuating, by the most durable of monuments, the services and the career of one, in whom, with rare and enviable prodigality, are mingled the daring of the seaman, the accomplishments of the student, and the graces of the Christian – of whose calm fortitude in the hour of impending danger, or whose habitual carefulness for the interests of all under his command, if I forbear to speak, I am silent because, while I recognise their existence, and perceive how much they exalt the character they adorn, I feel too, that they have elevated it above, either the need, or the reach of any eulogy within my power to offer.”
Robert Fitz-Roy (1805-1865) was a British Naval Officer, rising to the rank of vice admiral.
After service in the Mediterranean he commanded the brig Beagle from 1828 to 1830 and again between 1831 and 1836 in an extended survey of the South American coast.
On this latter survey he was accompanied by Charles Darwin, later to achieve universal recognition for his views on the evolution of humankind.
Fitz-Roy was elected as the MP for Durham in 1841 and then served as Governor of New Zealand from 1843 to 1845.
He married Mary Henrietta O’Brien in 1836 and they had several children. Fitz-Roy was regarded as the founder of modern meteorological service.
Under pressure of his work he committed suicide in 1865.
Captain Wickham and his crew spent some time in the area. Between 7 and 14 March 1838, along with Lieutenants Stokes, Eden and Tarrant, he ascended the River reaching just south of Lulika Pool on the Minnie River.
In 1879, during his major expedition from the DeGrey River to Darwin, Alexander Forrest traversed the river for much of its length below the King Leopold Ranges.
Public plans in 1881 showed this section of its course.
The King Leopold Ranges formed an effective barrier to the exploration of this river (and much of the North and North West Kimberley) until effectively penetrated by Frank Hann during his explorations in search of pastoral country in 1898-99.
A river of such length will have many aboriginal names – it being their practice to apply a name to only a section of a river and not its entire length.
In 1881 members of the Murray Squatting Company recorded the name “weenawalla” for that section of river between Mount Anderson and the mouth.
In 1882, during an expedition through the Kimberley with Michael Durack in search of new pastoral land, John Pentecost recorded the name “minnewaw” for the river.
In June 1883 during the Kimberley Survey Expedition, government surveyor George Turner recorded that the river was known as “wurrumba” near Mount Tuckfield.
Although the spelling of the name for the river and that of the person after whom it was named do not match, the current version has been maintained for a variety or reasons. Among these are the preferred use of non-hyphenated names to avoid misinterpretation on maps, the long standing and widespread use of the existing version and the fact that the pronunciation would not vary regardless of the version used.
Epton, Kim, Rivers of the Kimberley, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, 2000.