The location of the current township of Bourke on a bend in the Darling River is the traditional country of the Ngemba people. Near Tuon Station.
The first white explorer to encounter the river was Charles Sturt in 1828 who named it after NSW Governor Ralph Darling. Having struck the region during an intense drought and a low river, Sturt dismissed the area as largely uninhabitable and short of any features necessary for establishing renewable industry on the land.
It was not until the mid-1800s following a visit by colonial surveyor and explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1835 that settlement of the area began. Following tensions with the local people Mitchell built a small stockade to protect his men and named it Fort Bourke after then Governor Richard Bourke. This first crude structure became the foundation for a fledgling community with a small number of agricultural and livestock farms established in the region shortly afterwards. The area truly started to flourish when its location on the Darling River had it recognised as a key trade centre, linking the nearby outback agricultural industries with the east coast trade routes via the Darling RiverBourke was surveyed for a town in 1869 and soon established itself as the outback trade hub of New South Wales with several transportation industries setting up branches in the town. By the 1880s Bourke would host a Cobb & Co. Coach Terminus, several paddle boat companies running the Darling and a bridge crossing the river that would allow for road transportation into the town and by 1885 Bourke would be accessible by rail, confirming its position as a major inland transport hub. Like many outback Australian townships, Bourke would come to rely on camels for overland transport, and the area supported a large Afghan community that had been imported to drive the teams of camels. A small Afghan mosque that dates back to the 1900s can be found within Bourke cemetery.
As trade moved away from river transport routes, Bourke’s hold on the inland trade industry began to relax. Whilst no longer considered a trade centre, Bourke serves instead as a key service centre for the states north western regions. In this semi-arid outback landscape, sheep farming along with some small irrigated cotton crops comprise the primary industry in the area today.
Bourke’s traditional owners endured a similar fate to indigenous people across Australia. Dispossessed of their traditional country and in occasional conflict with white settlers, they battled a loss of land and culture and were hit hard by European disease. While the population of the local Ngemba and Barkindji people around the town of Bourke had dwindled by the late 19th century, many continued to live a traditional lifestyle in the region. Others found employment on local stations working with stock and found their skill as trackers in high demand.
A large influx of displaced Aboriginal peoples from other areas in the 1940s saw Bourke’s indigenous community grow and led to the establishment of a reserve in 1946 by the Aborigines Protection Board. The majority of indigenous settlers were Wangkumara people from the Tibooburra region.
Bourke was formerly the largest inland port in the world for exporting wool on the Darling River. The Bourke court house is unique in inland Australia in that it was originally a maritime court and to this day maintains that distinction. That distinction is evident in the crowns that sits above the finials of the flag poles atop the corner parapets of the building. The countryside around Bourke is used mainly for sheep farming with some irrigated fruit and extensive cotton crops near the river.