The search for Willie Hartley’s grave

Why Visit?: 

The southern African interior always held a great fascination for Victorian hunters and traders; ivory being the main draw card. In 1870 nineteen persons received permission from Mzilikazi in March / April 1870 to enter Mashonaland; many of them died and lie in unmarked graves. 1870 was a very wet year and the rains continued until May and of the nineteen who came to Mashonaland, seven died from malaria, or dysentery.

The first party consisting of George Wood, his wife and child, brother Swithin Wood, his wife’s mother, Mrs Fraser, and a German explorer, Paul  Jebe. They started in early March; by month end they were all dead, except George and Swithin Wood. Of the thirteen on the Umfuli River (now the Mupfure) that year, seven came down with malaria and three died. The first death was Gilloway on 9 May.

Two of those seven deaths occurred on the same day, the 29 May 1870. They were William “Willie” James Hartley, the seventeen year old son of Henry “Oude baas” Hartley, the elephant hunter, and James O’Donnell. Their deaths unlike most of the others were recorded in detail by Thomas Leask and Thomas Baines and so there seemed some likelihood of finding their gravesites. 

Thomas Leask buried the two young men and three months later showed Henry Hartley the site of his son’s grave.  Thomas Baines made a sketch and Robert Jewell took a photograph, but the location quickly became lost.

Today the Mhondoro Communal  lands are heavily populated: in 1870 the land south of the Umfuli (now the Mupfure) was almost completely uninhabited due to amaNdebele raids and only became populated after 1897 with land resettlement schemes. 


How to get here: 

The area is south of the Mupfure River and best reached from the main Harare Bulawayo A5 National road 71 KM from Harare, by turning left off the National road at the roundabout, south toward Ngezi Mine. At 4.2 KM pass Chengeta Safari Lodge turnoff on the left and at 14.6 KM cross the Mupfure River. At 21.7 KM turn left for the Mhondoro Communal Lands and travel east.

At 8.4 Km cross the Chirundazi Stream. Note the old drift on the downstream side of the low level bridge. Continue another 0.7 KM and turn left at the Cape to Cairo shops.

For James O’Donnell’s gravesite turn right down a farm track after 0.85 KM and then 400 metres to the southern end of the rocky outcrop.

For Willie Hartley’s gravesite travel 3.0 KM from the Cape to Cairo Shops and then turn left in front of a Mhondoro Primary School. Don’t look for any assistance from the School Headmaster as he is unhelpful. There are a number of rough farm tracks which lead west towards the Chirundazi Stream approximately two kilometres way. Park once the track becomes impassable and follow the footpaths down to the banks of the Chirundazi stream.  

GPS reference for the Willie Hartley’s grave: 18⁰13′54.53″S 30⁰25′41.01″E

GPS reference for James O’Donnell’s grave : 18⁰14′56.53″S 30⁰27′24.38″E

EE Burke was the Principal Archives Officer at the Rhodesian National Archives and wrote the first article on Willie Hartley in Rhodesiana No 8 from 1963 and thought he had located the gravesite.

A few years later the Salisbury (now Harare) North Exploration Young Farmers Club (YFC) organised an expedition to find the lost grave and after a great effort believed they were successful in their search.

Thomas Baines had relied on dead reckoning for his positioning and gave a longitude of 30⁰59′E for the gravesite which is some 60 kilometres away and east of Beatrice. The YFC give a corrected longitude of 30⁰27′29.00″E but this is also 3.2 kilometres east of the site they identify as the actual gravesite!

It was time to revisit the area and use the YFC sketch maps to try and relocate Willie Hartley’s gravesite and get an accurate GPS position.

EE Burke was the first to try and trace the gravesite of Willie Hartley, who he says died to the south west [should be south east?] of Hartley Hill. His account in Rhodesiana No 8 of 1963 is mostly taken from Thomas Leask’s diaries which record the various groups movements in detail:

05-MayFour of the six hunters at the Umfuli camp are sick; Thomas Leask takes Gifford, an old friend who is at the Umfuli camp, with his ox-wagon back to the Chirundazi Stream, where Moloney and Vandenberg are camped and advises the other hunters to do the same.
06-MayWillie Hartley and James O'Donnell arrive at the Chirundazi camp. Leask tries to persuade them all to move to higher ground to the south east which he believes is safer from malaria. 
07-MayThe Jennings brothers, Sanders, Byles and Gilloway ignore the advice and trek away for the Hunyani River 
 Hartley, O'Donnell and Moloney also trek away for the Hunyani River
09-MayLeask with Vanderberg, Gifford and Stoffel treks south east to higher ground 
 Gilloway dies this day on the way to the Hunyani River
14-MayLeask and party continue south east in cold wind and rain
15-MayLeask and Vanderberg leave camp to trade with the Mashona for chickens and pumpkins for the other two invalids, Gifford and Stoffel
17-MayLeask and Vanderberg are at the Umfuli River, the weather is cold
19-MayHeavy rains make travel slow
21-MayLeask and Vanderberg cross the Umfuli River to Mashona villages to buy food; nobody lives on the south side.
23-MayLeask gets a message that Moloney, Hartley and O'Donnell are back at the Chirundazi Stream; all are sick and have no medicines
25-MayLeask and Vanderberg trek back to collect Gifford and Stoffel
26-MayLeask leaves at sunrise by horse and gets to the Chirundazi Stream by sunset.  Hartley and O'Donnell are seriously ill and at times delirious. "He (Hartley) was extremely weak and, tho' he knew me and spoke somewhat sensible, he looked wild. Jim (O'Donnell) was tossing about in great pain and seemed sensible. he said his bowels had not been open for three days. Tom (Moloney) was spitting continuously and calling for water. Gave them all calomel and antimonial powder and two hours afterwards jalap and rhubarb. They slept a little." 
27-MayThey seemed to rally with the medicines. "Gave them some salts and Jim at his own request some Livingstone pills. Will, I gave no more purgatives. Shortly after, the medicine operated on them all, and they seemed much revived, but Will was very weak. They asked me to move them up toward our wagons (where Vanderberg, Gifford and Stoffel were camped) and, as they seemed to think it would do them good, I inspanned after they had all supped a little arrowroot, and trekked very gently for a short distance. They seemed a little better, but at sundown Will became insensible and unable to move."
29-MayHartley died at midday, O'Donnell died the same evening.
30-MayLeask moves the wagons and rejoins Vanderberg, Gifford and Stoffel: "It was a very trying journey."

William Hartley was the son of the famous hunter, Henry Hartley, and during the early part of 1870, travelled to the rich ivory hunting grounds of Mashonaland. The year was a disastrous one for the seasonal hunters as wet weather persisted until May, and malaria was widespread in the hunting grounds.

On 6 May, William Hartley and his companion, James O'Donnell, trekked north west from Thaba Insimpi in the Mwanesi Range and met up with Thomas Leask, who was camped on the Chirundazi Stream with his companions Vandenberg, Byles and Moloney.

On 7 May, John and George Jennings, Sanders, Byles and Gilloway left for the Hunyani River (now the Manyame)

On 9 May, after spending a few days at the Chirundazi Stream camp, Hartley with O'Donnell, Moloney and Jacobs followed the first hunting party across the Umfuli, towards the Hunyani. Fourteen days later, Leask, who had trekked south-east to higher ground, received a message that Hartley's group was stricken with fever and needed help. In spite of Leask's treatments with the medicines of the time, William Hartley died at midday on Sunday, 29 May aged 17 years. Later that evening, James O'Donnell also died.

The various individuals movements are summarised on the table below showing their original locations on 6 May 1870 and how they had dispersed within the next few days.

Leask, in his diary of that time, makes no mention of Willie Hartley's grave or burial; but three months later, he took Henry Hartley to the gravesite with Thomas Baines and Robert Jewell. Leask wrote: “Exactly three months ago today we laid him under a Gondo tree and covered his grave with bushes to protect it from beasts of prey, carved the name and date, and we could do no more…a few miles from here J. O’Donnell is laid…Mr Baines took a sketch and Mr Jewell a photograph of the grave [Hartley’s] after which we parted.

In his book, The Gold regions of South Eastern Africa on his second visit in 1870 to the Hartley Hills goldfield Thomas Baines says: “I made a trip of about five and twenty miles down the Umvuli river, finding several reefs, and returned to work at the house, hoping to have it ready to receive Nelson and the working party; when two horsemen, who proved to be Maloney and Leask arrived. All our hopes of a cheerful re-union were dashed, as with a thunder-stroke, by the sad intelligence that of the little party of hunters who had come in about a month before us, no fewer than seven had died of fever, while all the rest were more or less affected. [here Baines lists George Wood’s wife and son and mother in law, Jebe, McDonald, Toris and Willie Hartley, but neglects to mention James O’Donnell] He refers to: “Willie Hartley, a fine young hunter, who bade fair to rival the fame of his well-known father. His grave was about 13 miles ESE and the camp about 9 miles SE of my house. Next morning I set out to visit our friends, Mr Wood kindly sending a horse to meet me on the way, and it was sad indeed to see so many men, whom I had known so recently rejoicing in their strength, now so enfeebled in body and in mind, that they dared hardly ride a mile, even in fine weather, for the benefit of their health, and could not remember with distinctness the details of the terrible ordeal through which they had just passed.

In late August 1870 Thomas Baines wrote in his diary: “We [Baines, Leask, Henry Hartley and Jewell] rode south west to the camp where I had first visited the hunters on the Zinlundusi [Chirundazi stream] Then turning east we crossed the river and, riding about an hour and a half more, we reached the spot where poor Willie Hartley’s grave had been made three months before. There was some satisfaction in seeing that the grass fires which had devastated the country around had not yet reached this spot, and that the huts and scherms and the branches heaped over the grave still remained just as they were left. Two trees overshadowed it (Umghondies, I believe) [probably Msasa, brachystegia spiciformis] one still green and dark, the other sere and yellow, but still retaining its full foliage and the inscription “W.J.H. 29/5/70” was still sharp and clear on one of the principal stems. There were no stones near which to make a cairn and probably in a few years the tree may be destroyed and all traces of the locality effaced, but it will be long before the memory of poor Willie and the other victims of this fatal year passes from the minds of either the natives, or the white men occupying this country…we returned on a course of 340 or nearly north west magnetic to the Zinlundusi River which we crossed near its junction with the Umfuli.


Another who died that year was Henry Lamont McGillewie, a  trader who became an elephant hunter because it is said he failed in business. He had a famous shooting horse named Colbrook and died of fever at the Serui River, near Hartley Hills. Old Henry Hartley had been horrified to hear of the death of his favourite son; he became very subdued and did not resume hunting, but just pottered around prospecting. He had been hunting in the area of the Hunyani River and shot a rhino and saw it fall. He went up to it, thinking it was dead. Instead, it struggled to its feet and tossed him into the air. He came down on its back. As the rhino turned to get him it fell dead, literally on top of Hartley, breaking several of his ribs and generally injuring him internally so much that he never hunted again in Mashonaland, eventually dying at the age sixty-one on his farm “Thorndale" in the Magaliesberg on the 8th February 1876 as a delayed result of this misadventure.

The actual grave site has been, owing to the passing years, shrouded in mystery. It is known that Leask carved William Hartley's name and the date of his death on a tree which stood at the head of the grave, and Baines's "Gold Region of South Eastern Africa" gives a longitude and latitude position. But time, nature and the deaths of those involved have combined forces in such a way as to create a  mystery regarding William Hartley's resting place.

EE Burke’s article is well researched as one might expect, but in his physical search for the grave I think he made a number of errors in his assumptions:

(1)     That the gravesite was one and half hours horse ride east of the Sivundazi [Chirundazi Stream]

(2)    He relied on Thomas Baines’ estimate in his book Gold Regions of south eastern Africa  that the distance from “Hartley Hills to Willie’s grave” as 13 miles by trocheameter  [a device that counts the revolutions of a wheel to calculate distance]

(3)    He relied too literally on sketch map in the Zimbabwe National Archives of the area between the Mwanesi Range and Hartley Hill endorsed “Mr Lisk’s [sic] chart from the Umfuli to the SE.” The wagon track on the map between the Chirundazi camp and a point on a “spruit to Umvuli” marked “W.H” [presumably Willie Hartley’s grave] is marked “7.” It is then “4” to another stream and another “6” to a stand place for wagons on a big spruit and nearby is marked “OD” [presumably James O’Donnell’s grave]   

(4)    He relied on a sketch in the Oppenheimer Series 3 of Northern Goldfields diaries of Thomas Baines that has a note by Baines saying that the grave is: “about 12 miles south east (magnetic) of Hartley Hill.

Burke rightly disregarded Thomas Baines calculation for his position which relied on dead reckoning and gave a longitude of 30⁰59′E for the gravesite; this is some 60 kilometres away east of Beatrice. Based on the sketch map Burke looked for “W.H” seven miles from the Chirundazi Stream and found it on the left bank of the Tumbwi, a tributary of the Nyangweni Stream

From the descriptions in the sketch maps, Burke attempted to match the actual topography on the ground; this is a notoriously difficult exercise, particularly with descriptions such as “the road over the bult.”

It was this sense of mystery and challenge that led the Salisbury North Exploration Young Farmers' Club (YFC) led by the late Mr Robert (Bicky) Bicknell to set about finding Hartley's grave.

The first requirement was to check out the information in EE. Burke’s paper, which put the site of Hartley's grave on the edge of a vlei leading into the Tumbwi stream from the north-west, about one mile from Mashayamombe Training Centre. I think, though the YFC paper doesn’t say, that they realised that assumption 1 above was the major error. Baines says “We [Baines, Leask, Henry Hartley and Jewell] rode south west to the camp where I had first visited the hunters on the Zinlundusi [Chirundazi stream] Then turning east we crossed the river and, riding about an hour and a half more, we reached the spot where poor Willie Hartley’s grave had been made three months before.” Burke assumes that the party started at the Chirundazi Stream Camp, crossed the Chirundazi and rode by horse to the east for an hour and a half.” This is about ten kilometres and could be achieved on horseback. The “W.H” site is also twenty kilometres from Fort Hill; the equivalent of Baines’ thirteen miles in assumption 2. This trail is marked in orange on the Google earth image below.

The YFC interpreted Baines quote above differently from Burke in that the party of four  which include Henry Hartley, Baines, Leask and Jewell  crossed the Chirundazi and followed the stream down on its east bank to its confluence with the Mupfure River. The trail marked in green on the Google earth image below.

The YFC Club first set out to find the Hunter's Road Drift over the Mupfure and try to re-trace the route as given in Baines's diary. Their account says; “the Club trekked from the southern bank of the river, through a veritable jungle of "wait-a-bit" thorn bushes before they reached the top of a bank near the weir. Beyond this was another steep bank, covered with boulders, sharp-leafed reeds, and dense undergrowth. Less than a kilometre below the weir, they found they were opposite the road on the north bank. At first it was impossible to see any signs of a road, but, after two hours of exploration, the road was seen ascending through a cutting with steep banks rising on each side. At the top, members found what they first took to be a gully, with water standing at the bottom; but, upon investigation, it was realised this was Sir John Swinburne's gold diggings, which he had worked in 1869. This was the final proof that this was Hunter's Road Drift.

The YFC say they had found Sir John Swinburne’s gold diggings at the Hunter’s Road drift on the south bank of the Mupfure River. However, Thomas Baines says in The Gold Regions of South Eastern Africa on his first visit during August 1869 to the Hartley Hill goldfields: “nearly a mile to the south [of Hartley Hills] Sir John Swinburne had encamped, and with the help of his lead miner, Mr August Griete, had sunk two shafts about twenty-five feet deep, from which he had obtained some very rich, and visibly auriferous quartz, some white and crystalline, some coloured red or yellow with oxide of iron.” Note these are on the north bank of the Mupfure River, not the south.     

Baines’ sketch map above shows Hartley Hill in the top left and the Hunters Road drift across the Mupfure River just to the left of its confluence with the Chirundazi Stream. The Mupfure River banks here have completely changed from the 1870’s with the addition of a series of weirs which have backed up the river permanently and the old drift would now be under water. 

The YFC were told by local people that there was a grave nearby, on the east bank of the Chirundazi. They say this corresponded with their calculated position from Baines original longitude position. However, the figure they give in the article of 30⁰27′29.00″E is over 3 kilometres to the east of the spot indicated on their sketch map.

The YFC and Burke felt the site corresponded exactly with Jewell’s photograph, although they acknowledged the Msasa tree would not have lived this long and that his father, Henry Hartley, may well have used his wagon to replace the brushwood with stones to make the gravesite more permanent. 

This photograph of Willie s grave was taken in August 1870, by Robert Jewell, who accompanied Henry Hartley and Thomas Baines and Thomas Leask to the site and is almost identical to Baines sketch above.

The prevailing granite soils of the area, being granite, (i.e. below 7 on a scale of 1 – 14) will give rise to acid soils and bones do not survive for long; although an entry in Henry Hartley's diary suggests that William was buried wearing the family signet ring, which was made from pure gold and contained a large ruby.

The actual gravesite is indicated on the YFC sketch map below and is shown just east of the Chirundazi Stream  before its confluence with the Mupfure River and downstream of a small tributary which joins from the west.


Finally the YFC looked for James O’Donnell’s gravesite. Baines says it was no more than 4 miles from Willie Hartley’s grave, but as they rode by horse to the site, this must have been only an estimate. In the YFC article they say: “operating in pairs, the Club swept an area of 300 metres square, and eventually came across a site which, although densely overgrown, was unmistakably a grave. All information and co-ordinates checked out that this was definitely the last resting place of James O'Donnell. At the head of the grave stood a tree on which a small black area of the bark had been, at some time, blazed, leaving a mark about eight centimetres wide. The bark around the area was carefully removed; but the Club could not find any indication of an inscription, and decided to leave further investigation until expert help could be obtained.

The site indications for James O’Donnell’s grave are vague and contradictory. From Willie Hartley’s gravesite, they say the grave is in “a rocky outcrop some three miles away [4.8 kilometres] in a north north-east direction.” This must be incorrect as it would place the grave on the northern bank of the Mupfure River and the diaries state that from the 25 May Thomas Leask and Vandenberg returned from their expedition to purchase pumpkins and chicken and recrossed to the south bank of the Mupfure River where all subsequent movement takes place. 

The narrative above is also contradicted by the sketch map below which has O’Donnell’s gravesite south of the Mupfure River and west of the Nyangweni Stream, but marked only 3.4 kilometres away!

I have placed the O’Donnell  grave marker on the south side of a rocky wooded area which is exactly 3.4 kilometres from Willie Hartley’s gravesite. This rocky wooded area covered in Candelabra trees (Euphorbia ingens) extends north to the Mupfure River and I have assumed that Leask would have buried O’Donnell near their wagon trail which probably took the more open ground south of the rocky area.

At this time I am somewhat at a loss to explain why Willie Hartley who died at midday and James O’Donnell who died that evening  were not buried side by side as they died within 8 hours of each other. Presumably Willie was buried very quickly near where he died at the Chirundazi Stream and the wagons trekked on during the afternoon for another 3.4 kilometres to higher ground where O’Donnell died and was buried on the spot.


(1)    The search by EE Burke in 1963 was too far east and was not near either gravesite. It is a fruitless task trying to relate the features on 1870 sketch maps to the current physical features on the ground nearly a century later.

(2)    The YFC Expedition reviewed the available information, made an intensive ground search and were probably close to the gravesites, but provide no actual evidence that they actually located either Willie Hartley, or James O’Donnell’s graves. No drawings apart from rough sketch maps, no photographs, or any kind of description of the graves and contradictory information does not provide any convincing evidence that they located the gravesites.

(3)    Despite our best efforts using all the available evidence and the use of a GPS device, we found no trace of the graves. Local people did not move into this area until after 1897 and the area near the Chirundazi stream has only been cultivated on the east bank for the past twenty years and is still not cultivated on the west bank. I believe both grave sites were probably ploughed unknowingly and have been planted with maize crops and both graves will never been found now. 



Thanks to ORAFs for permission to quote from recompiled from the magazine Rhodesian Knowledge Number 1 about the Young Farmers Club (YFC) expedition

E.E. Burke. William Hartley’s Grave. Rhodesiana No. 8 1963.

T. Baines. The Gold Regions of South Eastern Africa. Books of Rhodesia 1968

Brent Barber for accompanying me


When to visit: 
All year around