In early 1861 it was clear that something might be wrong with the expedition. Although Burke had not been in contact for months, the Exploration Committee did nothing, unwilling to admit the possibility of disaster. Eventually, when questions were being asked in Parliament, the Committee had to act.
Victorian relief expedition
The Exploration Committee organised a relief party under Alfred William Howitt, which left Melbourne on 26 June 1861.
Howitt was even-tempered, highly intelligent and a skilled bushman, who would have been a good choice as leader of the original expedition. He chose men he knew and had travelled with as his companions and, rather than lug provisions across the country, he travelled by train to Menindie where he planned to buy what he needed for the expedition. By a stroke of luck, he met William Brahe at an inn and learned from him that Burke, Wills, King and Gray had apparently failed to return from Carpentaria.
Howitt returned with Brahe to Melbourne, to plan a larger rescue party and set out again on 4 July. He reached Cooper's Creek on 15 September where he discovered John King, the last survivor of Burke's party.
Other relief expeditions
Three other relief expeditions were sent out at the same time. The Queensland Government put up 500 pounds towards an expedition that would travel by boat to the Gulf of Carpentaria and then head south, the method many said should have been used by the original expedition.
The Exploration Committee, in Melbourne, secured another 2000 pounds of public money to further finance this effort, but were so hopelessly divided over their choice of leader that it was left to the Queensland authorities who selected William Landsborough (1825-86). The Committee also sent Frederick Walker (c1820-66) westward from Rockhampton. The South Australian government sent John McKinlay (1819-72) north-east from Adelaide.
All three were in the field when news filtered through that the men they were searching for were dead. Each of these men continued their own explorations and were subsequently responsible for many discoveries of valuable pastoral lands.