George Moonlight, later known as George Fairweather Moonlight, was born at Newmill, Glenbervie, Kincardineshire, Scotland, on 5 August 1832. He was the third child of James Moonlight, a farmer, and his wife, Jane Lindsay. The Moonlights lived near the sea and George claimed that he never went to school but worked in the herring fleet from the age of nine.
Later he boarded a vessel trading round the American coast, but in 1848 deserted with the ship's crew to join the Californian goldrush. He next went to Australia where he was joined by his cousin Tom Moonlight. George Moonlight spent some time at sea but in 1861 he went with his cousin and his mate Jack Tarrant to the Otago goldrush.
Moonlight soon made a reputation as a successful prospector on a tributary of the Shotover River which became known as Moonlight Creek. Afterwards he moved to Collingwood, near Nelson, then tramped some 60 miles on difficult tracks to the upper Buller River. As miners were already working along the Mangles River he went on between May and September 1863 to explore the Matakitaki and Maruia rivers, near Murchison. He travelled alone and carried all his provisions. A fellow goldminer, Harry Moffatt, described him as 'one [of], if not the most intrepid and self reliant men who ever trod New Zealand'. On one occasion he was caught for a week between two rivers in flood. 'How he lived was known only to himself,' Moffatt commented. From this time the Buller area became known as Moonlight country. In September 1863 the surveyor James Rochfort reported that Moonlight had just discovered 'the best line of road for the Central Grey'.
On 28 February 1865 at Wakefield, George Moonlight married Elizabeth Gaukrodger of Foxhill. Two children were born to them before 1870. They settled for a short time at Richmond, but before long, Moonlight went by boat to the new Grey River diggings. There, on 7 April 1865, he made one of his most spectacular discoveries, on a tributary of the Grey River still known as Moonlight Creek, near the small township of Atarau (Maori for moonlight). The Pessini nugget, officially the largest found in New Zealand, was discovered there in 1917 and this was where the quartz reef running through the Inangahua area began.
Despite his success Moonlight left the district and in 1865 bought land in the Maruia Valley, on the route to the Grey River. With the help of Tarrant he built an accommodation house, stables and store from pit-sawn timber. All goods were brought by pack-horse teams from the end of the dray road at the Howard River. While here Moonlight traced the river systems of a number of streams, giving to some American names such as Shenandoah and Rappahannock.
After the road along the Buller River was completed, he moved to Hampden (Murchison), where he bought the Commercial Hotel and became host, postmaster and storekeeper as well as unofficial sheriff. He supplied his store and outlying areas using pack-horse teams. When he visited Nelson it was on horseback and alone, often travelling at night and with gold in his money belt. He feared no man and was never molested.
It was not long, however, before misfortune overtook him. A serious flood damaged his hotel in 1878, forcing him to build on higher ground, and in 1882 his wife died of typhoid. Soon his business began to fail. He went into voluntary liquidation and his property was sold. To recover his fortunes he went prospecting near Lake Station, in the Howard River area. As was his custom he set out alone. When he failed to return, Jack Tarrant raised the alarm and a search began, but it was two months before Tarrant found Moonlight's body near Glenhope. It is not known precisely when George Moonlight died, but official records gave the date as 17 July 1884 and stated that he had died 'in a natural way.' Soon afterwards a monument was erected in Nelson in recognition of the contribution made by George and Elizabeth Moonlight to the goldmining industry and the opening up of the back country.
George Moonlight was tall and exceptionally strong; he dressed like an American digger and spoke with an American accent. He was a man of strange contrasts. Genial and friendly, he obviously enjoyed company, was fond of children and generous to a fault, yet his journeys were always made alone. For him, the thrill of gold was in locating it, not in accumulating wealth. His recreation was in solitary tramps. He loved the rugged country, the hills, bush and streams among which he died.