A Brief History of Cooktown in North Queensland, Australia

View to Endeavour River from Grassy Hill lookout, Cooktown

Cooktown, in far north Queensland, provides visitors with a rich Aboriginal and European history alongside the pleasures of a tropical Australian getaway.

Cooktown has a history stretching back through millennia of Aboriginal habitation to the first European visitor, Captain James Cook in 1770, and the Palmer River Gold Rush one hundred years later. Throughout this time Cooktown flourished to become one of the oldest and largest towns in Queensland. Local Aboriginal people were catastrophically displaced from their traditional lands during white settlement, threatening much of their culture. Today, Cooktown offers visitors to the area a unique historical perspective to early Australian life, World Heritage-listed parks, world-class fishing and excellent 4WD adventures.

Cooktown’s Aboriginal History

For thousands of years, Aboriginal people were the traditional custodians of the lower Cape York and Cooktown area. There were forty-one tribal nations in Cape York, each with their own distinct language, culture, history, bush foods and bush medicines. The Guugu Yimithirr people lived in the Cooktown area and were a successful hunter-gatherer society. They maintained a close association with the land, their sacred sites and special story places in order to protect and preserve them for future generations.

After only one generation of European settlement the way of life of the Guugu Yimithirr people became difficult to maintain. They were denied access to and use of their traditional lands and sacred sites as Europeans colonized the region for mining and farming. This led to much conflict and whole Aboriginal clans were wiped out. Missions were established to “Westernize” those who survived further threatening their traditional knowledge and culture.

Captain James Cook and European Discovery

In 1770 Captain James Cook, an accomplished astronomer, navigator and explorer, was the first documented European to visit what is now known as Cooktown. While on an expedition to observe the transit of Venus and to search for Terra Australis incognito (the unknown southern land) Cook’s ship, the HM Bark Endeavour, struck a reef. Cook found safe harbour on the coastal shores of a river which he later named the Endeavour River. Here, the Endeavour underwent repairs and reprovisioning for the onward journey to England. Cook remained at the site for several weeks, making it the longest onshore stay during his expedition to Australia.

Also aboard the Endeavour at the time was the naturalist and botanist, Sir Joseph Banks. During the ship’s period of repair Banks spent time documenting hundreds of species of flora and fauna new to the science at the time, including the first sighting of a kangaroo. Banks, along with Cook, made contact with the Guugu Yimithirr people documenting and learning more than 60 of their words. This was the first record of its kind between Aboriginal and European people.

Palmer River Gold Rush

In 1872, William Hann, a pastoralist and explorer, was commissioned by the Queensland Government to explore Cape York. His expedition led to the discovery of alluvial gold deposits at Palmer River, 140km south-west of Cooktown. In 1873, James Venture Mulligan, an Irish prospector, heard of Hann’s discovery and headed to the area. He staked his claim on the Palmer River and within three months had found 102 oz of gold. Mulligan’s success triggered a major gold rush to the area with prospectors coming from all over the world. A walk through Cooktown’s extensive historical cemetery is testimony to the various origins of the town’s early settlers.

It was decided that the site of Cook’s landing at Endeavour River just over one hundred years earlier provided the easiest access for ships to service the goldfields. Over the next ten years Cooktown’s population swelled to in excess of 7000 people making it the second largest town in Queensland. It was home to dozens of hotels, eating houses and general stores. A railway line was constructed between Cooktown and Laura for the movement of passengers and goods to and from the goldfields.

The Palmer River goldfield peaked in production in the late 1880s. The region gradually went into decline thereafter, an event escalated by cyclones and two major fires which destroyed whole blocks of buildings in the town.

Cooktown Today

There was a resurgence of Cooktown during the Second World War when it became an important base for the war effort and thousands of Australian and American troops were stationed there. Once the war was over, Cooktown’s population and services went into decline again.

The James Cook Museum, housed in the Sisters of Mercy convent school building in Cooktown, delivers the town’s history from both the Aboriginal and European perspective. Today, there is an active Aboriginal Community Centre in the town and the Milbi Wall, or Story Wall, on Cooktown’s waterfront, is an impressive monument to reconciliation. It marks the place of the first encounter between Europeans and Aboriginals. It has enabled the Aboriginal people to tell the story of Cooktown from creation through to white settlement and the 1967 referendum which recognised the equal rights of Aboriginal people.

With improved road access and investment in the region, Cooktown has gradually established itself as an important tourist destination. It is well situated to access the Great Barrier Reef and the Lakefield and Daintree National Parks. It also offers visitors the opportunity to enjoy Aboriginal tours, world-class fishing, and excellent four-wheel driving.