A channel of the Fitzroy River
, near Willare Bridge, dry season 2006
The Kimberley was one of the earliest settled parts of Australia, with the first arrivals landing about 41,000 years ago.
In 1837, with support from the Royal Geographical Society, Lieutenants George Grey and Franklin Lushington, and 12 men sailed on the schooner Lynher from Cape Town reaching Hanover Bay on 2 December 1837. The party started inland on 19 January 1838. Leaders and men were totally inexperienced, progress was delayed by flooded country, many stores were abandoned, and the party was constantly split up despite the presence of large numbers of hostile Aboriginals. On 11 February Grey was speared and became critically ill, but after two weeks continued the exploration. The party discovered and named the Gairdner River, the Glenelg River, the Stephen and Whately ranges and Mount Lyell before returning to Hanover Bay in April. There they were picked up by the Beagle and Lynher and taken to Mauritius to recuperate.
In 1879 Alexander Forrest trekked across from the western coast to the Northern Territory. Forrest named the Kimberley district, and discovered the Margaret and Ord Rivers, the King Leopold Ranges, and the fertile area between the Fitzroy and Ord River. He subsequently set himself up as a land agent specialising in the Kimberley and was thus instrumental in the leasing of over 21,000,000 hectares (51,000,000 acres) of land in the region during 1883.
In 1881, Philip Saunders and Adam Johns, in the face of great difficulties and dangers, found gold in various parts of the Kimberley. Early in 1881 the first five graziers, who called themselves the Murray Squatting Company, took up 49,000 hectares (120,000 acres) behind Beagle Bay and named it Yeeda Station. They became the first men to shear sheep in the southern Kimberley in 1883. There was further European settlement in 1885, when cattle were driven across Australia from the eastern states in search of good pasture lands. Many other Europeans arrived soon after, when gold was discovered around Halls Creek.
In the 1890s the area was the site of an armed insurrection of indigenous people under the leadership of Jandamarra, a Bunuba warrior.
The only Japanese force to land in Australia during World War II was a small reconnaissance party that landed in the Kimberley on 19 January 1944 to investigate reports that the Allies were building large bases in the region. The party consisted of four Japanese officers on board a small fishing boat. It investigated the York Sound region for a day and a night before returning to Kupang in Timor on 20 January. Upon returning to Japan in February, the junior officer who commanded the party suggested using 200 Japanese prison inmates to launch a guerrilla campaign in Australia. Nothing came of this and the officer was posted to other duties.