The Capricorn district is the traditional home of the Darumbal Aboriginal people.
The European history of the area began in 1853, when the area that would become Rockhampton was visited by the Archer brothers Charles and William, who were seeking grazing lands. They were acting on information from earlier expeditions by Ludwig Leichhardt and Thomas Mitchell, who had explored the area in 1844 and 1846 and noted suitable land for grazing then.
In January 1854, the New South Wales Government proclaimed two new districts: Port Curtis and Leichhardt (roughly today's Fitzroy Region), and the Archer brothers returned in August 1855 to set up their pastoral run at Gracemere. The Fitzroy River provided a convenient waterway for shipping of supplies and produce, and the Archer brothers constructed a wool shed just downstream of a bar of rocks which prevented further upstream navigation from the coast. These rocks were incorporated with the traditional English term for a village, and the name "Rockhampton" was first coined by Charles Archer and the local Commissioner from Crown Lands, William Wiseman.
In 1856, the Elliott brothers arrived at Gracemere and soon after, took up landholdings at Canoona, north of present-day Yaamba. There, Philip Elliott and his party came under attack from the Darumbals, possibly of the Taroomball tribe. Elliott was seriously wounded by a spear and one of his men was killed. However, Elliott had brought with his party a contingent of Native Police who turned near-certain loss into victory. It was the first of many battles.
Permanent British settlement at the Rockhampton township began in July 1856, when Richard Palmer travelled from Gladstone with an escort of Native Police under sub-Lieutenant Walter Powell to set up a store. Powell arrived at the site first and constructed the Native Police barracks. This was the first habitable British building established at Rockhampton and it was located on the south bank of the Fitzroy River at the end of Albert Street.
With abundant grazing lands and waters from the Fitzroy River and its many tributaries and lagoons, the region continued to expand rapidly. In 1858, the town of Rockhampton was officially proclaimed. The town was surveyed at this time and the first sales of building allotments were held that year. In 1859, gold was discovered at Canoona. Miners rushed to the new field, using the site of Rockhampton on the Fitzroy River as the nearest navigable port. The Canoona field proved to be very disappointing and thousands of would-be gold seekers were left stranded at Rockhampton. Although many returned south, others stayed, adding to the infant town's population.
By 1861, the town boasted a regular newspaper, banks, court house and School of Arts. Direct shipments of imported goods and migrants from the United Kingdom began to be received during the 1860s. During the 1860s and 1870s Rockhampton developed as the main port for the developing Central Queensland hinterland; the main export at that time being wool.
In the 1880s and 1890s, sea ports were established on the coast, adjacent to the mouth of the Fitzroy River. Broadmount was on the northern side and Port Alma on the south. Railways were subsequently constructed to carry goods to the wharves at these locations, the railway to Broadmount opening on 1 January 1898 and the line to Port Alma opened on 16 October 1911. Maintenance on the Broadmount line ceased in August 1929. The following month, the wharf caught fire and the line was effectively closed in July 1930. The line to Port Alma closed on 15 October 1986.
Rockhampton Post Office, circa 1895
The significant gold deposit at Mount Morgan to the southwest was discovered in the 1880s, and Rockhampton became the main port through which the wealth of Mount Morgan gold was channelled. Due to the wealth of Mount Morgan, Rockhampton weathered the severe economic depression of the 1890s and many of the town's substantial brick and stone public buildings date from this period. The historic streetscape of Quay Street still displays a number of substantial historic buildings, built when Rockhampton was envisaged as being capital of a state of North Queensland. Most prominent of these is the sandstone Customs House (1900), which today houses an information centre. Other important nineteenth century buildings include the Post Office (1892), the Supreme Court House (1888), and St Joseph's Cathedral (1892).
The City of Rockhampton was proclaimed in 1902. The rail connection south to Brisbane was completed in 1903, but it was not until 1921 that the northern connection to Mackay was finally completed. A railway west from Rockhampton was started in 1867 and by 1892 had reached the terminus at Longreach, 700 kilometres (430 mi) away. This further strengthened Rockhampton's role as the port for the whole of Central Queensland.
Quay Street, Rockhampton in 1912, taken from the Riverbank. The old Fitzroy River Bridge can be seen in the background.
A passenger tramway began operating on 16 June 1909, making Rockhampton the only provincial city in Queensland to have a street tramway. Purrey steam trams ran on a number of routes throughout South Rockhampton, totalling 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) of track. The discomfort of passengers riding in steam trams in a tropical climate in part led to their demise in 1939, replaced by a bus network run by the City Council.
During the Second World War, a US army base was established outside the city; it hosted up to 70,000 servicemen en route to action in the Pacific and New Guinea.
On 2 March 1949, Rockhampton was severely damaged by a cyclone.
The Fitzroy River Barrage was commissioned in 1971. The barrage has a capacity of 81,300 megalitres and holds back a lake 60 kilometres (37 mi) long. The barrage was funded by the Rockhampton City Council to provide a reliable source of water to the city, and to effectively drought proof Rockhampton. In 2002, a study showed that salinity was increasing in the Fitzroy Basin and, while only small areas of land were severely affected by salinity, urged that steps be taken to manage salinity by good irrigation practices and better management of tree clearing.
In 2003, Rockhampton was the centre of significant national media interest after local teenager Natasha Ryan was found in the North Rockhampton home of her boyfriend, Scott Black, after being missing for five years. Serial killer Leonard Fraser had been charged with her murder, as her disappearance occurred in the period in which Fraser had abducted and murdered other women and girls. An anonymous tip-off during Fraser's trial led to the discovery of Ryan. Despite Ryan's discovery, Fraser's defence did not seek a mistrial and Fraser was convicted of the murders of other women and girls and was given an indefinite life sentence.
On 20 February 2015, Rockhampton was severely damaged by Cyclone Marcia damaging hundreds of homes and businesses with wind speeds over 150 km/h recorded in Rockhampton. Major flooding was experienced in the upper reaches of the Fitzroy River after more than 250mm were recorded. The cyclone left about 100,000 properties across Central Queensland without power.