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Uncover Cooktown's Fascinating History
A birthplace of Modern Australia
Endeavour beached for repair.jpg

Cook and his crew spent more time in Cooktown than in anywhere else making it a birthplace of modern Australia. Following the dramatic refloating of hi ship after it hit a reef it was towed into the river and beached for repairs. The 48 day visit allowed positive interaction with the local peoples and significant exploration of the local flora and fauna

A rich vein of Goldrush History
Mick the Miner in Cooktown

In 1873 James Mulligan confirmed the presence of plentiful alluvial gold at the Palmer River 140 kms south-west of Cooktown. This sparked a huge gold rush. With no viable inland route from the south, Cooks charts were used to identify 'Cookstown' as the port to access and service the goldfields.

By 1900 the town, renamed Cooktown in 1874, had grown to be the second largest in Queensland with a popuation of over 30,000.

Where to find our History
James Cook Museum Cooktown

The Cooktown Museum in the old Convent Building is fantastic. Cooktown History Centre is also well worth a visit and has a great collection of old photos. From there you can visit the Cemetery, the monuments, one of Queensland's oldest regional botanic gardens and take in the same view as James Cook from the top of Grassy Hill

A birthplace of Modern Australia

"The captain and myself went ashore to view the harbour and found it indeed beyond our most sanguine wishes: it was the mouth of a river the entrance of which was, to be sure, narrow enough and shallow but, when once in, the ship might be moored afloat so near the shore that, by a stage from her to it, all her cargo might be got out and in again in a very short time; in this same place she might be hove down with all ease" From Joseph Banks' diary

Repairing the Endeavour in Cooktown

Captain Cook and his crew on the Endeavour spent more time what is now Cooktown than in any other place in Australia making Cooktown arguably the birthplace of modern Australia. Cook’s stay was not voluntary however; while navigating through the tricky reef ridden waters off North Queensland his ship, the Endeavour, ran aground on what is now known as Endeavour Reef – on a moonlit night at 11pm on 11 June 1770. Although the ship was seriously damaged Cook and his crew of 87 men managed to float her off at the second following tide and limp into what is now known as Cooktown where his voyage was delayed almost seven weeks while repairs were carried out on the beach.

Reconciliation after the 'turtle' episode

Though often neglected in ‘popular’ accounts of Australian history, the story of Cook on the Endeavour River, or Waalumbaal Birri, has greater significance than Botany Bay. Not only was the episode pivotal in ensuring the Endeavour’s safe return to England, but because during their stay, Cook and his men had a series of significant cultural exchanges with the Indigenous populations of the region, the Guugu Yimithirr, including what is recognised as the first act of reconciliation between Europeans and Aboriginal people. This engagement is in stark contrast to what happened at Botany Bay, where the local Indigenous people avoided contact with Cook and his crew.

Kangaroo or 'Gangurru'

The 48 days it took for repairs and to await safe passage allowed Joseph Banks and fellow botanist Daniel Solander to collect more than 200 plant species and illustrate 190 of them - their first major collections of Australian flora. It was the longest time ashore on Cook’s first Pacific voyage and the largest collection. They also discovered many new species of insects, fish, bugs and butterflies - they saw, for the first time in this country, a crocodile, dingo, flying fox, and many species of lizards, snakes, fish and insects. And the English word Kangaroo derives from their visit and the Guugu Yimidhirr word ‘gangurru’ for the local variety of grey kangaroo. 

Joseph Banks' diary records, "In gathering plants today, I myself had the good fortune to see the beast so much talked of ... he was not only like a greyhound in size and running, but had a long tail, as long as any greyhounds; what to liken him to I could not tell, nothing certainly that I have seen at all resembles him" .

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A rich vein of Goldrush History

We may prospect for gold, but when on it will not work for less than I oz. per man per day; less will not pay us for our expense and loss of time; and though a day’s work may result in four or five times that, yet it must be considered exceptional. Up to now a few men only have been here, but these last few days men are coming in in crowds;" From Joseph Banks' diary

The Hann expedition led to the discovery of gold at Palmer River in Cape York

In 1872, William and Frank Hann led an expedition sponsored by the Queensland Government to investigate the country “North to the 14th Parallel”. Up to then even the toughest settlers and adventurers had avoided this country. However, the Hann brothers, with their first class bush skills, penetrated the rugged landscape sufficiently to discover and name the Palmer River. Here Fred Warner, a surveyor in the expedition party, discovered traces of gold and claimed the half pound of tobacco that William Hann had offered to whoever first found gold.

The report of gold was picked up by James Mulligan who had emigrated from Ireland in 1860. Originally settling in Armidale, Mulligan was lured by the potential riches of gold prospecting to Queensland. In 1873 he led a group who forged a way from the Etheridge gold fields, west of Mission Beach, to the Palmer River, from where he returned with 102 ounces of payable gold on 30 June 1873. Mulligan reported his find on 24 August 1873 which was then widely published in the press. The gold rush was on and within 6 months 3,000 diggers had set up on the Palmer River.

Early prospectors had to endure the harsh tropical environment in a very remote area of Australia and many succumbed to starvation and disease. The gold field was a wild place with reports of miners being shot by claim-jumpers or gold robbers. There were regular battles with the aboriginals as well as conflict with the Chinese who arrived in large numbers. By late 1875, it was estimated that 4,000 Europeans and 10,000 Chinese were working on the field. The Chinese population peaked at 17 000 two years later.

In the photo are William Hann back left and Fred Warner back standing with 2 other expedition members

Cooktown in its early days

The Queensland government responded quickly to Mulligan's reports, and dispatched the Gold Commissioner, a Roads Engineer, Police and staff in SS Leichardt to establish a port on the Endeavour River, chosen on the basis of Cook’s charts from 100 years before. Work on a port and town proceeded at a pace and the Post Office opened on 1 January 1874. It quickly became the established port of access and service for the rapidly growing Palmer River Gold Field where output to 1890 was 15,500kg plus. Word of the gold find spread quickly and Cooktown thrived as prospectors arrived from around the world. Despite being 140 often dangerous kms from the goldfields, all gold was exported and all supplies were imported through Cooktown. By 1880 estimates put the population at 7,000 for the area increasing to 30,000 plus by the turn of the century - serviced by numerous hotels, eating houses, general stores and many other businesses and shops.

Chinese community during Chinese Commission visit

The first Chinese arrived on the Palmer goldfield in 1874 initially coming from other parts of Australia. However, the introduction of a steam ship service in 1875 between Hong Kong and Brisbane, stopping in Cooktown, led to a massive influx of Chinese who soon came to dominate the gold fields. Family ties and obligations meant that most Chinese were expected to send their earning home and ultimately return home themselves. On the gold fields they were more organised than the other groups and tended to have better health. While many went prospecting many also decided that running a business in Cooktown was safer and equally profitable. A significant Chinese community grew up engaged in agriculture, fishing, tin mining as well as acting as financiers of and buyers from the pearling and beche de mer fleets. Of course, many ran stores and trading houses.

In 1887, a Chinese Investigation Commission (see photo) arrived to investigate the social conditions of Chinese living Cooktown and to establish a consulate. General Wong Yung Ho was pleased with what he found, and cheers were exchanged between the Commission members and local residents as they left on 7 August 1887.

Our Park is situated in what was part of Cooktown’s Chinese quarter and was the home of a number of shops and outlets including a gambling shop and opium den!

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