Cape York Peninsula, an area of about 220,000 sq km, is the northern-most part of Queensland. For the purpose of this description it is taken to be the mainland north of a line between Normanton on the west and Innisfail on the east. Cape York is at the extreme northern tip of the peninsula, about 25 km from north to south, named in August 1770 by Lieutenant James Cook 'in honour of His Royal Highness, the Duke of York'.

The western side of the peninsula is mostly a vast plain crossed by rivers and channels that flow from the dividing range. It occupies nearly two-thirds of the peninsula. Some of the land is composed of laterite, mineralised soil of low fertility, typically overlain by hard ferrous deposits. Beneath them the pale coloured, soft material often contains bauxite. The dividing range is of sandstone in the north and around Laura, and of granite south of Coen. The range runs southwards within 50 km or less of the east coast until about Musgrave and then curves around the Laura Basin on Prince Charlotte Bay before trending toward the east coast which it touches north of Innisfail. It is here that the range reaches Queensland's second highest mountain, Bellenden Ker. This high altitude landform has a profound effect on rainfall. At Millaa Millaa, 40 km west of Innisfail, annual rainfall is 100 inches; 100 km further west at Mt Garnet it is 30 inches.

For the first 60 years of the nineteenth century Cape York Peninsula was a place of exploration. Flinders' maritime exploration of the west coast in 1802 noted the laterite deposits. Leichhardt (1844) crossed the Peninsula as far north as the Mitchell River. Kennedy (1848) made an epic, but fatal, journey from Cardwell to the north. In 1865 the Jardine brothers overlanded cattle to Cape York to supply a proposed coaling station for shipping. They settled on the tiny dot on the map shown as Somerset.

Somerset was described in the 1903 Australian handbook:

Ever since the Gympie gold field had saved the Queensland economy in the late 1860s the Government had been on the lookout for new finds. The Etheridge goldfield (1870) south-west of Innisfail answered the need, and two years later the Government encouraged exploration further north. William Hann found gold deposits on the Palmer River, south-west of Cooktown, and James Mulligan found gold on the Hodgkinson River, west of Cairns. Within months of the discoveries the Cooktown and Cairns settlements were founded for trans-shipping supplies to the mines and exporting the gold. Cairns was also the port for the Herberton tin mines (1875).

In the 1880s-90s inland railways were built. Cooktown to Laura was completed in 1888 and Cairns to Mareeba in 1893. On the other side of the peninsula a line was opened between Croydon and Normanton in 1891, again from a gold field to a port. In the new century railways were built for agricultural and timber-harvesting purposes, tapping the Atherton and Evelyn Tablelands; a line reached Yungaburra (1910) and Millaa Millaa (1921), and a branch arrived at Ravenshoe in 1916. There were also privately built lines to mining centres such as Mount Garnet and Mungara.

In addition to railways, the telegraph was hastening communication, a line from Cooktown to Palmerville having been constructed in 1876. In 1883 John Bradford, a posts and telegraphs inspector, surveyed a telegraph route from Cooktown via Coen to Cape York. The surveyed route approximates today's northern road route. The Government Geologist, Robert Logan Jack, also explored north Queensland in two expeditions in 1879-80 extending from Cooktown to the Archer River and to west of the Dividing Range. Bradford probably relied on a detailed route map drawn by Jack, although the map has been lost.

The high-rainfall coastal areas from Innisfail to Mossman became sugar-growing districts. Mulgrave and Hambledon (Cairns) started in 1882, two years after the Innisfail plantation. A government-assisted mill at Mossman started in 1897.

Inland from Cairns the Tablelands became dairying and vegetable-growing districts. In the 1940s they supplied thousands of American military personnel with fresh food. Further north, cattle became the mainstay of the pastoral industries. While the natural pasture could be deficient in nourishment, even during the wet season, food supplements improved their condition in readiness for marketing.

Until 1924, when the rail link from Brisbane to Cairns was completed, journeys north depended on coastal steamers. Tourism was mostly a localised activity, such as a rail journey to Kuranda on the Tableland, or a flat-bottomed boat to the reef. The through rail journey made Cairns more of a tourist destination. Postwar air services made for quicker access, and in the 1980s Port Douglas and Mission Beach joined the list of holiday destinations. Tourism also brought an increased awareness of inland destinations and the richness of Aboriginal cultural remains, such as Percy Trezise's Quinkan rock art discoveries near Laura. Four-wheel drive vehicles opened up access to Trezise's finds and to the beauty of inland rivers and landscapes.

The European community had been made acutely conscious of the Aboriginal population when miners were attacked on the way to the Palmer River goldfield. Disease and settler depradations took a heavy toll of the original inhabitants, and in the 1890s several church-based missions were established: Mapoon, Weipa and Aurukun (Presbyterian – 1891, 1898 and 1904); Yarrabah (Anglican – 1892); Hope Vale (Lutheran – 1896, 1949). Each later became the basis of self-governing Aboriginal Councils.

Local government in Cape York Peninsula began with Cooktown (1876) and four rural divisions, Cairns, Daintree, Hann and Woothakata (1879). In 1881 Johnstone and Tinaroo divisions were created, in the sugar and minerals areas adjoining Cairns. In the west, Carpentaria division was created in 1883. Hann and Daintree divisions were the forerunners of Cook Shire; Woothakata division was the forerunner of Mareeba shire; and Tinaroo division became Atherton, Eacham and Herberton Shires.

The 2008 amalgamations introduced the following changes:

Pre-amalgamation Post-amalgamation
Cairns City Cairns City
Douglas Shire Cairns City
Carpentaria Shire Carpentaria Shire1
Cook Shire Cook Shire
Johnstone Shire Cassowary Coast Regional Council2
Atherton Shire, Eacham Shire,
Herberton Shire, Mareeba Shire3
Tablelands Regional Council
1 About half of the Carpentaria Shire's area of 64,381 sq km is in Cape York Peninsula.
2 Cassowary Coast Regional Council also absorbed Cardwell Shire.
3 The southern half of Herberton Shire was not in Cape York Peninsula as defined here.

Cook Shire occupies about half of the Peninsula.

A permit system restricting the traditional hunting of turtles and dugongs was trialled in four Cape York Aboriginal communities in 2015, including the community of Mapoon, a clan estate of the Gugu Yimithirr people called Juunjuwarra, Jajikal in Wujal and Lockhart River.

G.C. Bolton, A thousand miles away: a history of north Queensland to 1920, Canberra, ANU Press 1992

Dawn Frith, Cape York Peninsula: a natural history, Malanda, Frith and Frith, 2006

C.P. Harris, Local government and regionalism in Queensland 1859 to 1977, Canberra, Australian National University, 1978

Hector Holthouse, The Australian Geographic book of Cape York, Terrey Hills, Australian Geographic Pty Ltd, 1991

R. Logan Jack, Northmost Australia, Victoria Park, Western Australia, Hesperian Press (facsimile), 1998

Ron and Viv Moon, Cape York: an adventurer's guide, 11th edition, Pearcedale, Victoria, Moon Adventure Publications, 2008

Percy Trezise, Rock art of south-east Cape York, Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1971

Towns and Cities: Cairns, Cooktown, Normanton, Weipa entries

Municipal: Atherton, Carpentaria, Douglas, Eacham, Herberton, Johnstone, Mareeba and Mulgrave Shire entries

Aboriginal Communities: Aurukun, Bamaga, Hope Vale, Kowanyama, Lockhart River, Mapoon, Napranum and Yarrabah entries

Other: Atherton Tableland, Hodgkinson Minerals Area and Palmer River entries


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