The town's name is derived from 'cappie oonda', an Aboriginal word which applied to a spring near the present town site.
Before the arrival of the miners the district was settled by two pastoralists, Captain Charles H. Bagot and Francis Dutton. Both of these pastoralists were the founders of what are now considered 'prominent' South Australian families. The writer, Geoffrey Dutton, was a descendant of Francis Dutton.
Copper was first discovered at Kapunda by Francis Dutton in 1842. He went into partnership with Captain Bagot who had also noted the green colour of the rocks in the area. They purchased 80 acres of land for £1 an acre but it took two years for samples to be sent to Britain, tests be undertaken, and the results to return to South Australia. The results were remarkable. The copper was 22.5 per cent pure which was probably the richest ever found anywhere in the world.
The first mining, driven by Bagot, was literally the workers on his property digging the copper off the surface with picks and shovels. In the first year they dug 600 tons of ore which was worth £7000. By December 1844 the first Cornish miners had arrived in the area and underground mining began. By 1846 Francis Dutton had sold his 25 per cent share in the mine for £16,000 (a huge sum at the time). This left Captain Bagot with a 55 per cent controlling share in the mine.
In the early years the journey of the copper was extraordinary. The copper-bearing rocks were transported by bullock dray to Port Adelaide (a journey which probably took around 6 days) where it was loaded onto ships and transported to Swansea in Wales where it was smelted by the Welsh smelter operators. The loads were two tons. By 1850 the mine was producing 100 tons of ore per month.
Over the next few years the wealth of the Kapunda copper seam was recognised and copper experts and labourers arrived in South Australia to mine the seam. These people were specialists. The Cornish were the expert miners. The Welsh were the smelters. The Germans, who were already living in the area, began to cut down the trees and bushes which were sold to fuel the smelters. The timber was used as charcoal. Then there were the Irish who worked as labourers and later became the main bullock team drivers. The German women used to walk their farm produce (mainly fruit and vegetables) to the town in wheelbarrows and sell it to the miners.
With the arrival of a number of German-made smelters in 1849 the ships carrying the ore to Britain began to stop in Newcastle-on-Tyne where they loaded coal for the smelters. By 1851 there were more than 2000 people living in Kapunda.
By 1850-51 the mines were reaching below the water table (it was found at around 80 feet) and a Buel steam engine was imported and installed to pump the water out. The mines at the deepest point were sunk to 480 feet (around 150 metres). While other mines began to appear Bagot's was the only one of any importance.
By 1852 the siren call of the Victorian goldfields found the Kapunda mine almost deserted. Miners, with considerable expertise, headed off to try their luck at Bendigo and Ballarat. This lasted for about three years and slowly the miners began to return to the area where their jobs were reliable in the copper mines. By 1857 production was back to normal.
The rush was shortlived and by 1857 the mine was back at peak production with 4103 tons of ore being produced.
By 1861, as the sign in the Bagot Museum reveals, there were:
43 miners - mostly Cornish
23 children - mostly Cornish
82 labourers - mainly Irish
13 boys - mainly Irish
36 smelters and furnacemen - mainly Welsh
The mine at this time was employing 302 men and 36 boys.
The copper was hugely valuable. At the time it was used for a variety of practical applications including copper kettles, copper ladles, candlesticks, bread-making equipment, copper coins, copper sheeting for ships and also taps and pipes. It was also used to produce brass.
The importance of the Kapunda copper mine declined with the discovery of copper at Burra where the lode was four times the amount of Kapunda. In turn the mine at Moonta on the Yorke Peninsula was found to be four times the size of the Burra mine.
By 1863 the rich ore lode had been worked out. The mine continued to operate but it was now specialising in low grade ore and open cut mining began. The mine was closed down in 1878 and the equipment sold the following year. It opened again on a small scale and continued until 1912. During this time a total of 12,800 tons of copper was mined.
It was towards the end of the life of the town's mining industry that Sir Sidney Kidman, one of Australia's richest rural entrepreneurs and a man who once owned more land than the entire British Isles. When he died in 1935 he controlled 68 large properties which covered 64 million acres of Australia. He regularly held horse sales behind the North Kapunda Hotel (which still stands in the main street) and at one famous sale a total of 3,000 horses were offered in an auction which lasted a week. The horses were all the property of Kidman.
In recent times Kapunda has prospered as a successful service town for the surrounding rural area. The wealth of the town during its halcyon days has been well preserved. This allows the visitor to explore the town's history and to make contact with the wealth (in the shape of large houses and elegant business buildings) which characterised the town during the 1850s and 1860s.