The Guringgai Aborigines once occupied the land from the Hawkesbury River in the south to Lake Macquarie in the north. It is known that the tribe wore possum hair belts (in which they carried their few possessions) and, occasionally, possum skin clothing. The men carried spears, boomerangs, stone axes, boomerangs and shields and hunted large prey such as kangaroos and fish which they speared. The women, however, provided most of the food - fish (caught on fishing lines), shellfish, fruit, tubers, insect larvae, snakes, lizards and small mammals.
Governor Phillip and a party of officers and seamen entered Broken Bay in a whaleboat in 1788, about a month after establishing the settlement at Sydney Cove. They passed Lion Island at the mouth of Brisbane Water and sheltered from heavy rains behind the rocky headland of Green Point. Phillip observed 'the land is much higher than at Port Jackson, more rocky and equally covered with timber; large trees which grow on the summits of mountains'. Apparently the indigenous peoples were impressed with the fact that he had a missing front tooth, as it was an initiation rite amongst them to knock out the front tooth of young men.
Phillip returned in 1789 to what was then called the North East Arm but the focus subsequently fell instead on the Hawkesbury River. The proximity of a penal colony at Newcastle also discouraged settlement but when this was moved north to Port Macquarie, European settlement around 'the Arm' began. It was renamed Brisbane Water in the early 1820s after the then-governor of NSW.
The first white settlers were drawn by the possibilities of exploiting the local supplies of cedar, forest oak, blue gum and other hardwoods. Boat building also began at this time and continued until World War I. The first to receive a land grant was boat builder James Webb who, in 1823, took up 120 ha on the western side of Brisbane Water at what is now southern Woy Woy. Other grants were soon promised on the eastern shore, particularly around the Kincumber Broadwater. Small settlers took up land on the ocean shores, growing maize, onions, potatoes and hay. Others gathered cockle shells which were loaded on to ketches and sent off for lime-burning.
By the early 1830s the number of European settlers in the area was sufficient to warrant the reservation of land for the village of Kincumber.