The area was first explored by Charles and William Archer who discovered and named the Fitzroy River (after Governor Charles Fitz Roy) on 4 May 1853. The Archers were of Scottish descent but their family had moved to Norway in 1825. It was from their adopted country that they took the names Eidsvold and Berserker (a Norse hero) after whom they named the local mountain range.
Charles Archer moved into the area in 1855 (he settled on Gracemere Station - see below) and the following year the New South Wales Government (Queensland was not a separate colony at the time) decided to establish a settlement near the mouth of the Fitzroy River. The site chosen was the rocky upper limit of navigation on the river. This offered an obvious, if somewhat unimaginative, name to the town. 'Rock' was simply attached to the English suffix 'Hampton' which denotes a place near water (as in Northampton, Wolverhampton, and Southampton) to produce a name which meant 'place near the rocks in the river'.
The town grew slowly with the first store being built in 1856 and the first inn appearing six months later. The discovery of gold at Canoona in 1858 resulted in a sudden influx of miners and prospectors. The rush was short lived but it did ensure a dramatic increase in the local population. Some people stayed to work on the surrounding cattle properties while others found work in Rockhampton which had grown significantly as a result of the rush.
Queensland is unique amongst the Australian states in that it has a number of genuine coastal capitals. This sense of individuality has made cities like Cairns, Townsville, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bundaberg and Maryborough independent centres which do not rely on Brisbane. It has also ensured that rural Queenslanders don't see Brisbane in the same way that people in New South Wales, for example, regard Sydney.
It is worth noting that when Queensland became an independent colony the people of Rockhampton were eager to establish themselves as an independent state. They certainly didn't appreciate being answerable to politicians in Brisbane. From the early 1860s Rockhampton was the home of an active and committed secession movement.
Rockhampton continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. It was lucky to have a series of industries surrounding it which ensured its continuing prosperity. There was wool which inevitably, because of the climate, gave way to cattle. Today Rockhampton proudly declares itself the 'Beef Cattle Capital of Australia'.
It is not easy to forget that today the city's wealth is largely based on the cattle industry which surrounds it. Reminders exist at both the northern and southern ends of town where the visitor is greeted by life size statues of bulls in the median strip. There is also a huge 'big bull' on top of a shopping complex at the southern end of town.
The city's early wealth was built on the gold which was discovered in the hinterland. The first wave of miners in the 1860s did not have a major impact on the development of the city. It was the later discoveries, particularly at Mount Morgan (q.v.), which created the wealth out of which the city's stately buildings were constructed.
Mining began at Mount Morgan in 1882. On 22 July 1882 the Morgan brothers, after whom the town is named, pegged out a gold mining lease on Ironstone Mountain (Mount Morgan).
The Morgans, with some Rockhampton businessmen, formed a six man partnership to mine the mountain. All the partners became fabulously rich. One of the partners in the syndicate was Thomas Skarrat Hall whose brother's widow donated some of the Mount Morgan fortune to a fund which established the famous Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne.
Another partner was William Knox D'Arcy, who having made an incredible £6 million from his share in the mine by 1889, went to London and later made another fortune when he financed drilling for oil in Persia (modern day Iran), which led to the formation of the famous BP Company.
Some of the money from Mount Morgan inevitably found its way to the port. Many of Rockhampton's more ostentatious buildings were constructed from the wealth of the Mount Morgan goldmine.
In recent times Rockhampton has been sustained by the mining activities in the Bowen Basin where towns like Blackwater, Dysart and Moura produce vast quantities of coal which is transported to the coast by rail and shipped overseas. Rockhampton with its population of over 60 000 and its specialist services has become the centre for the mining towns which lie beyond the Great Dividing Range.
Among the city's more famous sons and daughters are the novelist Ernestine Hill (1900-1972) who wrote My Love Must Wait, a popular account of the life of Matthew Flinders, Vincent Gair (Premier of Queensland 1952-57, leading member of the famous Labor Party split, Federal Senator 1964-74 and Ambassador to Ireland after Gough Whitlam managed to remove him from the Senate with the offer of an overseas posting which was heavy with irony) and Rod Laver, the man reputed to be the greatest tennis player ever.