Originally inhabited by the Aboriginal people for over 40,000 years, Cape York is estimated to have had a population of between 250,000 and 1 million people at the time of the first European contact. The first European explorer to make contact with Cape York was Edmund Kennedy in 1846. Attempting an overland expedition to the tip of the cape for the potential establishment of an East Indies trade port, 13 men left Rockingham Bay in 1848 however only three survived in what is described as one of Australian explorations greatest disasters. By 1865 Cape York had finally been conquered and less than a decade later, more European settlers flocked to the peninsula with the discovery of gold and the advent of mining in 1873. However gold mining collapsed and the population declined rapidly leaving a diminished pastoral industry.
Gold mining in nearby townships continued and Cape York managed to stay afloat through a reduced cattle industry and small scale tin and gold mining. The outbreak of World War II saw development in Cape York increase rapidly with aerodromes and military efforts constructed in the region. The influence this had on the region can be seen in the further development of infrastructure including public transport, making Cape York more accessible. Shortly after, Brahman cattle were introduced and thrived in the tropical climate, stimulating a revival in the beef industry thanks to demand from the American market. The mid 1960s continued to boot prosperity with extensive investment from the USA however when cattle prices unexpectedly dropped in 1974 and the eradication of Tuberculosis began in the 1980s, the area's economy was once again on the decline.
However the town continued to survive on the large scale bauxite mining taking place in Weipa and production continued to increase, contributing to and sustaining the population. Soon after, Cooktown began to establish a tourism industry and a shire council which not only saw an increase in population but also began to attract many more visitors to the region each year. With the introduction of the tourism industry, the Cape York now welcomes approximately 80,000 tourists per year in total with 60,000 visiting Cooktown and the lower peninsula while 20,000 make their way to the top of the peninsula and the tip of Cape York.