The discovery of stone implements near the Swan River suggests that Mooro, the site on which the city of Perth now stands, has been occupied for around 40,000 years. The indigenous Wadjuk people, a subgroup of the Noongar, believed that the Swan River (Derbal Yaragan) and the landforms surrounding it were shaped by two Wargal (giant serpentlike creatures), which lived under present-day Kings Park.
In December 1696 three ships in the Dutch fleet commanded by Willem de Vlamingh anchored off Rottnest Island. On 5 January 1697 a well-armed party landed near present-day Cottesloe Beach. They tried to make contact with the local people to enquire about survivors of the Ridderschap van Hollant, lost in 1694, but were unsuccessful, so they sailed north. It was de Vlamingh who bestowed the name Swan on the river.
Modern Perth was founded in 1829 when Captain James Stirling established the Swan River Colony, and named the main settlement after the Scottish home town of the British Secretary of State for the Colonies. The original settlers paid for their own passage and that of their servants, and received 200 acres for every labourer they brought with them.
At the time Mooro belonged to a Wadjuk leader called Yellagonga and his people. Relations were friendly at first, the Noongar believing the British to be the returned spirits of their dead, but competition for resources led to conflict. Yellagonga moved his camp first to Lake Monger, but by the time he died in 1843 his people had been dispossessed of all of their lands and were forced to camp around swamps and lakes to the north.
Midgegooroo, an elder from south of the Swan River, along with his son Yagan, led resistance to the British settlement. In 1833 Midgegooroo was caught and executed by firing squad, while Yagan was shot a few months later by teenage settlers whom he had befriended. Yagan's head was removed, smoked and sent to London, where it was publicly displayed as an anthropological curiosity.
Life for the settlers was much harder than they had expected. The early settlement grew very slowly until 1850, when convicts alleviated the labour shortage and boosted the population. Convicts constructed the city's substantial buildings, including Government House and the Town Hall. Yet Perth's development lagged behind that of the cities in the eastern colonies until the discovery of gold inland in the 1890s. Perth's population increased by 400% within a decade and a building bonanza commenced.
The mineral wealth of WA has continued to drive Perth's growth. In the 1980s and '90s, though, the city's clean-cut, nouveau-riche image was tainted by a series of financial and political scandals.
Western Australia's 21st-century mining boom has cooled slightly in recent years, but there are still plenty of Aussie dollars awash in the state's economy, and Perth continues to blossom like WA's wildflowers in spring. Major civic works include a new football stadium, and visitors to Perth can witness ongoing work on two major reboots of the central city's urban landscape.
The City Link project will transform the area between Northbridge and the CBD. At the opposite end of the CBD, the Elizabeth Quay development is adding parks and retail and hospitality precincts to the riverfront land between Barrack and William Sts. Having turned its back on the river for many decades, downtown Perth will once again link with the silvery waters of the Swan. See www.getthebiggerpicture.com.au for information on these developments.
Largely excluded from this race to riches have been the Noongar people. In 2006 the Perth Federal Court recognised native title over the city of Perth and its surrounds, but this finding was appealed by the WA and Commonwealth governments. In December 2009 an agreement was signed in WA's parliament, setting out a time frame for negotiating settlement of native-title claims across the southwest. In mid-2015, a $1.3-billion native-title deal was settled by the WA government recognising the Noongar people as the traditional owners of the southwest. Covering over 200,000 sq km, the settlement region stretches from Jurien Bay to Ravensthorpe, and includes the Perth metropolitan area.