The mouth of the Swan River was an important area for the Wadjuk people – a hub along trading paths. Some of these routes exist to this day in the form of modern roads. Before the harbour was altered, the mouth of the river was nearly covered by a sandbar and it was only a short swim from north to south. The confluence of the river and ocean, where Fremantle now stands, was known as Manjaree (sometimes translated as 'gathering place'). The Fremantle coast was called Booyeembara, while inland was Wallyalup, 'place of the eagle'.
Manjaree was mainly occupied in summer, when the Wadjuk would base themselves here to fish. In winter they would head further inland, avoiding seasonal flooding.
Fremantle's European history began when the ship HMS Challenger landed here in 1829. The ship's captain, Charles Fremantle, took possession of the whole of the west coast 'in the name of King George IV', despite the presence of land's obvious owners (…try pulling this stunt in a block of Fremantle flats these days and see what the owners think). Like Perth, the settlement made little progress until convict power put a rocket under proceedings. Convicts hand-built most of the town's earliest buildings; some of them, such as the Round House, Fremantle Prison and Fremantle Arts Centre, are now among the oldest in WA.
As a port, Fremantle didn't do a whole lot until the esteemed engineer CY O'Connor created an artificial harbour in the 1890s, destroying the Wadjuks' river crossing in the process. This caused such disruption to their traditional patterns of life that it's said that a curse was placed on O'Connor; some took his later suicide at Fremantle as evidence of its effectiveness.
The port blossomed during the gold rush and many of its distinctive buildings date from this period. Economic stagnation in the 1960s and 1970s spared the streetscape from the worst ravages of modernisation. It wasn't until 1987, when Fremantle hosted the America's Cup yacht race, that it transformed itself from a sleepy port town into today's artsy city. The Cup was lost that year, but the legacy of a redeveloped waterfront remains.