Prior to European settlement, the Brisbane area was inhabited by the Turrbal and Jagera people. They knew the area that is now the central business district as Mian-jin, meaning "place shaped as a spike". The Moreton Bay area was initially explored by Matthew Flinders. On 17 July 1799, Flinders landed at what is now known as Woody Point, which he named "Red Cliff Point" after the red-coloured cliffs visible from the bay. In 1823 Governor of New South Wales Sir Thomas Brisbane instructed that a new northern penal settlement be developed, and an exploration party led by John Oxley further explored Moreton Bay.
Oxley discovered, named, and explored the Brisbane River as far as Goodna, 20 kilometres upstream from the Brisbane central business district. Oxley recommended Red Cliff Point for the new colony, reporting that ships could land at any tide and easily get close to the shore. The party settled in Redcliffe on 13 September 1824, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Miller with 14 soldiers (some with wives and children) and 29 convicts. However, this settlement was abandoned after a year and the colony was moved to a site on the Brisbane River now known as North Quay, 28 km (17 mi) south, which offered a more reliable water supply. Chief Justice Forbes gave the new settlement the name of Edenglassie before it was named Brisbane. Non-convict European settlement of the Brisbane region commenced in 1838.
German missionaries settled at Zions Hill, Nundah as early as 1837, five years before Brisbane was officially declared a free settlement. The band consisted of ministers Christopher Eipper (1813–1894) and Carl Wilhelm Schmidt and lay missionaries Haussmann, Johann Gottried Wagner, Niquet, Hartenstein, Zillman, Franz, Rode, Doege and Schneider. They were allocated 260 hectares and set about establishing the mission, which became known as the German Station.
Free settlers entered the area over the following five years and by the end of 1840 Robert Dixon began work on the first plan of Brisbane Town, in anticipation of future development. Queensland was separated from New South Wales by Letters Patent dated 6 June 1859, proclaimed by Sir George Ferguson Bowen on 10 December 1859, whereupon he became Queensland's first governor, with Brisbane chosen as its capital, although it was not incorporated as a city until 1902.
Over twenty small municipalities and shires were amalgamated in 1925 to form the City of Brisbane, governed by the Brisbane City Council. 1930 was a significant year for Brisbane with the completion of Brisbane City Hall, then the city's tallest building and the Shrine of Remembrance, in ANZAC Square, which has become Brisbane's main war memorial. These historic buildings, along with the Story Bridge which opened in 1940, are key landmarks that help define the architectural character of the city.
During World War II, Brisbane became central to the Allied campaign when the AMP Building (now called MacArthur Central) was used as the South West Pacific headquarters for General Douglas MacArthur, chief of the Allied Pacific forces, until his headquarters were moved to Hollandia in August 1944. MacArthur had previously rejected use of the University of Queensland complex as his headquarters, as the distinctive bends in the river at St Lucia could have aided enemy bombers. Also used as a headquarters by the American troops during World War II was the T & G Building. About one million US troops passed through Australia during the war, as the primary co-ordination point for the South West Pacific. In 1942 Brisbane was the site of a violent clash between visiting US military personnel and Australian servicemen and civilians which resulted in one death and hundreds of injuries. This incident became known colloquially as the Battle of Brisbane.
Postwar Brisbane had developed a "big country town" stigma, an image the city's politicians and marketers were very keen to remove. In the late 1950s an anonymous poet known as The Brisbane Bard generated much attention on the city which helped shake this stigma. Despite steady growth, Brisbane's development was punctuated by infrastructure problems. The State government under Joh Bjelke-Petersen began a major program of change and urban renewal, beginning with the central business district and inner suburbs. Trams in Brisbane were a popular mode of public transport until the network was closed in 1969, leaving Melbourne as the last Australian city to operate a tram network until recently.
The 1974 Brisbane flood was a major disaster which temporarily crippled the city. During this era, Brisbane grew and modernised rapidly becoming a destination of interstate migration. Some of Brisbane's popular landmarks were lost, including the Bellevue Hotel in 1979 and Cloudland in 1982, demolished in controversial circumstances by the Deen Brothers demolition crew. Major public works included the Riverside Expressway, the Gateway Bridge, and later, the redevelopment of South Bank, starting with the Queensland Art Gallery.
Brisbane hosted the 1982 Commonwealth Games and the 1988 World Exposition (known locally as World Expo 88). These events were accompanied by a scale of public expenditure, construction and development not previously seen in the state of Queensland. Brisbane's population growth has exceeded the national average every year since 1990 at an average rate of around 2.2% per year.
After two decades of record population growth, Brisbane was hit again by a major flood in January 2011. The Brisbane River did not reach the same height as the previous 1974 flood but still caused extensive damage and disruption to the city. Brisbane also gained further international recognition, hosting the final Goodwill Games in 2001, more games than any other city in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, and the 2014 G-20 summit.