The Great Southern supported a significant population of Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years before Europeans started exploring the Southern Hemisphere. Excavations beside the Kalgan River show continued habitation by Aboriginal people from about 20,000 years ago.
At the time of the first European contact, Albany was the home of the Menang Noongar people. They called the area Kinjarling which means ‘the place of rain’.
Europeans began exploring along the southern coastline in 1626 when the Dutch ship Gulden Zeepaert sailed past, charting major features. English explorer George Vancouver entered and named King George Sound, the site of present day Albany, in 1791. Vancouver took possession of New Holland (at the time mainly used in reference to Western Australia) for the British Crown on 26 September of that year.
Albany is the oldest continuous European settlement in Western Australia. The King George Sound settlement was founded in 1826, three years before the Swan River Colony, now Perth. The settlement at King George Sound was a hastily-established British military outpost intended to forestall any plans by France for settlements in the area.
Soon after the establishment of the outpost at King George Sound and the arrival of the settlers in the Swan River Colony in 1829, the importance of overland contact between the two was recognised. John Bannister made the first overland trip between the two settlements in 1831. John Septimus Roe mounted an expedition south of the Swan River Colony in 1835 and traversed vast areas, including what is now Gnowangerup Shire, naming the Stirling Range, and through the Cranbrook area to Albany.
Following Roe's reports, settlers realised the potential of the region. In 1847 the government introduced a system of grazing land leases to regulate the squatters who pastured their flocks on Crown land.
During this period a relatively small (but important at the time) sandalwood cutting industry developed. Sandalwood was exported to China from Bremer Bay and Albany.
Early economic activity in the central Great Southern was dominated by leaseholders grazing sheep. Little major development was undertaken. Towns developed along the Perth-Albany Road, including Williams and Kojonup.
A rail link between Perth and Albany was completed in 1889. The Western Australian Land Company was granted huge tracts of land as part of the contract to build the railway line. Towns were established along the line by the company, at Katanning, Broomehill and Cranbrook, with sidings at Tambellup and Yarabin (Woodanilling).
The company sold off rural land to recoup its costs, bringing a new pattern of settlers on smaller holdings establishing themselves as primary producers.
Late in the 19th century, during the Western Australian gold rush to Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, many people migrated from drought-affected South Australia. When the gold rush abated, prospectors began to move to the Great Southern and establish themselves.
Albany took a place in Australian history in 1914 when the first Anzac convoy gathered in King George Sound en route to Egypt in preparation for the landing at Gallipoli. Albany's Anzac connection continued when Padre Arthur White conducted what many believe to be the first Anzac Day dawn service on Mount Clarence, overlooking the Sound from which the troops sailed to war.
Following World War I there was an influx of ex-servicemen when the Soldier Settlements were established. The end of World War II saw new soldier settlements and a further influx of migrants to the area.
All of the towns in the area developed along similar lines with the establishment of facilities such as stores, hotels, boarding houses, commercial buildings, schools, halls and community buildings. Katanning, half-way along the new railway line, grew into the commercial hub of the central Great Southern.
Today, the Great Southern is thriving. Many small farms which were allocated to ex-servicemen and migrant settlers have been amalgamated into larger, more viable holdings which are being successfully farmed. The trend of recent decades of movement away from rural areas throughout Australia has abated in the region and the population of the Great Southern is relatively stable.