Before its exploration by Allan Cunningham in 1827, the Inverell district was included as part of the taurai (hunting ground or territory) of five Aboriginal tribes. Following in the explorer's steps, squatters moved into the district from about 1835, establishing large sheep and cattle stations. While some squatters and their employees lived peaceably with the Aborigines, others were determined to exploit or eradicate them. In June 1838 the Myall Creek massacre occurred 35km from present Inverell. This became famous in Australian history because it was the first time that white men were punished (hung) for killing Aborigines. It was not an isolated incident. Subsequent massacres went unreported.
Many of the early property owners came from Scotland, bringing with them their Presbyterian faith, Gaelic language and Scottish customs. One, Alexander Campbell, gave Inverell its name, made of two Gaelic words - "Inv" a meeting place and "Ell" swans, so named because of the many swans in the area at that time. Campbell arrived in Australia in 1824 and was employed by Peter Macintyre in the Hunter Valley. Macintyre, also a Scotsman, had been formerly employed by Lord Gwydir and then T.P. Macqueen – a British MP who invested large sums of money in NSW and thus received substantial land grants of 20,000 acres. Macintyre was in charge of Macqueen's Australian ventures and arrived in NSW in 1825.
During the period Peter McIntyre owned "Byron Plains", the Andersons had "Newstead" and the Borthwick family "Auburn Vale". In 1853 the McIntyres invited Colin and Rosanna Ross to come to the hill overlooking Green Swamp and set up a store on Byron Station land. They did so, but soon the settlement moved onto the flat area, the present CBD, which was on Inverell Station land. The area proved to be flood-prone but was marked out as a town by Surveyor Henderson in 1856 and the first lots sold in 1859. The public school opened in 1862 and the area was incorporated as a municipality in 1872.
Inverell grew slowly until 1871 when the first viable tin deposits in Australia were discovered at Elsmore and Tingha and soon after more mines soon dotted the granite belt. Tin remained significant in Inverell's economy for over a century. Many of the miners were from China, others from Cornwall and others were former gold miners.
From the late 1860s selectors moved in to the big stations, and a degree of closer settlement took place.
During the 1890s the district suffered from climatic extremes and economic depression but two new mineral sources, silver and diamonds began to be exploited. The basic streetscape of Inverell's Otho Street reflects the prosperity of the period from 1888-1914.
After the breaking of the 1902 drought the mines were flourishing and as well official closer settlement began - the first in NSW was the government division of Myall Creek into 135 farms creating the township of Delungra. It was during this period, between 1901-1909, that the New South Wales parliament introduced Closer Settlement Acts. The purpose of these Acts was to reform land holdings and in particular to break the squatters' domination of land tenure.
The arrival of Inverell's railway in 1901, as a branch line from Moree, permitted the introduction of dairying, which remained an important industry until the mid-1950s. From the 1860s wheat was grown successfully on Inverell's soils. The most fertile are the black soil river flats, but crops also flourish on lighter soils. Large numbers of sheep and cattle have been run since the early days of settlement. During the first half of the 20th century the country areas around Inverell were thickly populated with farmers and miners and small villages flourished everywhere, but the majority of these declined into insignificance during the second part of the 20th century, particularly after the closure of many small schools in the late 1960s.
The town of Inverell has suffered changes common to the rest of Australia, with two world wars, a depression and the slow decline of small mixed farming since the mid-1960s. While the district is not as prone to drought as most other areas of NSW, the town was flooded seriously in 1955 and again in 1991.
Since the 1950s Inverell has developed into a regional centre. Its shopping centre competes favourably with Armidale, and business comes to Inverell from a very wide area of the north-west. However, the rural population around Inverell has declined and Inverell's own population has been constant at around 10,000 for the past 30 years. The area has a strong tourist industry, based on the two large dams Copeton and Pindari.
Further information about the history of the Inverell district can be obtained from the Inverell Shire Public Library.