The Yaegl people had lived in this area for 60,000 years before the first white man arrived. Matthew Flinders visited briefly in July 1799 looking for a big river which would give access to land suitable for the establishment of new convict settlement, since Port Jackson was bursting at the seams and barely able to feed its involuntary inhabitants. However he mistook the river entrance for a bay which he named Shoal Bay and then sailed on to Moreton Bay.
Around 1830 an escaped convict named Richard Craig, trying to make his way back to Sydney, came upon the ‘Big River’ (Clarence). He reported on arrival at Port Macquarie that there were great stands of valuable cedar there, so in 1838 the first settlers arrived in Thomas Small’s schooner, the “Susan”. After clearing the cedar they settled on the fertile river flats to raise cattle and to grow grain.
The discovery of the Clarence River changed the traditional lifestyle for the Yaegl people and they became fringe dwellers.
The first permanent European residents of Clarence Heads (as Yamba was then known) were the crew of the signal station set up on Pilot Hill in 1854 under Captain Frances Freeburn. Their work was vital as the dangerous bar at the river mouth threatened the growing commercial importance of the region as people and supplies moved in and out of the river entrance.
In response to agitation to have the entrance made safe, the government allocated money for harbour works to begin in 1862. This led to an influx of workers and the establishments of commercial enterprises to provide them with housing, food and other services.