The 2011 census recorded the Rockhampton urban area with a population of 61,724 people. Rockhampton hosts a significant number of governmental, community and major business administrative offices for the central part of the state.
Rockhampton experiences over 300 days of sunshine each year, which lends itself to tourism activities all year round and an abundance of outdoor activities. Popular attractions include Riverbank Parklands, a riverfront parkland attraction located on the banks of Fitzroy River; the Capricorn Coast, the coastal strip between Yeppoon and Emu Park and Great Keppel Island, a large neighbouring island off the Capricorn Coast, the vast majority of which is national park.
The European history of the area began in 1853, when the area that would become Rockhampton was visited by the Archer brothers Charles and William, who were seeking grazing lands. They were acting on information from earlier expeditions by Ludwig Leichhardt and Thomas Mitchell, who had explored the area in 1844 and 1846 and noted suitable land for grazing then.
In January 1854, the New South Wales Government proclaimed two new districts: Port Curtis and Leichhardt (roughly today's Fitzroy Region), and settlement began in earnest in 1855.
The Fitzroy River provided a convenient waterway for shipping of supplies for those who followed them, and a settlement grew on the riverbanks just downstream of a bar of rocks which prevented further upstream navigation from the coast. These rocks were incorporated with the traditional English term for a village, and the name "Rockhampton" was first used.
In 1856, the Elliott brothers arrived at Gracemere and soon after, took up landholdings at Canoona, north of present-day Yaamba. There, Philip Elliott and his party came under attack from the Darumbals, possibly of the Taroomball tribe. Elliott was seriously wounded by a spear and one of his men was killed. However, Elliott had brought with his party a contingent of native police who turned near-certain loss into victory. It was the first of many battles.
By 1861, the town boasted a regular newspaper, banks, court house and School of Arts. Direct shipments of imported goods and migrants from the United Kingdom began to be received during the 1860s. During the 1860s and 1870s Rockhampton developed as the main port for the developing Central Queensland hinterland; the main export at that time being wool.
The significant gold deposit at Mount Morgan to the southwest was discovered in the 1880s, and Rockhampton became the main port through which the wealth of Mount Morgan gold was channelled. Due to the wealth of Mount Morgan, Rockhampton weathered the severe economic depression of the 1890s and many of the town's substantial brick and stone public buildings date from this period. The historic streetscape of Quay Street still displays a number of substantial historic buildings, built when Rockhampton was envisaged as being capital of a state of North Queensland. Most prominent of these is the sandstone Customs House (1900), which today houses an information centre. Other important nineteenth century buildings include the Post Office (1892), the Supreme Court House (1888), and St Joseph's Cathedral (1892).
The City of Rockhampton was proclaimed in 1902. The rail connection south to Brisbane was completed in 1903, but it was not until 1921 that the northern connection to Mackay was finally completed. A railway west from Rockhampton was started in 1867 and by 1892 had reached the terminus at Longreach, 700 kilometres away. This further strengthened Rockhampton's role as the port for the whole of Central Queensland.
During the Second World War, a US army base was established outside the city; it hosted up to 70,000 servicemen en route to action in the Pacific and New Guinea.
The Fitzroy River Barrage was commissioned in 1971. The barrage has a capacity of 81,300 megalitres and holds back a lake 60 kilometres long. The barrage was funded by the City Council to provide a reliable source of water to the city, and to effectively drought proof Rockhampton.
In 2003, Rockhampton was the centre of significant national media interest after local teenager Natasha Ryan was found in her boyfriend, Scott Black's North Rockhampton home after being missing for five years. Ryan had been presumed to be murdered.