Aboriginal settlement
- For early human settlement in Australia see Prehistory of Australia
Evidence for human activity in South Australia dates back as far as 20,000 years ago with flint mining activity and rock art in the Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain. In addition wooden spears and tools were made in an area now covered in peat bog in the South East. Kangaroo Island was inhabited long before the island was cut off by rising sea levels.
 European exploration
The first recorded European sighting of the South Australian coast was in 1627 when the Dutch ship 't Gulden Zeepaerdt (The Golden Seahorse), skippered by François Thijssen, examined the coastline. Thijssen named his discovery "Pieter Nuyts Land", after the highest ranking individual on board. British Captain Matthew Flinders and French Captain Nicolas Baudin independently charted the southern coast of the Australian continent. Baudin referred to the land as "Terre Napoléon". In 1802 Flinders named Mount Lofty but recorded little of the area which is now Adelaide.
 Establishing a colony
A group in Britain led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield were looking to start a colony based on free settlement rather than convict labour. Wakefield suggested that instead of granting free land to settlers as had happened in other colonies, the land should be sold. The money from land purchases would be used solely to transport labourers to the colony free of charge, who were responsible and skilled workers rather than paupers and convicts. Land prices needed to be high enough so that workers who saved to buy land of their own remained in the workforce long enough to avoid a labour shortage.
- "Hurried ....as my view of it was, my eye never fell on a country of more promising aspect, or more favourable position, than that which occupies the space between the lake (Lake Alexandrina) and the ranges of the St. Vincent Gulf, and, continuing northerly from Mount Barker stretches away, without any visible boundary".
Captain Collet Barker, sent by New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling conducted a more thorough survey of the area in 1831, as recommended by Sturt. After swimming the mouth of the Murray River, Barker was killed by natives who may have had contact with sealers and escaped convicts in the region. Despite this, his more detailed survey led Sturt to conclude in his 1833 report:
- "It would appear that a spot has at last been found upon the south coast of New Holland to which the colonists might venture with every prospect of success ....All who have ever landed upon the eastern shore of the St. Vincent's Gulf agree as to the richness of its soil and the abundance of its pastures."
In 1834 the South Australian Association, with the aid of such figures as George Grote, William Molesworth and the Duke of Wellington persuaded British Parliament to pass the South Australia Colonisation Act 1834. The Act stated that 802,511 square kilometres would be allotted to the colony and to be convict-free. The plan for the colony to be the ideal embodiment of the best qualities of British society, that is, no religious discrimination or unemployment. The province and its capital were named prior to settlement. The Act further specified that it was to be self-sufficient; £20,000 surety had to be created and £35,000 worth of land had to be sold in the new colony before any settlement was permitted. These conditions were fulfilled by the close of 1835.
 Colony of 1836
The first settlers and officials set sail in early 1836. A total of nine ships consisting of 636 people set sail from London for South Australia. Most took supplies and settlers to Kangaroo Island on the present site of Kingscote to await official decisions on the location and administration of the new colony.
Surveyor Colonel William Light, who was given two months to locate and survey the colony of Adelaide, rejected locations for the new settlement such as Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln and Encounter Bay. He was required to find a site with a harbour, arable land, fresh water, ready internal and external communications, building materials and drainage.
Most of the settlers were moved from Kangaroo Island to Holdfast Bay with Governor Hindmarsh arriving in December 1836 to proclaim the province of South Australia. The Port River was sighted and deemed to be a suitable harbour, however there was no fresh water available nearby.
The River Torrens was discovered to the south and Light and his team set about determining the city's precise location and layout. The survey was completed on 11 March 1837. Light's poorly paid and ill-equipped surveying team were expected to begin another massive task of surveying at least 405 km² of rural land. Light, despite slowly succumbing to tuberculosis, managed to survey 605.7 km² by June 1838.
 European settlement beyond Adelaide
The first sheep and other livestock in South Australia were brought in from Tasmania. Sheep were overlanded from New South Wales from 1838, with the wool industry forming the basis of South Australia's economy for the first few years. Vast tracts of land were leased by "Squatters" until required for agriculture. Once the land was surveyed it was put up for sale and the Squatters had to buy their runs or move on. Most bought their land when it came up for sale, disadvantaging farmers who had a hard time finding good and unoccupied land. Farms took longer to establish than sheep runs and were expensive to set up. Despite this by 1860 wheat farms ranged from Encounter Bay in the south to Clare in the north.
Copper was discovered near Kapunda in 1842. In 1845 even larger deposits of copper were discovered at Burra which brought wealth to the Adelaide shopkeepers who invested in the mine. John Ridley invented a reaping machine in 1843 which changed farming methods throughout South Australia and the nation at large. By 1843, 93 km² of land was growing wheat (compared to 0.08 km² in 1838). Toward the end of the century South Australia would become known as the "granary of Australia".
Gold discoveries in Victoria in 1851 brought a severe labour shortage in Adelaide which was created by the exodus of workers leaving to seek their fortunes on the goldfields. High demand for South Australian wheat was created however. The situation improved when prospectors returned with their gold finds.
South Australians were keen to establish trade links with Victoria and New South Wales, however overland transport was too slow. A £4,000 prize was offered in 1850 by the South Australian government for the first two people to navigate the River Murray in an iron steamboat as far as its junction with the Darling River. In 1853 William Randell of Mannum and Francis Cadell of Adelaide, unintentionally making the attempt at the same time, raced each other to Swan Hill with Cadell coming in first.
South Australia became a Self-governing colony in 1856 with the ratification of a new constitution by the British parliament. Secret ballots were introduced, and a bicameral parliament was elected on 9 March 1857, by which time 109,917 people lived in the province.
During John McDouall Stuart's 1862 expedition to the north coast of Australia he discovered 200,000 km² of grazing territory to the west of Lake Torrens and Lake Eyre. South Australia was made responsible for the administration of the Northern Territory.
In the 1890's Australia was affected by a severe economic depression. Financial institutions in Melbourne and banks in Sydney closed. The national fertility rate fell and immigration was reduced to a trickle. The value of South Australia's exports nearly halved. Drought and poor harvests from 1884 compounded the problems with some families leaving for Western Australia. Adelaide was not as badly hit as the larger gold-rush cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and silver and lead discoveries at Broken Hill provided some relief.
 20th Century
28,000 men were sent to fight in World War I. Adelaide enjoyed a post-war boom but with the return of droughts, entered the depression of the 1930's, later returning to prosperity with strong government leadership. Secondary industries helped reduce the state's dependence on primary industries. The 1933 census recorded the state population at 580,949 which was less of an increase than other states due to the state's economic limitations.
After World War II, an assisted migration scheme brought 215,000 emigrants of all nationalities to South Australia between 1947 and 1973.
 See also
- Timeline of South Australian history
- Australian Overland Telegraph Line
- List of cities and towns in South Australia
- Proclamation Day
- South Australia-Victoria border dispute
- Stobie pole
- British nuclear tests at Maralinga
- Goyder's Line
- Susan Marsden 'South Australia' in G Davison, J Hirst, S MacIntyre, eds, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne (1998) ISBN 0-19-553597-9
- Elizabeth Kwan Living in South Australia: A Social History Volume 1:From Before 1836 to 1914 (1987)
- Derek Whitelock Adelaide: From Colony to Jubilee (1985)
- Dorothy Jauncey, Bardi Grubs and Frog Cakes — South Australian Words, Oxford University Press (2004) ISBN 0-19-551770-9