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While James Cook named the main headland on the island Cape Morton in May 1770, it was at that time assumed to be part of the mainland. The current spelling came about because of a clerical error later. It was Matthew Flinders who, on 31 July 1799, named the island.
The islands contains numerous shell middens, indicating Aboriginal occupation of the island for at least 2000 years. Up to 330 cultural sites have been recorded and include shell and bone scatters, large shell middens and a stone quarry. European residents settled on the island in 1848, when the Amity Point pilot's station on North Stradbroke Island was relocated to Moreton Island. The move was due to several shipping disasters through the South Passage after the Sovereign shipwrecked on the island and a pilot station was established at Bulwer. This pilot station was operated until 1909. The northern end of Moreton Island became the main passage to Brisbane. In 1857, convicts built Queensland's first lighthouse from local sandstone at Cape Moreton. These days the light is fully automated. A further signal light was built at Cowan Cowan in 1874, followed by a lighthouse in 1899.
A telegraph line was built in the 1890s to service the Cape Moreton lighthouse and link North Stradbroke Island, Kooringal and Bulwer with the lighthouse. In 1952 the line was abandoned, but relics of the old line are still visible along the Bulwer to North Point track and the Telegraph Road.
As the Brisbane settlement grew, shipping activity increased, which led to many shipwrecks and much loss of life at sea. Graves of some of those who perished remain on the island today near Bulwer.
Queensland's only whaling station operated at Tangalooma from 1952 to 1962. Remains of the whaling station are now part of the Tangalooma Resort facilities.
Major coastal defence bases were located on Moreton Island during the world wars. In World War I, Cowan Cowan Point provided the main defence base. World War II saw two large defence battery complexes built, one at Cowan Cowan and the second on the east side of the island the Rous Battery. During this war, the Rous Battery track, Middle Road, and a naval base and jetty were built at Tangalooma. The remains of the batteries and a variety of other relics are still present and contain items of historic interest. Their purpose was to protect the approaches to the port of Brisbane and at its peak 900 troops were stationed on the island.
Between 1952 and 1962, Tangalooma, on the western side of the island, was the site of Queensland's only whaling station, with humpback whales being harvested on their annual migration north. Each season up to 600 whales were processed with a maximum of 11 whales per day. The site of the whaling station is now the Tangalooma Wild Dolphin Resort. The flensing plan of the station still exists as part of the resort.