The town derives its name from a word of the local Narrunga aboriginal people, moonta-monterra, meaning thick impenetrable scrub.
Copper was discovered in 1861 by shepherd Paddy Ryan, on a pastoral lease owned by Walter Watson Hughes. He was paid a reward of £6 per week for discovering the copper, but was dead in 9 months from alcoholic poisoning.
Cornish miners were recruited from Burra Burra, Kapunda, the Victorian Goldfields and from Cornwall to work in the mines. The mines closed in 1923 for economic reasons; the price of copper fell after the First World War and it was costing the Company £14 more per ton to mine it than they were getting at the smelter.
There was no reticulated water to the area until 1890 when a pipeline from the Beetaloo Reservoir in the lower Flinders Ranges was commissioned. Until then the people relied on rainfall, company built dams and soaks in the sand hills at Nalyappa. This water was sold to the miners. The water collected in the miners' underground tanks was often polluted by waste from animals and the mines themselves.
Epidemics of typhoid, cholera and diphtheria broke out. In 1873 there were 327 burials in the Moonta Cemetery. There are some 300-400 unmarked graves in the Moonta Cemetery of young children who died during these epidemics.
Until the 1890's all work underground was done by manual labour. No machines were used. The shafts were dug by hand using basic tools and blasting powder. To get from one level to another miners climbed up or down step ladders. Some shafts went as deep as 2,500 feet. The ore was hauled to the surface by horse whims.
Engine houses were built to pump the brackish mineralized water from the mines. Hughes' Pump House was constructed in 1865 and worked continuously until the mines closed in 1923. In all there was about 80 miles of shaft and drives in the area.
At its peak in the 1870's around 2000 men and boys were employed by the Company. Pickey boys were paid 11 pence per day for a 6 day week. 16 — 21 year olds averaged 3/- to 5/- per day and men over 21 averaged 5/- to 8/- per day. The miners were paid on a percentage of the value of the copper they dug out.
Moonta in the 1870's was the largest town outside of Adelaide with some 12,000 people living in the area. There were about 80 businesses in the town including 5 hotels and 3 banks. Horse trams operated from East Moonta and Hamley Flat to Moonta Bay from 1869 to 1930.
Methodism was the main religion. Some 16 churches and chapels were built in the area. The Moonta Mines Uniting Church was built in 1865 and is still in regular use. It has the largest seating capacity of any church outside of Adelaide.
The Company was initially known as the Tiparra Mining Company but later changed to the Moonta Mining Company and was financed with a loan of £80,000 from Elder Smith & Co Ltd. This loan was paid back in the first year of operation, and from then on the mine was self financing.
On 4th March 1890 the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Company was formed which all came under the control of Captain Hancock.
Captain Henry Richard Hancock was born in Devon in January 1834 and immigrated to South Australia in 1858. He was appointed Chief Captain and Superintendent of the Moonta Mine in 1864 a position he held until 1898. Upon his retirement his son Lipson took over that role which he held until just before the mines closed in 1923.