Pitcairn was uninhabited when discovered by Philip Carteret in 1767. Pitcairn was the name of the midshipman who first observed it.
The island was destined to become the scene of a curious social experiment. On the 28th of April 1789 a mutiny broke out on board the Bounty, then employed by the British government in conveying young bread fruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies. The commander, Lieutenant William Bligh, was set adrift in the launch with part of the crew, but managed to make his way to Timor in the Malay Archipelago. The 25 mutineers at first all returned to Tahiti. Some remained, and six of these were ultimately court-martialled in England, three being executed in 1792. Meanwhile in 1790 a party consisting of Fletcher Christian, the leader of the mutiny, eight Englishmen, six Polynesian men and twelve Polynesian women had taken possession of Pitcairn Island and burned the Bounty. Treachery and debauchery filled the first years of the annals of the beautiful island. By 1800 all the men were dead except Alexander Smith, afterwards known as John Adams, who rose to a sense of his responsibility and successfully trained up the youthful generation left in his charge.
An American vessel, the Topaze, discovered the strange colony in 1808; again, by accident, it was visited by the Briton, Captain Sir F. Staines, and the Tagus, Captain Pipon, in 1817; and by the exploring ship Blossom in 1825. On the death of John Adams on the 28th of March 1829, George Hunn Nobbs, who had settled at Pitcairn in 1828, was appointed pastor and chief magistrate. Through fear of drought the islanders moved to Tahiti in 1830, but disapproved of both the climate and the morals of this island, and returned to Pitcairn in 1831. Shortly after this an adventurer named Joshua Hill appeared, and, claiming government authority, tyrannized over the islanders until his removal by a British man-of-war in 1838. In 1856 all the islanders were landed on Norfolk Island, but in 1858 two families chose to return, and their example was afterwards followed by a few others. Visited in 1873 and 1878 the colony was found to be thriving, but by the end of the century it was stated that intermarriage was a serious threat to the long term future of the island.