There are some 42 islands in this chain. They take the name 'Turk' from the local red turks head cactus and the name 'Caicos' from the word Cays (a small, low-elevation sandy island). Columbus must have passed these islands on the way to the Bahamas in 1492. The first settlers on Turks arrived in 1680. They came from Bermuda, ostensibly to collect salt, but in fact to trade with pirates who were operating out of the Turks.
The French seized the island in 1753 but later withdrew. They again attacked the islands in 1764 and then occupied it from 1765 until 1783 when it was returned to British control under the Treaty of Versailles terms ending the American War of Independence.
After the American War of Independence, many Loyalists fled to British Caribbean colonies from the 13 colonies. Some of these settled on the Caicos Islands. They developed cotton as an important cash crop, but it was superseded by the development of the salt industry.
In 1799, the Turks and Caicos Islands were formally attached to the colony of the Bahamas for administrative purposes. By this time, the population of the islands exceeded 5,000 (including slave), with many additional labourers arriving seasonally to help work the salt ponds. However, this was an unhappy linking to Bahamas as many of the descendants regarded themselves as behing of Bermudian rather than Bahamian descent. In 1848, Britain finally designated the Turks and Caicos as a separate colony under its own council president but under the superintendence of Jamaica.
Unlike most other Caribbean colonies, the Turks and Caicos did not develop large plantations dependent upon slaves. Slaves did provide an important labour pool for the salt ponds. However, the African population of the islands was augmented throughout the Nineteenth Century by shipwrecked slaving vessels often evading Royal Navy anti-slavery patrols. This infusion of free African survivors gave a distinctive slant to the local culture.
In 1873, the islands were transferred directly under Jamaica Colony control. Although resented by many settlers at the time, this transfer did provide the Turks and Caicos with much needed medical and technical assistance and the ability to receive substantial financial grants and infrastructure spending.
The islands remained a Jamaican colony until Jamaica achieved its own independence in 1962. At this point, they were transferred to Bahamian control once more. This was not a happy union particularly after the Bahamas established a huge modern salt plant which caused a collapse in the all important salt production of the Turks and Caicos islands in 1964. When the Bahamas became independent in 1973, the islands returned once more to British Crown Colony status, which it enjoys to this day.