Grand Turk was first colonised in 1681 by Bermudians, who set up the salt industry in the islands. In 1766 it became the capital of the country. For some time, at least until the early 19th century, Grand Turk was often referred to as Grand Cay, not to be confused with either Grand Cay in the Bahamas or Grand Cayman.
The name comes from a species of cactus on the island, the Turk's Cap Cactus, which has a distinctive cap, reminiscent of an Ottoman fez.
Grand Turk gained international attention in 1962 when John Glenn's Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft landed in the vicinity of Grand Turk Island off the southeast shoreline. A replica of the Friendship 7 is on display in Grand Turk at the entrance to the Grand Turk Island airport.
In 1966 at least five Arcas sounding rockets were launched from Grand Turk Island by the USA.
Grand Turk has been put forward as the possible landfall island of Christopher Columbus during his first voyage to the New World in 1492. San Salvador Island or Samana Cay in the Bahamas is traditionally identified with Guanahani, the site of Columbus' first landfall, but some believe that studies of Columbus' journals show that his descriptions of Guanahani much more closely fit Grand Turk than they do other candidates. Magnetic variations that caused misreadings in Columbus' compasses demonstrate that several of the recorded moorings using a rope-secured anchor to a clear sandy bottom would not have been possible had Columbus sailed from the islands of the Bahamas. In addition, the latitudes recorded in Columbus' diary place the landfall island at 90 nautical miles from Hispaniola, too close for the Bahamas, but almost exactly the distance from Grand Turk.
On the contrary, historian Gregory McIntosh has concluded that Grand Turk was not Guanahani but Babueca, an island separately discovered by Martín Alonso Pinzón in November - December 1492.
Grand Turk Lighthouse was erected in 1852 near northern end of the island. The 60 ft. lighthouse was designed by Alexander Gordon and built by Chance Brothers in England. It was shipped in pieces and assembled on Grand Turk.