Human habitation of Stone Mountain and its surroundings date back into prehistory. When the mountain was first encountered by European explorers, its summit was encircled by a rock wall, similar to that still to be found on Georgia's Fort Mountain. The wall is believed to have been built by early Native American inhabitants of the area, although its purpose remains unclear. By the beginning of the 20th century the wall had disappeared, the rocks having been taken away by early visitors as souvenirs, rolled down the rockface, or removed by the commercial quarrying operation. The mountain was as well the eastern end of the Campbelton Trail, a Native American path that ran through what is now the Atlanta area.
Europeans first learned of the mountain in 1597, when Spanish explorers were told of a mountain further inland which was "very high, shining when the sun set like a fire." By this time, the Stone Mountain area was inhabited by the Creek and (to a lesser extent) Cherokee peoples. In 1790 the mountain was the site of a meeting initiated by President George Washington in hopes of negotiating a peace treaty with the Creek. Instead a series of wars ensued, and the Creek were forced to cede the land to the state of Georgia in 1821.
In the early 19th century, the area was known as Rock Mountain. After the founding of DeKalb County and the county seat of Decatur in 1822 Stone Mountain was a natural recreation area; it was common for young men to take their dates on horseback from Decatur to the mountain.
Entrepreneur Aaron Cloud built a 165 foot wooden observation tower at the summit of the mountain in 1838, but it was destroyed by a storm and replaced by a much smaller tower in 1851. Visitors to the mountain would travel to the area by rail and road, and then walk up the 1.1 mile mountaintop trail to the top, where Cloud also had a restaurant and club.
Granite quarrying started at Stone Mountain in the 1830s, but became a major industry following the completion of a railroad spur to the quarry site in 1847. This line was rebuilt by the Georgia Railroad in 1869. Over the years, Stone Mountain granite was used in many buildings and structures, including the locks of the Panama Canal, the steps to the East Wing of the United States Capitol and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. In recent years, granite suppliers in Georgia sent stone samples cut from Stone Mountain to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Foundation to be considered for use in a planned monument in King's honor; the Foundation later chose to use granite imported from China. Unfortunately, quarrying during earlier periods also destroyed several spectacular geological features on Stone Mountain, such as the Devil's Crossroads, which was located on top of the mountain.
In 1887 Stone Mountain was purchased for $45,000 by the Venable Brothers of Atlanta, who quarried the mountain for 24 more years, and descendents of the Venable family would retain ownership of the mountain until it was purchased by the State of Georgia in the 1950s.
Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned the monument in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., when he said "let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!"