The first European settler to the area now known as Pembroke was Daniel Fraser in 1823, who squatted on land that was discovered to have been granted to a man named Abel Ward. Ward later sold the land (where Moncion's Grocers is located) to Fraser, and nearby Fraser Street is named after the family. Peter White, a veteran of the Royal Navy arrived in 1828, squatting beside Fraser on the land where Dairy Queen is now located. Other settlers followed, attracted by the growing lumbering operations of the area.
Originally named Miramich, Pembroke became a police village in 1856. Pembroke is named after Sidney Herbert, First Admiralty Secretary from 1841 to 1845 and son of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke.
Pembroke was incorporated as a town in 1878 and as a city in 1971. It was named seat for Renfrew County in 1861. This set the stage for construction shortly thereafter on the Renfrew County Courthouse, which finished in 1867, and the arrival of many civil servants, much wealth and much construction. In the 20-year period following 1861, Pembroke basically became the city it is today in terms of layout and buildings, although many homes and other structures have been lost to time. A fire in 1918 destroyed much of Pembroke's downtown.
From 2005 to 2007, the Courthouse and Jail (now non-functional) were re-constructed into one building and historic renovations were also completed. Visitors on weekdays can view original 1867 jail cells in the basement, and the original courtroom, complete with a huge replica of the original brass light fixture. County meetings were held here for many years. Three hangings occurred at the indoor gallows inside the Courthouse, two in the 1870s and one in 1952.
Other historic buildings that survive in Pembroke include a historic synagogue, two original hospitals, the Dunlop mansion (Grey Gables Manor Bed & Breakfast), the 'Munroe Block' downtown, and two houses belonging to the White family. A fire in 1918 downtown destroyed many buildings, including the Pembroke Opera House.
In 1898 it became the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke.
Local attractions include 30 historic murals in the downtown area depicting the history of the city, from steam engines to logging. Pembroke has more murals than almost any city in Canada.
The Champlain Trail Pioneer Village and Museum features costumed guides who provide interpretation for guests. The history of Ottawa Valley settlers comes alive inside the fully furnished schoolhouse, pioneer log home and church - all built in the 1800s. Other outdoor exhibits include train station, sawmill, blacksmith shop, stonelifter, carriage shed, woodworking shop, bake oven, smokehouse and a 1923 Bickle fire engine. The large museum features artifacts which range from fossils and Native Canadian arrowheads to furniture, clothing and manufactured products of Pembroke from various eras. There is also a replica of Samuel de Champlain's Astrolabe (he brought the original to the Valley in 1613), an original Cockburn pointer boat, Corliss steam engine, doctor's examination room, fancy parlour rooms, general store, hair salon and more.
The Pembroke Hydro Museum commemorates national hydro-electric development in Pembroke, including the first electric streetlights in Pembroke, and the first municipal building with electric lights (Victoria Hall).
Pembroke hosts one of the campuses of Ottawa-based Algonquin College. Among the new programs are 'Outdoor Adventure' and 'Outdoor Adventure Naturalist'.
The city is home to an annual Old Time Fiddling and Step Dancing Festival, which happens Labour Day weekend at Riverside Park. There are often up to 1400 RVs parked there for the week preceding the event. Award-winning fiddler/step dancer April Verch is a Pembroke native. It is also host to the annual Silver Stick Minor League Hockey Tournament, which brings in several hundred children and youth on weekends in November and early December for regional qualifying games.