Humans have been living in Opsterland since around 150,000 BC, which was proved by the discovery of 'the hand axe of Wijnjeterp'. Opsterland wasn't called Opsterland at the time, of course.

We also know that people lived in Opsterland around 15,000 BC, however we have no proof of people living in Opsterland in the intermediary period.  We know that people lived in the area around 15,000 BC due to the artefacts which have been unearthed in Opsterland.   In the Fries Museum, you can admire stone tools, bronze artefacts and pottery fragments found in Opsterland.   A number of very special finds, such as the hand axe of Wijnjeterp, can be seen in the permanent exhibition in the Opsterlân Museum in Gorredijk.

The name Opsterland was first used in 1395, though in a somewhat different form than now: Upsateraland.   Up meant 'on', and sater 'sitting on'.  'Opsterlanders' – people from Opsterland – are therefore 'opzitters'. That is to say, people living high up on the sand.  This region was also called Superhaudmare during the 14th century.  Loosely translated, this means 'above-main-stream'.  The main stream in this instance is the river which forms the heart of Opsterland, the Alddijp (also called Koningsdiep). Opsterland is now renowned for its beautiful forest around the villages of Beetsterzwaag, Olterterp, Wijnjewoude en Bakkeveen. However, this has not always been the case. 


The planting of the forests began in the 18th century, and primarily took place during the 19th century.  Before that, Opsterland's landscape was open and spacious.  In that space, the villages were spread out along the Alddijp.  Large swathes of heathland and inaccessible peatland determined Opsterland's appearance at the time.  In the 18th century, these raised peatland areas were largely excavated by the fen companies.  For the transport of the peat from these peatland areas, waterways and canals were created, which radically altered the landscape.  It was during this time that the villages of Gorredijk, Bakkeveen and modern-day Frieschepalen were founded.  Villages such as Luxwoude, Langezwaag, Kortezwaag, Terwispel, Lippenhuizen, Hemrik, Wijnjeterp and Duurswoude on the south side and (Oud)Beets, Beetsterzwaag, Olterterp, Ureterp and Siegerswoude on the north side of the municipality are much older. The older villages were farmer's villages, which were primarily involved in the arable farming of rye and buckwheat.  Cows and sheep were also kept, but these were primarily kept for their manure.  The hay for this livestock was mainly brought from the uninhabited area in the west of the municipality along permanent 'hooiwegen' (hay ways).

At the beginning of the 19th century, people began excavating peat from these meadows.  These were low-lying fens.  The entrepreneurs and resident labourers who excavated the fenland originated from, for a great part, the Kop van Overijssel (the Head of Overijssel, the so-called Gietersen).  They were the founders of the villages of Tijnje and Nij Beets.  The family names Bron, Lok, Krikke, Meester, Schokker and Dam are reminders of the ancestors from Overijssel who came to live in the area.  Luxwoude also saw immigration.  In 1749, the village had 9 inhabitants, and by 1815 it had 311, though the most part had left again by 1855.  The peat exploitation from the low-lying fenland resulted in large ponds and pools forming in the west of the municipality.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, these pools were pumped dry, and the drained ground was thereafter used as pasture land.

The history of the peat excavation is one of unimaginably poverty and inhumane suffering.  This resulted in social unrest, particularly in the low-lying fen areas of Tijnje and Nij Beets.  The name Domela Nieuwenhuis is permanently intertwined with the history of these two villages.  There was no peat excavation in Beetsterzwaag or Duurswoude. However, the most important members of the fen companies, such as the Fockens, Van Teijens and Lycklama à Nijeholt families lived in Beetsterzwaag. These names can also be found in the list of grietmen (forerunners of provincial mayors), who from the 13th century up until 1851 administered justice, oversaw disputes and represented the grietenij (the forerunner of a municipality) outside of its boundaries, and were therefore the most important men in the grietenij. 


There were two grietmen in Opsterland, one on each side of the Alddijp.  When the Fockens family started their line of grietmen (up until 1692), there was one additional grietman.  Both Beetsterzwaag and Lippenhuizen had a courtroom up until the end of the 18th century, where the grietman acted as judge.  The grietman lived in Beetsterzwaag. This village has historically been the place where the municipal council and town clerk were based.  The town clerk was only based in Gorredijk during the French rule.   

Wars and pillage 

The history of Opsterland is not one marked by the violence of war, though the people of Friesland and Drenthe battled each other in 1231 at Bakkeveen.  There were also raids and instances of pillaging during the Eighty Years' War, and soldiers who were lodged in the area caused nuisance between 1672-73.  These are simply scarce skirmishes in the long history of Opsterland.  Visible evidence of exciting times are the schansen (sconces) at the borders, which can be found at Frieschepalen (where the Zwartendijksterschans still stands) and at the Breeberg, south of Wijnjewoude.  In 1673, the whole of Gorredijk became a fort, which is why the cultural centre/sports hall is called 'De Skâns' (The Sconce).