Barkly West was the site of the first major diamond rush, in 1870, on the South African Diamond Fields, and was initially known as Klip Drift. This Dutch name means "stony ford" and is a direct translation from a much older !Kora or Korana name, Ka-aub (or !a |aub) - "stony (place along a) river". Briefly the Klipdrift Diggers' Republic was declared (the town assuming the name Parkerton after President Stafford Parker), before colonial rule was extended here. It became, with Kimberley, one of the main towns in the Crown Colony of Griqualand West and was renamed Barkly West (see the article on New Rush). Like Barkly East, the town is named after Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner for Southern Africa from 1870 to 1877. During the Anglo-Boer War the town was occupied by Boer forces and temporarily went by the name Nieuw Boshof.
Barkly West is sometimes erroneously spelled as "Barkley-West" (even in road signage). In Afrikaans the town is known as Barkly-Wes. The local municipality, post-1994, is called Dikgatlong, part of the Frances Baard District Municipality.
The iron Barkly Bridge, the first over the Vaal River, was transported in sections from the United Kingdom (by sea, rail and, over the last more than 100 km by ox wagon) and erected across the Vaal in 1885. A steel plate gives details of its manufacture: "Westwood, Baillie & Co, Engineers and Contractors, London 1884." Shops in Kimberley and Barkly West closed for the occasion when the bridge was opened. A new bridge was built alongside in the 1970s. The toll house erected to recover revenues from those using the old bridge now serves as a museum, opened in 2000.
Z.K. Matthews (1901 – May 1968), prominent black academic who became a president of the African National Congress and assisted in the drafting of the Freedom Charter, was born at Winters Rush outside Barkly West. The new hospital is named after Professor Z.K. Matthews.