The settlement was established in the 10th century, when Sorbs erected a castle on a sandy island in the Spree river. The first mention of the town's name is of 1156. In the 13th century German settlers came to the place and lived from now on together with the Sorbs. In medieval times Cottbus was known for wool, and the drapery was exported to all of Brandenburg, Bohemia and Saxony. In 1815 the town of Cottbus and all of Lower Lusatia was ceded from Saxony to Prussia.
Cottbus is the cultural centre of the Sorbian minority. Many signs in the town are bilingual, but Sorbian is rarely spoken on the streets.