Urk is first mentioned in historical records dating to the 10th century, when it was still an island in the Almere, a lake that would become part of the Zuiderzee in the 13th century after a series of incursions by the North Sea. In 1939, a dike from the mainland to Urk ended the town's island status, just as the Afsluitdijk project was changing the salt water Zuiderzee surrounding Urk to the less saline IJsselmeer. Later in the 20th century, seabed areas surrounding Urk were reclaimed from the sea and became the Noordoostpolder.
The mainstay of the town's economy has always been fishing, and the products of the sea coming in through Urk's harbor continue to be exported widely, although today Urk's fishing boats must travel greater distances to gather them than was required in most historical periods. Religious life has also traditionally been very important to Urk's inhabitants, with active, conservative congregations of the Dutch Reformed denominations playing key roles in the life of the community.