The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is famous for its spectacular annual migration across North America, recent worldwide dispersal, and orange warning colouration. Despite decades of study and broad public interest, we know little about the genetic basis of these hallmark traits. Here we uncover the history of the monarch’s evolutionary origin and global dispersal, characterize the genes and pathways associated with migratory behaviour, and identify the discrete genetic basis of warning colouration by sequencing 101 Danaus genomes from around the globe. The results rewrite our understanding of this classic system, showing that D. plexippus was ancestrally migratory and dispersed out of North America to occupy its broad distribution. We find the strongest signatures of selection associated with migration centre on flight muscle function, resulting in greater flight efficiency among migratory monarchs, and that variation in monarch warning colouration is controlled by a single myosin gene not previously implicated in insect pigmentation.