The sounds of human voices have echoed across the Manawatū for hundreds of years, creating a rich history in which people of many cultures have played a part that continues today.

Maori Settlement

Although it is not known when they first arrived, Maori were the first people to inhabit the region. Archaeological evidence indicates that a campsite near Foxton was occupied 600 to 700 years ago.

Tribal tradition suggests that the descendants of Whatonga (captain of the Kurahaupo canoe) and Turi (captain of the Aotea canoe) were among the earliest inhabitants of the Manawatū region. In time they were joined by newcomers from Hawke's Bay, Taupo and Waikato - descendants of people associated with the Takitimu, Arawa and Tainui canoes. Some of these newcomers arrived with peaceful intentions and married into the local population, while others arrived as invaders creating conflict that overshadowed the region for many years.

By 1840 when New Zealand had become a British colony, three tribal groups - Rangitane, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Kauwhata - occupied the banks of the Manawatū River and its tributaries. These people retain their identity to this day, playing an active role in the social, political and economic development of the region.

European Settlement

Between 1840 and 1900, thousands of European settlers moved into the Manawatū region where they transformed forest and swamp into farms and towns. While most settlers came from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland there were smaller groups from Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Greece and Lebanon.

European settlement began along the lower reaches of the Rangitikei and Manawatū Rivers during the 1840s and 1850s then moved inland. Palmerston North and Feilding began life as timber-milling towns during the 1870s but rapidly became farming centres.

The port of Foxton was the gateway to the region during the early years of European settlement however its importance declined as the railway network grew. By 1900, the Manawatū landscape was characterised by thousands of sheep and dairy farms and the exporting of large quantities of butter, cheese, wool and frozen meat to overseas markets.

With the arrival of hydro-electric power in the 1920s and air transport in the 1930s (based at Palmerston North International Airport), the region embraced a new era of economic growth which continues to the present day.

Recent Developments

During the past 50 years, the Manawatū region's economy has diversified dramatically. While sheep and cattle farming continues to dominate, the farming of deer, goat and ostrich farming are becoming increasingly popular. Cropping, horticulture, poultry farming and forestry continue to provide valuable revenue and in recent years, cottage industries have sprung up to satisfy demand for the more exotic produce.

Manawatū is a multicultural district that is now the home people from across the globe. People from Holland, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Bhutan, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Japan, the Pacific Islands and many other countries continue to settle here, creating a multi-cultural society of which Manawatū residents can feel proud.

Manawatū District Today

Manawatū District is uniquely placed in its central location as the gateway to four other regions: Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa, Rangitikei and Horowhenua. Two hours from Napier, Wellington and Mount Ruapehu, one hour from Masterton and three hours from New Plymouth, Manawatū residents have easy access to provinces offering some of the best beaches, vineyards and adventure playgrounds this country has to offer.

More importantly though, Manawatū's central location gives the region huge economic advantages. With easy access to four seaports, seven airports, major Defence Force bases, it is a highly strategic cargo, transport and business hub for the lower North Island and the country.

While many Manawatū District residents (population 33,900, 2022) work in nearby Palmerston North, high numbers of Palmerston North residents drive in the opposite direction to work in Feilding. Manawatū's highly fertile soil has long been one of the single biggest contributors to the region's economy and in recent years processing and support industries for the agricultural sector have "mushroomed". To a large extent this is thanks to the ongoing effort of the region's business leaders to form alliances with the agricultural, industrial, research and technology sectors.

History of the Manawatū District Councils

The Manawatū County Council was formed in 1876 as one of 63 councils covering the whole of NZ following the disbanding of the provincial governments.

As originally created the Council ran from Waikanae in the south to Rangiwahia in the north. Like many of the first counties, Manawatū County gradually broke up into a number of different councils:

  • Palmerston North Borough Council, 1877
  • Feilding Borough Council, 1881
  • The northern half became Oroua County Council, 1883
  • Area south of the Manawatū River became Horowhenua County Council, 1884
  • Foxton Borough Council, 1888

There were also a variety of Road Boards and Town Boards that were formed. All of this meant that by 1888 the County only covered a tiny part of its original 1876 area.

Following on from that, parts of Oroua County then broke away to form:

  • Kiwitea County, 1894
  • Pohangina County, 1895
  • Kairanga County, 1902

In 1988 Manawatū County amalgamated with neighbouring Kairanga County to form the first Manawatū District Council. In 1989 that council in turn amalgamated with Feilding Borough, Oroua County, Pohangina County and Kiwitea County to form the present day Manawatū District Council.