The Manawatu Estuary (or Foxton Estuary) lies on the western edge of the Manawatu Plains. The first inhabitants of the area were Maori who probably arrived in the fourteenth century, travelling along the coast and then using the Manawatu River to move into the hinterland. They were likely moa hunters, and archaeological remains have been found in sites on the dunes.
The fertile floodplain and the presence of the river, which could provide both food and a highway, made the area attractive to settlers. By tradition the name of the river was given to it by Haunui, who travelled along the west coast of the lower North Island in search of his wife and named most of the rivers.
Ships were the only real way of getting cargoes to and from the area, since most of the land was covered in a thick blanket of bush and there were no roads. The west coast of the North Island has no natural harbours but a rich alluvial plain hinterland, and the rivers were used as transport into the central areas.
The estuary was an important node for all this water travel. The beach has always been used as a roadway by both locals and passers-through. The stage coach travelled along the beach between Wellington and Wanganui from the 1840s, initially making an overnight stop at the ferry house at the mouth of the river but moving this stop up into Foxton around 1886.