The Manawatū Estuary (or Foxton Estuary) lies on the western edge of the Manawatū Plains. The first inhabitants of the area were Māori who probably arrived in the fourteenth century, travelling along the coast and then using the Manawatū 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.
In the 1820s Te Rauparaha led a successful invasion into the Manawatū by Waikato tribes and new tribes took ownership of the area. Part of the reason for this move was to be nearer Wellington and Kapiti where local Maori were trading with the newcomer Europeans to gain fascinating and useful things like muskets.
The principal white settlement in the area was established at Paiaka in 1844, with a small trading centre set up there to take advantage of the small schooners that were at the time sailing between Wellington and North Island west coast rivers. The first traders at Paiaka and Shannon traded mostly for flax from the Māori, which was sent to Sydney. The Kebbell brothers set up a flax mill in Paiaka in 1842, sending loads of local goods from their jetty to Wellington on small coastal ships. This was only the first of many mills, as flax was an important resource, used for making rope, cordage, and cloth in the years before artificial fibres were available.
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.
After the destruction of Paiaka in 1855 by an earthquake the settlers moved downstream to Te Awahou, where there was already a shop and hotel set up (the area had occupied since 1842 by Captain Robinson), and the place was renamed Foxton in the 1860s after Sir William Fox, with the settlement’s centre being Cook’s store and jetty. Between 1840 and 1863 schooners were used for river transport, but by 1863 they had been replaced by steamers. The first steamer crossed the Manawatū bar in 1860 and took cargo 27 miles upstream.
In the 1860s the Crown began buying Manawatū land from the Māori. In the Manawatū, unlike further north, this was a fairly amicable process despite some debate over whether the land was owned by the tribes who had recently invaded or the subject tribes who had been there longer.
The 1870s saw the beginning of serious colonisation of the Manawatū area and were a busy time for Foxton as a port, for the sea was then the best and easiest way to transport goods and people to the Manawatū region. In 1872 the river was so busy that a pilot was assigned developing to be permanently on duty at the Heads to see ships over the dangerous bar; his duties also included making sure the river was cleared for shipping as far up river as Paiaka. Vessels up to 20-ton register were capable of going as far upriver as Ngawhakarau while river canoes could supply transport up to the Papaioea clearing (which later became Palmerston North). During this decade a tramway was built that linked Foxton and Palmerston North (and was later converted into a railway) and roads and rails began to link the Manawatū with places like Wellington and Wanganui. Flax was always the most important of the trading goods being taken out of Foxton, and for many years Foxton was synonymous with flax in New Zealanders' minds. While the forest was being cleared on the plains, there was also a temporary boom in the timber trade. Around 1881 trade began to drop off and shipping at the port dropped. Although Foxton had initially been the largest town in the area, by 1880 Palmerston North had outstripped it; Foxton, with its port, was useful, but now that the central areas of the region were being opened up there was more scope for farming in the hinterland. Foxton’s sandy soil was not good for agriculture.
In the 1880s there was a depression that put a halt to several government projects, including a partly-completed railway between Wellington and the Manawatū that had been planned to go through Foxton and would have cemented the town’s importance in the district. A group of businessmen annoyed by the delay chose to fund the construction themselves, but since they owned land in the Palmerston North area the planned track was diverted to run through Palmerston North and bypassed Foxton in 1886, to the great annoyance of Foxton residents. The presence of the railway lessened the need for the port, making it no longer the only way to get bulk goods out of the region, and since Foxton lacked any other important features this made it harder for the town to grow.
The late 1880s saw a short-lived flax boom that briefly allowed Foxton to once again grow and function as a bustling port. By 1888 the recently extended wharf was host to regular and diverse shipping and river traffic was also increased. In 1889 it was quite common to see two or more steamers docked together at the wharf and by October the port was dealing with record tonnages. Visiting ships were also becoming larger, but with the increasing draughts the Manawatū bar was becoming a greater problem and although smaller ships could come in on one high tide and come out on the next, larger ships often had to wait. The flax boom once again faded in 1890 and shipping dropped away.
At the start of the twentieth century Foxton Beach began to be seen as a holiday spot and bachs began to occupy the area that had previously hosted a hotel and stagecoach post and the pilot's station.
A third flax boom, beginning in 1898, was the most lasting and saw another increase in shipping, with three or four steamers berthed together at the wharf being an unexceptional sight and over ten steamers making regular visits. In 1902 plant growth for the flax trade was stimulated via drainage of swamplands and in 1903 the Moutoa Estate, a wetland area [10km] upstream of Foxton, was developed as the main supply of flax, leading to the creation of a fleet of river launches that towed punts loaded high with flax. By 1908 problems with river silting and bar strandings meant that coastal shipping was avoiding Foxton. By 1916 there were only two ships coming into the port. Although shipping continued in a desultory fashion for the next while, by 1942 Foxton had ceased to function as a port.
The collapse of the flax boom in 1919 meant that people in the Foxton area turned from flax growing to farming and started draining the wetlands that had provided flax for so long. But farms are much more prone to flooding and with the loss of forest cover in the hills and on the plains flooding was greatly increased and more severe, leading to the creation of stopbanks, floodgates, and the Whirokino Cut. The Whirokino Cut, completed in 1943 as part of the Lower Manawatū Flood Control Scheme, was meant to be a spillway but an unexpected flood cut through and cut off the Foxton loop of the river, meaning that the Foxton harbour could no longer function as a harbour and causing a huge amount of anger amongst the locals. The Foxton Loop that runs alongside Foxton today used to be a part of the main river but now the upstream end isn’t connected to the river and there is only a tidal flow in the loop. In 1959 the railway stopped running and now all transport to the estuary is via road.
The shape of the estuary itself is constantly changing. The river mouth is being pushed south because of the predominantly westerly ocean swell and west-northwest winds. The coastline itself is growing at a rate of about half a metre a year, and in the last 6,500 years has grown about 4km, so that the area on which Foxton Beach stands was under water not that long ago. There has probably been an estuary in the region of Foxton for the last 5,000 years; this is a short life in geological terms, but New Zealand estuaries are no older than 6,500 years, formed by rising sea levels at that time. At the moment the mouth of the estuary is migrating south at a rate of at least 15m a year (under constant conditions), forming a sandspit on its north side. During floods this sandspit is eroded and the river mouth moves back north. Without human intervention (in the form of stopbanks along the Foxton Beach township) the river would eventually punch its way back northward, cutting off the current river mouth, and then started working its way back south. 150 years ago the area of Foxton Beach was either directly on the river bank or under the river. The creation of the Whirokino Cut has also altered the shaped of the estuary, and by changing the direction of the water it has changed where the river bends are eroding. Fernbird Flat has altered in shape and size in the last 50 years, becoming longer and larger. The Waitarere Forest block is being eroded away: the river has encroached into it so that between 1980 and 2003 the river bank shifted 300m and 40 hectares of land was lost into the river with a corresponding growth in the Fernbird Flat.