Manawatu-Horowhenua is an extensive area of low land situated on the western side of the southern part of the North Island. It extends some 90 miles north-south but is little more than 25 miles at its greatest width. It is bounded on the east and south by the Tararuas and on the west by the Tasman Sea; its northern limit is less distinct, but the line of the Rangitikei River has been chosen for present purposes. Included within these limits are the counties of Kiwitea, Pohangina, Oroua, Manawatu, Kairanga, and Horowhenua, which, with their boroughs and cities, form the basic units for the collection of statistics. Palmerston North (urban area population 1961, 43,185) is the principal town of the region which in 1961 registered a total population of 96,225 (3·98 per cent of the national total), 4·44 per cent of which was classified as Maori.
The Manawatu-Horowhenua region has a certain duality evident in most aspects of its geography. Although Waikanae and, especially, Otaki were important Maori settlements where European influences soon penetrated (the church of Rangiatea is 110 years old), the Horowhenua remained largely unsettled until the opening of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway in 1886. To the north of the Manawatu River European settlement was much earlier and sooner completed. Foxton was an important river-mouth port by the 1840s and by the 1850s some of the scrub country of the lower Rangitikei had been occupied by graziers. Most of the land, however, was covered with bush or swamp and its settlement was organised either by the Government, as at Palmerston North, or, more commonly, by settlement companies and associations such as the Manchester Co. (Feilding, Halcombe, Ashhurst), the Douglas Co. (Rongotea), and the Hutt Small Farms Association (Sanson). By 1880 the majority of the new settlements were linked by rail with Foxton and Wanganui and a basis for their prosperity had been laid.