Prior to European settlement the area was occupied by the Yorta-Yorta Aborigines. Explorer Charles Sturt passed through the district while overlanding cattle from Sydney to Adelaide in 1838 but the first European in the immediate area was a British-born ex-convict named James Maiden, who took up the Perricoota station c.1843-45. The area became known as Maiden's Punt when he established a punt service and an inn on the northern bank of the river around 1845. It was the first cattle crossing on the Murray River and thus became a major access route. A settlement grew as other businesses began to cluster around the inn and thus Moama came to be gazetted in 1851.
Meanwhile, in 1850, another ex-convict named Henry Hopwood took over Isaac White's punt at a point further downstream. Hence this latter area was initially known as 'Hopwood's Ferry'. In 1853 he added a slab hotel, ensuring his custom by closing down the punt at nightfall just before the arrival of the passenger coaches.
In 1852 the Mary Ann became the first paddlesteamer to trade on the Murray; Moama being the outermost stop on its maiden voyage. However, it was Hopwood who capitalised on the event and laid the foundations of Echuca's success by suggesting the government establish a river port on the southern bank.
The river trade was to prove crucial to the economic development of the nation as it enabled the opening up of Australia's interior, the extension of land given over to primary industries (particularly wool) and the capacity of those properties to transport their goods to the national and international marketplace.
In 1854 the government surveyor approved the site chosen by Hopwood and renamed it 'Echuca', a Yorta-Yorta term said to mean 'meeting of the waters'. Land sales proceeded in 1855 and by 1856 Echuca had become dominant over Moama. In the subsequent years Echuca emerged as the colony's largest inland port.
In the twelve months from June 1856-June 1857 around 150 000 head of livestock crossed the river at Echuca. Noted steamboat operator Francis Cadell made the town his base, merchants and importers began to set up shop in town and, for a time, leeches were exported to London for medical purposes. Settlement was further encouraged by the 1862 Land Act which freed up land in the district.
The development of the port led to a proposal that the government link Melbourne directly to the river trade by extending the emerging railway system to Echuca which was the closest Murray-River town to the capital. Its arrival in 1864 further enhanced the material progress of the town with the population trebling within twelve months. The rail link also prompted the construction, in 1865, of an enormous wharf which would ultimately extend to 1.2 km.
Shipbuilding and foundries subsequently became substantial industries and Echuca further benefited from the the growing demand for local red-gum timber which proved ideal for wharves, railway sleepers, mining props and building generally. A dozen timber mills were soon in operation.
The town reached its peak in the 1870s and 1880s and was nominated as a possible national capital in 1891. However, the development of the railway system, its extension to other Murray River towns, the unreliability of water levels, the lack of a national strategy for the interstate river trade and improvements in road transport ultimately led to the demise of the trade on the internal waterways. Fortunately however, many of the old structures associated with the port were left standing, if neglected, when the focus of business shifted to another part of town.
Pig farming and dairying developed in the 1890s and 1900s with the consequent establishment of bacon and butter factories. Closer settlement expanded agricultural production, particularly with soldier settlement after World War I. Echuca was declared a city in 1965.