The land around Wahgunyah was once occupied by the Whroo people, a subgroup of the Bangerang tribe. Charles Sturt explored the Murray River area in 1829-30 and, in 1838, led a droving party with 300 head of cattle through the district, en route to South Australia. It was also in 1838 that the party of John Foord set off from Yass with 1000 head of cattle, in search of fresh grazing land. Consequently, Foord and three business partners took up the 30 000-acre run known as 'Wahgunyah' (said to mean 'big camp') on the southern side of the river.
Their economic endeavours proved a success and were further enhanced by the opening up of the Victorian markets when river steamers appeared on the Murray in the early 1850s. At the same time gold was discovered at Beechworth and prospective diggers began flooding southwards over the river. Foord clearly saw an opportunity in the timing of these two developments. He purchased a punt, bought a steamship, built a flour mill, subdivided his holdings and established the private township of Wahgunyah to serve as the supply base between the river trade and the goldfields. He was also involved in the building of bond stores and hotels in the fledgling township. Settlers were encouraged to grow wheat for Foord's mill, as there was a ready market for local crops, and the township prospered as a river port, a trade depot and an important site for stock and passenger crossings. Many of the streets were named after members of the Foord family.
Gold was discovered on Foord's property, to the south of Wahgunyah, in 1858, leading to a major but short-lived goldrush. Initially known as Wahgunyah Rush, this became the town of Rutherglen.
The growing traffic of goods and people soon led to the accretion of a settlement on the northern bank. Foord purchased this land from the NSW government, had it surveyed and laid out in 1859 as North Wahgunyah, later renamed Corowa, although it was the southern settlement that initially prospered.
A privately-licensed toll bridge, made of local red gum, was erected across the Murray in 1862 by a company, in which Foord was the major shareholder, in order to facilitate the passage of the diggers south and of Riverina grain and timber to Foord's own mills. Not surprisingly, the presence of the timber in the context of a river town led to a substantial boat-building industry. The first winery in the district was established in 1851. St Leonard's Winery and All Saints Estate were both started in the 1860s and both are still in operation.
At its peak Wahgunyah had seven hotels and was the busiest Murray port upstream of Echuca. A considerable number of Chinese took up residence in the town and district during the gold days.
The furore of the gold days dissipated after the initial rushes and the river trade began to decline in the 1880s due to 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.
Resentment over customs duties among the townships which faced each other across the Murray (and thus the state border) was intense. Local irritation played a crucial role in the lead-up to Federation (see entry on Corowa).