Because of the great extent of tussock-covered plain and downland in proximity to the forests and harbours of Banks Peninsula, Canterbury should have appeared an attractive site for European colonising ventures in the 1840s. Yet, despite many natural advantages and the small number of Maori inhabitants, organised settlement on the Canterbury Plains did not begin until 1851. Banks Peninsula provided the first foothold for European enterprise. Whaling ships of several nationalities appear to have used Port Cooper (later Port Lyttelton) and Akaroa Harbour from 1835 onwards, and shore whaling stations were established on the southern bays of the peninsula between 1837 and 1840. Whaling stations were also established for brief periods at Motunau Island on the north Canterbury coast and at Timaru, where volcanic rock out-cropping on the coast gave a little shelter and made feasible the landing of small boats. An outcome of French whaling activity in Banks Peninsula was the rather forlorn attempt by the Nanto-Bordelaise Company to found an agricultural and whaling settlement. In 1840 some 65 poverty-stricken French emigrants landed at Akaroa and began clearing five-acre “farmlets”. They made slight progress and of those who remained during the 10 years few did little more than cultivate vegetable gardens.
More successful farming ventures were soon established by a few enterprising British families on the northern side of Banks Peninsula, at Akaroa and at Riccarton on the plains. Of these people, the Deans, Hay, Sinclair, and Greenwood families had been immigrants to the New Zealand Company's first settlement at Wellington but were dissatisfied with the agricultural prospects there. By 1845 all of them were sending cheese and fat cattle to the Wellington market. Cattle and sheep numbers built up steadily, outstations were formed on the fringes of the downland across the Canterbury Plains at Motunau and in the Malvern Hills, and farming experience was acquired which was to be of great value when the Canterbury Association settlers took up their land in 1851. By 1848 in the district that was to become Canterbury, there were 265 Europeans, some 300 acres in wheat and potatoes, and more than 700 cattle and 4,000 sheep grazing on land rented from the Maori.