The name Werribee is an aboriginal name meaning backbone or spine. It is thought that this name was given as the shape of the Werribee River valley in the landscape looks like a backbone. The Werribee River seems to have provided a boundary between the territories of the Woiwurong aborigines to the north east and the Wothowurong to the south west, although other tribal groups visited the area. One of these tribes was the Yawangi tribe, whose last survivor "King" Bill Leigh died on Wooloomanata Station (on the Geelong side of the You Yangs) in 1912.
The Werribee record of white man and aboriginal contact is a sad one. In 1803, Lt Tuckey whilst on a survey mission in Port Phillip Bay from the Sorrento Settlement, shot on Werribee soil the first aborigine to be killed by a white man in Victoria. Years later, the first settlers killed by aborigines in Victoria - Charles Franks and a shepherd - were tomahawked to death whilst erecting a sheep hold near Mount Cottrell in 1836.
Early views of this part of Victoria were unfavourable with surveyors disappointed in the quality of the soil and the lack of trees. This was reported back to the ruling Government in NSW. Hume and Hovell, experienced pastoralists, came overland from NSW in 1824-5. They crossed the upper reaches of the Maribyrnong and came into the Werribee plains. They took back a glowing report to Sydney of the country that they had explored. The Hume and Hovell expedition camped in Werribee on 19 December 1824.
John Batman and J.T. Gellibrand sent a petition to the Governor of NSW in 1827 asking for land in the Port Phillip district. Batman had been advised by Hamilton Hume that the Port Phillip area would offer good grazing land and all kinds of opportunities. The petition was refused because of the difficulties in administering the 'branch' colony so far from Sydney.
Batman and Gellibrand did not give up. They with other interested men formed the Port Phillip Association. In May 1835, Batman, representing the Association crossed Bass Strait in the "Rebecca" and landed near Geelong. He explored the area from Geelong to Melbourne and was "lost in admiration of the possibilities of splendid sheep country". He moved his ship up to the mouth of the Yarra river and explored the area. It was here that he produced the treaty that the aborigines signed giving the Association over 600,000 acres of land covering most of the Melbourne area down to Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula. This was in exchange for an annual payment of blankets, knives, mirrors, tomahawks, beads, scissors, flour and such things.
In July 1835 John Helder Wedge, a member of the Port Phillip Association crossed Bass Strait to make a detailed survey and a plan to divide the land Batman had acquired. He divided the huge area of land into sections and lots were cast for it. Wedge was allocated Lot No. 13. Five of the seventeen lots were in the Werribee area.
In spite of the fact that the Governor of NSW made it clear they were trespassing, settlers from Van Diemans Land began arriving to take up the acquired land. Edward Wedge, brother to John bought out a flock of 400 merino sheep to the Werribee property. He built a house near the Werribee River but in 1852 the river flooded drowning Edward, his wife and daughter, Lucy.
As more settlers arrived in the Port Phillip area, the authorities in Sydney were forced to acknowledge its existence. The first step was to send officials to arrange for surveying and planning of a town. Captain Lonsdale, the first Police Magistrate of the Colony, took up duties late in 1836.
Lonsdale recommended in a letter to the Colonial Secretary that a village be surveyed and a few allotments sold "near the head of the boat navigation, which is half-way between Melbourne and Geelong". On September 6, 1850 the first sale of Wyndham land occured in Melbourne. In 1851 a substantial timber bridge was built over the Werribee River. This replaced a rough bridge built earlier. In 1850 traffic was crossing the river on a punt run by Elliott Armstrong. The new bridge was short lived as it was washed away in the floods of 1852.