The district of Graaff-Reinet was constituted on 26 August 1785 and its boundaries were proclaimed on 17 July 1786. However, over the next century these underwent extensive alteration, and by the 1880s they bore no relationship to the original lines of delimitation. When William Burchell visited the region in April 1812 he commented that: "The village of Graafreynet has its advantages, as well as its disadvantages, it is situated in the heart of a country productive in cattle and corn, rapidly increasing in population and property, and surrounded by a fertile soil; it enjoys an abundance of water, and, it is said, a healthy climate. Fruits and vegetables of all kinds grew here in perfection. In the immediate vicinity of Graaf-reynet,but little timber can at present be found suitable for the purposes of building. All planks and the larger beams are fetched from a considerable distance south-eastward ..." Despite this optimistic picture, the division, in common with much of the Karroo, was subject to periodic droughts. Hence its economy was based primarily upon pastoral activities, and by the 1880s much of its prosperity was being derived from ostrich farming.
The following census figures are available for the division:
1841 census: 8,292 residents
1865 census: 14,695 residents, of whom 3,912 were literate
1875 census: 16,940 residents, of whom 5,130 were literate
1891 census: 16,378 residents, of whom 5,012 were literate
1904 census: 20,216 residents, of whom 7,537 were literate