Legend has it that residents on the two sides of the river disputed ownership of a ford across the Tees. In the eventual battle, residents of the Durham side of the river gained the ford, and their village became known as Gainford. On the Yorkshire side of the river lies the site of the deserted village of Barforth or Barford, said to be named in memory of its residents' attempt to barricade the ford during the dispute.
In Anglo-Saxon times, Gainford was the centre of an estate, part of the Northumbrian Congregation of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In the Dark Ages this area was taken by Vikings. Archaeologists have found Viking sculptures at Gainford and some examples of these may be seen on display at Durham Cathedral. Many sculptures found at Gainford show both Northumbrian and Viking influence. Despite the Viking settlement, Northumbrian Angles remained major landowners along the banks of the Tees in Viking times.
In the nineteenth century Gainford village had its own spa. Today its main features are an unspoilt village green, a Jacobean hall and a Georgian street called High Row. The village church of St Mary's, Gainford, stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery built by Bishop Ecgred of Lindisfarne in the early 9th century.
In 1904 the family of a deceased Joseph Edleston owned a plot of land next to the churchyard of St. Mary's in Gainford. The children asked to erect a monument in the churchyard in memory of Joseph's 41-year tenure at the church. The church refused permission, asserting that the churchyard was full, but that the family could donate their land to the church and then build a monument on part of it. Feeling slighted, the family immediately set about building themselves a house on their land with a 40-foot column erected next to the churchyard so it towered over the trees and pointed a huge V-sign in stone towards the church authorities. The Edleston Spite House is still standing and occupied and has MCMIV (1904) over the front door. While the 40-foot column is still standing, the 'V' sign is now gone.
The geographer Charles Bungay Fawcett was educated at the school in the village.