That part of the district south of the River Tees is historically part of the North Riding of Yorkshire, and made up Startforth Rural District before the Local Government Act 1972 came into effect in 1974. The other predecessors to the district were Barnard Castle urban district and Barnard Castle Rural District.
Much of the area had before 1894 constituted a single Teesdale rural sanitary district.
The district was the least populous ordinary district in England, with only the City of London and the Isles of Scilly being smaller. It had the second lowest population density in England, after Eden, Cumbria.
The district was abolished as part of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England.