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Our Early History

The District has a rich history and strong cultural connections, which date back to the arrival and final resting place of the Tainui waka in Kāwhia nearly 700 years ago. The Tainui people settled around Kāwhia harbour and moved inland over time.

Famous 19th-century Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha grew up at Kāwhia, but he and he people were expelled by Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto forces after he killed a Waikato chief. Te Rauparaha composed the famous haka - Ka Mate - while Ngāti Toa were still based at Kāwhia.

European traders arrived in the 1820s and were followed by Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, who established mission stations on land purchased at Kāwhia and in others area around the harbour in the 1830s. Land was also sold to European settlers. Kāwhia and the wider King Country area were closed to Europeans after the Waikato/New Zealand land wars of the 1860s.

In 1880 the government bought a block of land previously owned by an early settler. The new town of Kāwhia was laid out on the northern shores of the harbour in 1882. King Tāwhiao was not consulted, but eventually agreed to the town’s establishment, and European returned.

Kāwhia harbour was the centre of the local economy, as ships transported dairy products, flax and timber from the area to larger centres, including exports to Australia, the UK and North America. In the early 1900s the local council wanted the government to make Kāwhia a major port. However, the First World War delayed plans and coastal shipping was overtaken by road and rail transport. Despite this, Kāwhia’s picturesque setting appealed to tourists, many of whom travelled from Hamilton. The Kāwhia regatta has been held annually since 1910.

Ōtorohanga was once a large Māori settlement, with possibility up to 5000 living in multiple Pā, and dating back to around 1500AD. This settlement was the scene of an attack in 1822 by Ngā Puhi, who had recently acquired flintlock muskets. The battle was won by Ngāti Maniapoto at the foot of the great Huiputea tree, which still stands proud today.


After the King Country was opened to European settlement in the 1880s, Ōtorohanga became the home of government services and the Native Land Court. The present town originated as a permanent camp for workers constructing the southward extension of the North Island Main Trunk railway. The railway line to the town was completed in 1887. By that stage the town had become the base for early tourists visiting the Waitomo Caves. By the early 1900s many of town’s businesses had been established by Māori, in particular John Ormsby (Hone Ōmipi).

Notable historical events across the District include:

Governor George Grey travelled to the Ngutunui area in 1878 to meet King Tāwhiao at Hikurangi pā. The first European settlers arrived in the Ngutunui area in 1903 and the local school opened in 1914.
From 1883 to 1893 Māori prophet and rebel leader Te Kooti lived at Ōtewa.
Land in the Te Kawa area was settled by European farmers in the 1890s and early 1900s. Returned servicemen were settled on farms in the district after the first and second world wars.
Waikeria Prison opened in 1912 for low-level offenders, who developed the land and acquired farming skills. During the First World War, men who had committed serious crimes were sent to Waikeria. Prison escapes then became common-place, which created fear for residents in the Te Awamutu/Kihikihi area.
The first European settlers arrived in the Wharepuhunga area in 1896. Acclaimed international opera singer Oscar Natzke was born at Wharepuhunga in 1912.
Waipapa Dam, on the Waikato River, was completed in 1961.