Ōpōtiki History

For a long time a lot of people thought that the history of New Zealand started in 1769 with Captain Cook. Fortunately, Māori tradition is now more widely known and the archaeologists and historians are exposing the real depth of our origins. In historical association, the beaches, hills, rivers and flats of the Ōpōtiki District are unsurpassed in this land.


At first there was Kupe who reported a land uninhabited when he encircled it at about the time of Alfred the Great. Then there was the settlement period time of Toi, usually dated at about 1150. Two hundred years later, when the Black Prince was fighting at Poitiers, the so-called fleet migration from Hawaiiki occurred, and this is often taken as the starting point when generalising about Māori history.

In these times, Tainui canoe sailed along the coast and 24 km from Ōpōtiki, Torere, daughter of Hoturoa the captain, left the vessel and her name. The Nukutere canoe touched at Opape before going on to a final resting-place around the East Coast. Tauturangi stayed here and became a progenitor of Whakatōhea, the people of this district. Mataatua reached Whakatāne. Repanga, nephew of Toroa the captain, saw the cooking fires to the east, came in this direction and added his name to the ancestors of Whakatōhea. As an old man he was killed near Onekawa Pa, the remains of which are still to be seen above Ōhiwa Holiday Park.

As far as we know at present, the earliest inhabitants here were the Tini-o-Toi and Tini-o-Awa tribes who sprang from the Toi settlement period of the 12th century. Recent discoveries in Hawke's Bay have shown that man lived in Aotearoa long before this, so it could well be that the Eastern Bay of Plenty also was occupied at a much earlier period.

Tirohanga, Makeo (the high conical hill south of Waiaua bridge), Paerata and Tawhitirahi are all Pa sites of great antiquity as well as a host of others. Locally written material is available for those interested in detail of such manner.

The name “Opotiki” originated from the name of a spring of the eastern bluff above Waiotahe Beach called “O-Potiki mai-Tawhiti.” This name goes back to the migration from Hawaiiki. It concerns a chief Tarawa who, left behind, decided to join his people whom he knew were in New Zealand. Tarawa, and his brother Tuwharanui, set sail for New Zealand in a canoe named Te Arautauta, accompanied by two Tanahanaha fish pets known as O-Potiki-mai Tawhiti, and meaning “two pets from afar.” Landing on the Waiōtahe Beach, Tarawa found a spring as an abode for his two fish pets. The spring thereafter became known as O-Potiki-mai-Tawhiti because of the continual reference to the inhabitant fish of the same name.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Ōpōtiki was a populous Māori centre, and a large village, Pa Kowhai, extended along the river banks from King Street (west) to the present A. & P. Showgrounds. This was the home of the Whakatōhea tribes, whose lands extended from Kutarere in the west, to Opape in the east, and for many miles inland.

From Tirohanga to the Waiaua River, the beach and sandhill area was frequently a battle-ground. In one encounter here in the 1820’s named Peangatoetoe, the sea ran red with blood when Ngati Maru invaders from Hauraki, armed with firearms, inflicted heavy losses on the local Whakatōhea.

Advent of The European

Captain Cook sailed along this coast on 1st/2nd November, 1769, naming Cape Runaway, White Island and Mount Edgecumbe as he did so. He commented in his journal on the dense population of the coastal area. One can visualise it today. The chain of earthworks along the entire escarpment from Ōhiwa Harbour in the west to Opape in the east gives evidence of occupation by large numbers. The earliest white arrivals told of the large fishing camps at Paerata; a net 1.5 km in length was used by Māori at Tirohanga and would supply the requirements of a tribe for a year at one haul.

Missionaries from Tauranga made an abortive attempt to reach Ōpōtiki in 1828. They were dissuaded when, on landing at Ōhiwa, they walked into the carnage of a just-concluded battle between Ngati Awa of Whakatāne and Whakatōhea. Rev. John A. Wilson of the Church Missionary Society arrived at the end of December, 1839, and is recorded as the first white man in Ōpōtiki, then called Pakowhai. His mission was established on the hill above the present golf clubhouse, the Roman Catholics followed two months later in March, 1840.

In May of the same year, seven Ōpōtiki chiefs became signatories to the Treaty of Waitangi, a copy having been brought here for that purpose by the Governor’s agent, James W. Fedarb. Crosses appear against the names of the chiefs; namely Tautora, Rangimatanuku and Rangihaerepo. In a notation at the foot of the Treaty, Fedarb states: “The Chiefs of Opotiki expressed a wish to have it signified who were Pikipos (i.e. Roman Catholics) and who were not, which I did by placing a crucifix preceding the names of those who were, at which they seemed perfectly satisfied.” Aporotanga, one of the chiefs, was subsequently killed at Matata in 1864 by Te Arawa.

From 1840 to the 1860’s missionary activity was pursued on a somewhat precarious basis. Although there is little known of their activities, the traders and whalers were becoming active on the coast during this era also. Te Kaha and Waihau Bay in particular, eventually became bases for whaling.

But it took the hostilities of the 1860s to initiate Pakeha settlement on a significant scale.

Conflict of Race

It was almost inevitable that the pressures of Pakeha settlement should be resisted to the stage of open warfare. In Ōpōtiki the flame was ignited in March 1865, when the missionary Volkner was killed. Despite warnings to stay in Auckland, he insisted on returning to his church of Hiona – still standing in Ōpōtiki’s main street, now known as Hiona St Stephen – when the local Māori became influenced and inflamed by the religious and political doctrine of Hauhauism. Because of his reports on the movement of the Hauhau emissaries, Volkner was regarded as a Government spy and paid the penalty.

His death induced the Government to send a punitive expedition to Ōpōtiki in September 1865, and from the time of its landing there was a continuing campaign waged throughout the surrounding country. The campaign increased in intensity when Te Kooti escaped from the Chatham Islands in 1868, and his association with this area continued off and on until his final surrender at Waiōtahe in 1889.

Major engagements were fought on the sandhills at the entrance to Ōpōtiki harbour; on the western side of the Waioeka Straight where one of the few cavalry charges of the New Zealand wars occurred at the mouth of the Waioeka Gorge; and at Maraetai in the gorge itself. This latter place is now known as Oponae and across the river is the site of Te Kooti’s base which was captured by the Government forces with severe casualties being inflicted on the defenders. A large church, just completed by Te Kooti, was razed, a number of prisoners were shot on the side of the riverbed and Te Kooti made one of his numerous escapes to fight again.

The decline of Whakatōhea as a tribe of influence could be said to have started when they were decimated by the Ngapuhi and Ngati-Maru muskets in the 1820s. The confiscation of their land 40 years later was a bitter blow.

While all this military activity was going on, a township was beginning to grow adjacent to the wharf, then near the present monument. A military garrison inevitably led to the establishment of commercial activity and thus Ōpōtiki had its business origins.

Following the end of hostilities, the original inhabitants had their coastal lands confiscated as punishment for their support for the rebellion.

However, after years of negotiation and a successful petition and compensation for the confiscation of their lands a Whakatōhea tribal Trust Board was established. The Whakatōhea Trust Board administration offices and board room are situated on St John St at the junction with Elliott Street. Today, Whakatōhea manage their highly productive dairy farms, are actively involved in education and training to create employment and are major stakeholders in the proposed off-shore mussel farm. From their operations the Whakatōhea Board make annual grants of a percentage of net income for education, employment, pensioner flats, cultural and community development for their beneficiaries and the district.

Growth of a Community

When fighting ceased Ōpōtiki became a military settlement by Government policy. From a strategic point of view it was necessary to establish a military presence in this isolated area, but preferably without the expense of sustaining a standing force. So the soldiers were given discharge and the land at the same time. Most of the settlers were from the 1st Waikato Regiment. They received 50 acres as privates, 60 acres as corporals, and so on.

Development took place rapidly. The Ōpōtiki flats proved rich and productive and in the 1870s maize, potatoes, wheat and cattle were being shipped to Auckland. The Ōpōtiki Public School was opened in 1873, and in the same year a store was opened at Te Kaha. In the town, a cordial factory commenced operations as did a bakehouse and a brewery. Bricks for such buildings were made locally.

In 1882 the Armed Constabulary who had arrived in 1868, were transferred. Some of these men too, remained in the district. One of them was the father of Dickson Savage, better known as Dick Travis, V.C., New Zealand’s most highly decorated soldier of World War 1, and an honoured son of Ōpōtiki. Farm development of Paerata and Waiōtahe commenced in this decade. In 1889 whiskey was selling here at six shillings a bottle, butter at five pence a pound and eggs at 8 pence a dozen. Since then whiskey has increased exorbitantly in price!!

And so the community grew, with the good earth providing sustenance for a swelling population which in 1998 stood at about 9600 in the County which includes the township. Postal services started in 1901, the Hikutaia soldier settlement was opened up in 1919, the district boasted a racecourse which became an airfield. So in these and many other ways progress was seen.

Ōpōtiki’s history would fill volumes. Perhaps the foregoing will encourage visitors to look around them with the realisation that stirring events have touched these placid surroundings in years not so far distant, and visit our very interesting Museum in Church Street.

For sheer natural beauty, magnificent coastal scenery, and many places of historical significance, the Ōpōtiki District, bounded in the north by Whakatāne District and Gisborne in the south, is unparalleled anywhere in New Zealand.

Ōpōtiki, Gisborne, Wairoa and the East Cape form the Eastland area, which is probably the finest of all holiday playgrounds in the country. Here is a holiday area which can be used all the year round. The climate is second to none during the summer and in winter there is a succession of sparkling days and crystal-clear starlit nights. The climate can be compared to that of California, U.S.A. But here the air is fresh and clean and unpolluted by city smog. It’s a place for the outdoor-loving person, a grand place for a family holiday.

Ōpōtiki Museum

Learn more about our history

The Opotiki Museum is a three-storied building situated in the main street of Opotiki.

On the ground floor, there is an extensive collection of implements and vehicles. Displays highlighting saddlery, printing, candle-making, shearing, engineering, the dairy industry and a barbers shop complete the ground floor.

Early pioneer photographs and an exhibition focused on the importance of shipping in early Opotiki occupy the mezzanine floor, while twelve heritage rooms trace history from the arrival of pioneers to the 1930s on the Elvira Sundell third floor, along with the Whakatohea Research and Archives Taonga (Treasures of the past).

(07)315 5193 | ohas@xtra.co.nz

10am-4pm Monday to Friday

10am-2pm Saturday