Ngāti Tūwharetoa take their name from a powerful chief who lived near present-day Kawerau during the 16th century. Tūwharetoa was renowned as a warrior and man of wise counsel. He was tall and handsome, and his intellect was such that when he was a boy his tutors could scarcely keep pace with him. He also became an expert carver and carved many ornate buildings for his people.
Through his mother, Tūwharetoa traced descent from the early tribes of the Bay of Plenty. On his father’s side he descended from the chiefly lines of Te Arawa and Mataatua.
When it was agreed that Tūwharetoa was ready to take responsibility for the affairs of his people, a marriage was arranged with a young woman of high rank, Paekitawhiti. She and Tūwharetoa had a daughter named Manaia-wharepū and a son, Rongomai-te-ngāngana.
As part of his duty to maintain links with neighbouring tribes, Tūwharetoa would travel to other tribal areas. It was while visiting Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāi Tai that he met the famed beauty Hinemōtū. Although she was betrothed to another man, she and Tūwharetoa eloped. When they arrived at the pā of Māwaketaupō, Tūwharetoa’s father, they were received as man and wife. Tūwharetoa and Hinemōtū had eight children. Even though Hinemōtū left her home in unfortunate circumstances, her tribe still held her in high regard and named a rock in the Mōtū River after her.
Several years later Tūwharetoa took another wife, Te Uiraroa, with whom he had five children.
Tūwharetoa’s renown, especially among people in the Rotorua district, meant he was always welcome in the region. He was particularly popular with the women, and on one visit he met the beautiful high-born woman chief, Rangiuru. Although she was already married to Whakaue-kaipāpā, it is said she was infatuated by Tūwharetoa and had a son, Tūtānekai, to him. When Tūtānekai grew up he himself became a famous chief whose name was linked with the beautiful Te Arawa heroine, Hinemoa.
Tūwharetoa lived to be an old man, and died at his pā at Waitahanui. After his death, his wife Te Uiraroa married a chief named Te Awanuiarangi. They had a son, Rongo-tangi-awa, who in turn had Rongomai-noho-rangi. He in turn had Te Rangihouhiri, the ancestor of the Ngāi Te Rangi tribe from the Tauranga district. This established links between Ngāti Tūwharetoa and the Whakatāne and Tauranga areas.