Possibly the earliest and most famous ancestor of the tribes of Te Tau Ihu was Kupe, captain of the Matahourua canoe on the migration from Hawaiki. Kupe was a contemporary of Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe, also from Hawaiki; they were married to sisters. More than 40 place names in the northern South Island stem from Kupe’s activities there.
The Kurahaupō canoe
On arrival from Hawaiki the Kurahaupō, a later canoe, visited Nelson–Marlborough in the course of its circumnavigation of the South Island. The captain, Ruatea, was the son-in-law of Te Oro, a chief of Arapāoa Island, who had been captured by Kupe and taken to Hawaiki on the Matahourua.
The crew of the Kurahaupō included others with important connections. Whātonga, the grandson of Toi, was in charge of the canoe’s forward section. He was searching for his grandfather, who had gone missing from Hawaiki. Popoto, who supervised the middle and rear sections, was the grandson of Kupe. Three crew members who disembarked from the Kurahaupō at Te Taitapu (on the west coast of Nelson) were ancestors of Ngāti Kuia, who have the longest continuous residence in the region.
Through intermarriages with the descendants of Kupe (and Toikairākau), other ancestral tribes of Nelson–Marlborough developed. Ngāti Wairangi, from the Whanganui district, lived in western Mohua (Golden Bay) for a period before moving to Westland. Ngāi Tara, Rangitāne and Ngāti Apa, most of whom made their initial forays to the South Island in the 16th and 17th centuries, were of Kurahaupō stock. Factions of Rangitāne migrated to the Marlborough district under the chiefs Te Huataki, Whakamana, Te Rerewa, Tukanae and others during the 1500s.
Ngāti Apa, under Tamahau, also established a number of pā and kāinga in the Marlborough Sounds during the 1500s. Ngāi Tahu passed through the sounds and Marlborough during the 1600s. They stayed for about a generation but were moved south of the Waiau-toa (Clarence River) after skirmishes with Ngāi Tara, Rangitāne and other resident tribes. A number of famous battles occurred during this turbulent period.
Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri, another Kurahaupō canoe tribe originally from Taupō in the central North Island, arrived in the late 16th century. They eventually dominated a huge territory from Whangarae (Croisilles Harbour) in north-eastern Tasman Bay, west to Onetahua (Farewell Spit), and the West Coast hinterlands to Māwhera (Greymouth). They pushed Ngāti Wairangi to districts south of Greymouth. Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri held sway for approximately two centuries, but succumbed to combined pressures from surrounding tribes, including Ngāi Tahu from the West Coast, Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne from the eastern districts of Nelson–Marlborough, and Ngāti Apa, who were assisted by contingents from the Rangitīkei and Kāpiti districts of the North Island.
A battle in the Paparoa Ranges around 1810 led to the demise of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. Intermarriages with the conquering tribes of Ngāti Kuia and Ngāi Tahu have preserved some Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri genealogies, but the tribe as an autonomous group has disappeared.