Story: Whanganui region

Page 5. European settlement, 1840–1860

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Missionaries Henry Williams and Octavius Hadfield gathered signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi at Pūtiki in May 1840. The next month an Anglican mission station was established at the locality. The first missioner, John Mason, and his successor from 1843, Richard Taylor, both travelled widely. Taylor went as far as inland Pātea, in the northern Rangitīkei River valley.

No head for business

In 1831 Joe Rowe, a dealer in preserved Māori heads, along with three other Europeans and a black man, encountered a small party of Ngāti Tūwharetoa at the mouth of the Whanganui River. It was the first recorded Māori–European contact in the region. Three of the men, including Rowe, were killed, and Rowe’s head was dried and preserved. The fourth man was eventually freed. For many years traders stayed away, although John Nicol and his Māori wife traded on the river in 1834.

First settlers

In May 1840 Edward Jerningham Wakefield bought 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) for the New Zealand Company from 27 chiefs, in exchange for goods worth £700, including muskets, umbrellas and Jews’ harps. Settlers arrived from February 1841.

Uncertainty marked the first seven years of the Whanganui settlement, with many Māori disputing the terms of the sale. Māori also disagreed with one another about who had mana (traditional authority) over the town of Whanganui.


In late 1846 fear of attack by upper river Māori led to the garrisoning of Whanganui by soldiers of the 58th (Rutlandshire) Regiment. The upriver leader Te Mamaku had said he would protect the town, but opposed the presence of soldiers.

Tension mounted in April 1847 when four members of the Gilfillan family were killed by Māori at Matarawa, near Whanganui. After four young men were court-martialled and hanged for the killings, Te Mamaku and his men blockaded the settlement for two and half months. Outlying settlers’ homes were burnt and plundered, and stock raided.

Conflict and after

Many women and children were evacuated, and reinforcements, including the 65th (Yorkshire) Regiment, arrived in May and June, by which time nearly 800 soldiers were protecting fewer than 200 settlers. On 19 July 1847 an indecisive skirmish – the battle of St John’s Wood – was fought between the regiments and upriver Māori. Four days later Te Mamaku and his men returned home.

In May 1848, the government effectively repurchased the Whanganui block, paying £1,000 for 34,911 hectares, 2,200 of which were reserved for Māori. The deed was signed by 207 Māori.

More settlement

Methodist mission stations were established at Waitōtara in 1848 and Westmere in 1853.

The Rangitīkei block – the lowland between the Turakina and Rangitīkei Rivers – was purchased from Ngāti Apa in May 1849. Several large tracts were held by non-resident owners from Wellington and Whanganui, but English, Scottish and German settlers also came.


1848 to 1860 were years of consolidation. New businesses were established, roads were formed and trade increased at the port. One of the country’s oldest schools, Wanganui Collegiate, was founded in 1854, and the Wanganui Chronicle was first printed in 1856. Catholics and Presbyterians established a presence. Between 1848 and 1858 the town’s European population increased from 170 to 1,324.

How to cite this page:

Diana Beaglehole, 'Whanganui region - European settlement, 1840–1860', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 December 2019)

Story by Diana Beaglehole, published 16 Jun 2008, updated 15 Jun 2015