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A brief history…

The environment influenced where we settled in the Waikato region. Early settlement by Maori and Europeans was close to food resources, rivers and the coast. Since settlement the Waikato’s landscape has changed greatly. Today we can see signs of early settlement patterns and changes in resource use.

The early days

Early Maori and European settlements grew alongside rivers and the coast, close to areas rich in natural resources. Many of today’s towns have developed around these early settlements.

Tangata whenua of the Waikato region are believed to have originated from the Tainui and Te Arawa waka, part of the fleet of canoes that arrived from Polynesia around 1350. Pre-European settlements were small and scattered. They were often on headlands or river terraces that could be defended.

Early European settlers were traders and missionaries. Mission stations were set up at Kawhia, Mangapouri, Matamata and Pukawa.

Maori resistance towards land sales to increasing numbers of Pakeha settlers was followed by the land wars of the 1860s. Under the 1863 New Zealand Settlements Act the Crown confiscated approximately 500,000 ha of land from Tainui (one fifth of the region).

After the land wars European settlers cleared and developed the land. But the boggy swamps of the Hauraki Plains and the steep slopes of the Kaimai Ranges made settling and getting around difficult.

From the 1880s dairy farming was the main agricultural activity in Waipa and Waikato areas. Small towns grew near dairy factories. Settlements also grew around gold mines in the Coromandel Peninsula and coal mines near Huntly. We used rivers for transport. Hamilton, on the Waikato River, became a busy centre of economic activity.

A century of change

The last hundred years have seen sweeping changes to the region’s landscapes and where we have settled, used and created resources. Find out more about the changes in land cover.

Early this century, most of the hill country was developed for farming. After World War II more service towns and industries thrived, and small settlements grew around hydroelectric dam constructions.

Native timber was logged north and west of Lake Taupo. Pinus radiata planted in the 1920s and 1930s started today’s plantation forestry industry.

Tokoroa’s population more than doubled in ten years between 1961 and 1971 (7,000 to over 15,000) as people moved to jobs created by the local and world markets’ demand for wood products. Many new arrivals were Maori, as jobs and Government housing policies encouraged Maori to move to towns and cities1.

Government incentives during this period promoted sheep and cattle farming and bush clearing, so more land was put into farms and forestry. Much of this was marginal land and could only be farmed with the use of fertiliser.

With increasing mobility and leisure time, New Zealanders headed for the beach. Many coastal areas were subdivided, such as the Coromandel Peninsula. Find out more about the pressures on our coastal areas.

In the 1970s economic recession, changing markets and automated production of industries meant less employment in the coal and timber industries. The number of people living in Huntly and Tokoroa fell.

In the 1980s, New Zealand’s economy was restructured. This meant many industries were deregulated or no longer run by the government. During this time farming subsidies were removed. As a result farming had to be more efficient, which often meant more intensive use was made of the land, and stocking rates increased. Find out more about the effect of intensifying land use on the water quality of our lakes, rivers and streams.

Without subsidies some areas are now uneconomic to farm. The land is reverting to scrub and gorse on its way back to native forest. Find out how we use land and soil resources in the Waikato region today and the environmental issues affecting our land and soil.


  1. McKinnon, M. (Ed.), Bradley, B. and Kirkpatrick, R. 1997: The New Zealand Historical Atlas: Ko Papatuanuku e Takoto Nei. David Bateman, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.