Auckland was the most densely populated part of the country when the first Europeans arrived. Estimates by the most reliable observers in the early nineteenth century suggest that it contained about 75 per cent of the population. Settlement was particularly dense in northern Northland, around the shores of Hauraki Gulf, around Kawhia and Raglan Harbours, on the banks of the Waikato and Waipa Rivers, along the Bay of Plenty coast, along the east coast from the Mahia Peninsula to East Cape, and in the Rotorua lakes district. Cultivations of the kumara, taro, and gourd were extensive, particularly on volcanic soils of northerly aspect; terraced hill forts and palisaded villages were numerous. The clearing of land by burning as a prelude to cultivation had made considerable inroads into the forests.
Abandoned Maori cultivations reverted to fern and scrub and on such open lands the first European settlers made their farms.
In 1853 the core of the newly established Auckland Province was the Tamaki Isthmus. In the settled districts within a radius of 20 miles of the town of Auckland lived nine-tenths of the white population of the province. Yet this area had been the focus of European activity only since 1840, when it was selected primarily as the site for the colonial capital. In no other province had European enterprise been so widely dispersed prior to the establishment of “official” settlement.
Timber for shipbuilding had been taken from the River Thames in 1792, and from 1794 onwards the Bay of Islands became a favoured refitting and victualling depot for deep-sea whaling ships of many nationalities. The riotous little settlement of Kororareka(q.v.) attracted a motley assortment of ex-convicts from Australia, traders, runaway sailors, and some Scottish artisans, who went there after the failure of an attempt at planned colonisation in Hokianga Harbour in 1827. Until the 1830s European interest centred on northern Northland, with its deeply indented harbours, its resources of flax and kauri spars, and its dense Maori population. From here the disruptive effects of the European contact with the Maori spread throughout much of the North Island. The trade in muskets made intertribal conflict much more devastating, and warfare and the depredations caused by European diseases may have reduced the Maori population by one half in the 30 years before 1840.
Mission enterprise had more constructive results. Inspired by Marsden, Anglican missionary activity began at the Bay of Islands in 1814, but it did not prosper until the arrival of the energetic Henry Williams in 1823. Wesleyan missions were established nearby on Whangaroa Harbour in 1823 and Hokianga Harbour in 1828. In 1831 New Zealand's first proper farm was established at Waimate, on the model of an English mixed farm, by the missionary-farmer Richard Davis. There were 10 mission stations in Northland by 1838. .
In the 1830s both missionary and trader spread their activities more widely throughout what was to become the Auckland Province and introduced the Maori to European crops and the rudiments of new farming techniques. Traders, based on Sydney, collected flax, pork, and potatoes from Kawhia Harbour, the Bay of Plenty, and remote Poverty Bay. Seven mission stations were founded between 1834 and 1839 on the west coast between Manukau and Kawhia Harbours, and there were three on Hauraki Gulf, two in the heart of the Waikato, two at Rotorua, and one at Tauranga.