John Lees Faulkner was born in Whitby, Yorkshire, England, probably some time between 1810 and 1812, the son of Jarvis Faulkner, a farmer, and his wife, Elizabeth. As a young man, working probably as a ship's carpenter, he sailed to Australia and then to New Zealand, arriving in the Bay of Islands about 1832; in January 1835 he purchased land there from Kiwikiwi. Faulkner began to trade with Māori from Tauranga and occasionally sailed to the Bay of Plenty. He met Ruawahine, sometimes known as Irihāpeti (Elizabeth) or Puihi, daughter of Tāwaho and Parewhakarau of Ngāi Tūkairangi, a hapū of Ngāi Te Rangi, and she began to accompany him on his trips. They had had several children by 1840 when Faulkner decided to settle at Tauranga. In mid 1842 they were married by the CMS missionary, the Reverend Alfred Nesbit Brown; he also baptised their children. Ruawahine and John were to have 13 children.
After a brief residence at Maungatapu pā, Faulkner set up his home and trading post on land belonging to Ruawahine, near Ōtūmoetai pā. From this base, close to the harbour entrance, he traded with the Bay of Islands and Auckland. Faulkner built the trading schooners Eliza (1846), Children (1849), Isabella (1851) and Maria Jane (1854), and often captained them. He used Māori crews, but by 1850 Tauranga Māori were successfully running their own trading vessels, several of which Faulkner had built. Later he was the owner, or part-owner, of the Marwell (1862–63), the Tauranga (1863–72), the Jane (1865–70) and the Mary Eliza (1872–73). Faulkner's trading store on the Ōtūmoetai property, known as Okorore, flourished. Its success owed much to the mana of Ruawahine: Faulkner was accepted by local Māori, exchanging his valuable entrepreneurial skills for their protection. In 1860 he was appointed as Tauranga's first postmaster.
His position was not without its problems, however. He objected to the children following Māori custom and speaking Māori; at least two daughters were sent to the Reverend George Kissling's school in Auckland. Ruawahine died on 24 September 1855, and Faulkner married Elizabeth Humphries in Auckland on 26 January 1857; they had one child. In July 1863, at the beginning of the Waikato war, John and Elizabeth Faulkner and his two youngest children went to Auckland for a time. However, the close links between Māori and Pākehā, forged by the marriage of John and Ruawahine, survived the wars of the 1860s. Although one of Faulkner's stores was looted by British troops in 1864, Ngāi Te Rangi protected his property.
Land which had belonged to Ruawahine was confiscated after the British campaign of 1864; in January 1865 Faulkner, on behalf of his children, lodged claims before the Native Land Court in Auckland for its return. Crown title for 88 acres was issued in 1871, along with the title for a half acre round the homestead. Faulkner also owned 10 acres on the beach front at Tauranga. He farmed some of his land, and his four-horse threshing machine was used for 20 years by the Māori of Ōtūmoetai, Matakana, Papamoa, Matapihi, Maungatapu, Katikati and Te Puna.
The entrepreneurial skills which helped Faulkner gain such ready acceptance among the Māori were accompanied by an unshakeable honesty and integrity which gained him the respect of Māori and missionary alike. He died at Tauranga on 8 September 1882, 'universally respected' and 'without a single enemy.'