Elizabeth Parker, or Betty (as she was usually known), was born on 3 December 1814 and baptised at Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. Her parents were Harriott and Stephen Parker. In about 1819 Harriott Parker went to live with a sawyer, John Deaves. Betty was brought up in their Sydney household with a brother, a sister and three half-brothers.
According to one story, which is often repeated but not proved, Betty Parker made a voyage to the Marlborough Sounds with her future husband, Captain John (Jacky) Guard, in 1827, when she was only 12 years old. It is more likely that she first arrived in New Zealand three years later as a 15-year-old bride. She was a passenger on the schooner Waterloo which left Sydney on 7 November 1830. Her marriage to Jacky Guard probably took place earlier that year; the exact date is unknown.
Jacky Guard was some 23 years older than Betty. He had arrived in Sydney as a convict in 1815. After the expiry of his sentence in 1820 he became a sealer, a sea captain and a trader. In the late 1820s he set up New Zealand's first shore whaling station at Te Awaiti, Tory Channel. Te Awaiti, or Tar'white as it was called by whalers, became Betty's new home. She was reputedly the first woman of European descent to settle in the South Island.
On 1 October 1831, at the age of 16, Betty Guard gave birth to a son, John, who was baptised in Sydney on 25 December 1831. He was the first Pākehā child to be born in the South Island. Jacky Guard later moved his whaling station and residence to Kākāpō Bay, Port Underwood. Late in 1833 Betty Guard gave birth to a daughter, Louisa.
Jacky Guard took his family on a visit to Sydney in January 1834. In April the Guards returned on the barque Harriet, which, 16 days out from Sydney, was driven ashore near Cape Egmont, Taranaki, in a southerly gale. All those on board managed to reach the shore and camped in tents made of the ship's sails. However, a group of Taranaki and Ngāti Ruanui Māori, aided by two deserting seamen from the Harriet who supplied them with gunpowder, attacked the shipwreck victims. A desperate encounter ensued and a number of the Harriet's crew were killed. Betty Guard, her husband and two children, and some sailors were captured. After two weeks Jacky Guard and several other men were released on the understanding that they would return with a cask of gunpowder as ransom for the rest of the party. They eventually reached Sydney.
Betty Guard narrowly escaped death at the hands of her captors. They twice cut her down with a tomahawk, and would have split open her head but for a large comb in her hair, which deflected the blows. Her ordeal was later described in a somewhat lurid report in the Sydney Herald of 17 November 1834. According to this, the Māori 'stripped her and her children naked, dragged her to their huts, and would have killed her, had not a Chief's wife kindly interfered in her behalf, and when the bludgeon was raised with that intention, threw a rug over her person, and saved her life. …They afterwards delivered the youngest child to the mother, and took the other away into the bush, and Mrs. Guard did not see it for two months after.' The newspaper report also described how Betty Guard 'saw the Natives cut up and eat those they killed belonging to the Harriet'. Other accounts, however, suggest that after the initial affray Betty Guard was treated well; that she was protected by a chief, Oaoiti, and lived with him as a wife.
After a delay of four months a rescue expedition was sent to secure the release of the prisoners. The man-o'-war Alligator, with an officer and 25 rank and file of the 50th Regiment, and the colonial schooner Isabella with a further detachment of the 50th Regiment, consisting of 2 officers and 40 rank and file, sailed from Port Jackson (Sydney) on 31 August 1834. These soldiers were the first British troops to come into armed combat with the Māori. Jacky Guard and his men accompanied the party.
The Māori captors had expected to receive recompense for the return of their prisoners. However, Captain Robert Lambert, commander of the Alligator and leader of the expedition, seems to have adhered to a 'no ransom' policy. The first prisoners to be yielded up from Moturoa were the eight surviving sailors off the Harriet. Four days later, on 25 September 1834, Betty Guard and her baby daughter were located at Te Namu pā. The rescue party assaulted and burnt the pā, causing the Māori to flee with their prisoners to a pā at Waimate, further along the Taranaki coast. On 1 October, after much deliberation, Betty and Louisa were given up in exchange for Oaoiti, who had earlier been detained and brutally ill treated by Jacky Guard and his companions.
Betty Guard's son, John, was the one remaining captive. In an attempt to rescue him the two vessels bombarded the Māori pā and canoes for three hours. On 8 October a full force of officers and men landed with a six pounder gun. The boy was grabbed off the back of an old chief who had carried him to the beach, and who was then summarily shot. No sooner was John Guard made safe than a full-scale engagement broke out between the Māori and the shore party. This continued over the next few days as rough seas prevented a speedy re-embarkation of the troops.
There was much criticism of the handling of the Harriet affair, particularly of the excessive force used against the Māori, most likely caused by a combination of European truculence and ignorance of Māori ways. The incident had serious repercussions for Betty Guard. Her daughter, Louisa, died eight months later, probably as a result of hardships suffered while she was a prisoner. Moreover, there were hints by contemporaries that Betty Guard had given birth in Sydney to twins fathered by Oaoiti. Edward Markham helped spread the rumour by referring to it in his book, New Zealand or recollections of it: 'before I left Sydney, I heard that she was brought to bed of Twins & they were rather dark.' It is possible that Betty Guard had twins on her return to Sydney, but it is also recorded that on 22 November 1835 she gave birth to Thomas, her second son by Jacky Guard. In early 1836 she returned to Kākāpō Bay with her family in the schooner Industry to continue her life in New Zealand.
Betty Guard had six more children and lived to see the beginnings of official British settlement in the South Island. Towards the end of her life she was described as 'a most remarkable woman, tall and thin and very alert.' She died at the age of 55 on 16 July 1870 and was buried in the Guard family private burial ground in Kākāpō Bay, close to the graves of her husband and most of her children.