Robert Reid Parris, son of William and Agnes Parris, was baptised on 16 May 1816 at Chard, Somerset, England. His forebears, of French protestant origin, had settled in Dorset in the sixteenth century; his father was a farmer. Robert married Mary Whitmore at Colyton, Somerset, on 18 October 1838. Two daughters were born to them in England, and two daughters and a son in New Zealand.
Robert Parris and his family arrived at New Plymouth, New Zealand, on 19 November 1842 on the Blenheim. After an unsuccessful attempt at farming, he was by 1849 farm manager at Bishop G. A. Selwyn's St John's College, Auckland, and rose to become general superintendent of its industrial school. There he gained a thorough grounding in Maori language and customs. His name, transliterated into Maori, became Ropata Parete or Parakete. He returned to New Plymouth about 1852 and was elected to the New Plymouth Provincial Council in August 1853. In the first six months of 1857 he was provincial treasurer in George Cutfield's administration but resigned when appointed district land purchase commissioner at New Plymouth in July 1857. He attended a meeting of Te Ati Awa in November 1857 where Te Teira announced his decision to sell land at Waitara, an offer he repeated a year later. By the time Te Teira offered the block to Governor Thomas Gore Browne in March 1859, Parris was well acquainted with the issue. He was appointed to investigate Te Teira's title, while Donald McLean obtained the consent of some Te Ati Awa at Wellington and Queen Charlotte Sound. In November 1859 Parris, by now assistant native secretary, paid Te Teira a deposit of £100, despite the opposition of Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake to the sale. After Parris attempted to survey the Waitara block on 20 February 1860, fighting broke out.
Parris's life was often in danger: in May 1860 he survived a plot by some Ngati Ruanui to ambush him near Urenui, and in late 1862 he met Te Ua Haumene at Poutoko, south of New Plymouth. He was appointed a captain in the New Zealand Militia in June 1863 and was promoted to major in May 1865. A month later he again met Te Ua Haumene and Ngati Ruanui at the Waingongoro River where he accepted the surrender of Hone Pihama and the Taranaki tribe.
From September 1865 to July 1875 Parris was civil commissioner in Taranaki, and by 'skilful management' of the disaffected tribes and 'firm but judicious and conciliatory dealing with them' maintained peaceful relations between Maori and European. From August 1866 he was a judge of the Compensation Court, which determined compensation claims under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, and from January 1868 was a resident magistrate for New Plymouth.
Among the many matters he attended to between 1865 and 1875 were the acquisition of the site of Opunake in early 1867; the arrangement of land for North Taranaki Maori returning from the Chatham Islands in December 1867; keeping most of the Taranaki tribe from joining Titokowaru in mid 1868; dealing with the murder of the Reverend John Whiteley and others at Pukearuhe in February 1869; and negotiating with Te Whiti the opening of the Taranaki coast road from October 1869. In December 1870 he won Te Whiti's consent to complete the coast road; during 1871 he smoothed Titokowaru's return to South Taranaki; in January 1872 he accepted the allegiance of Ngati Maru who had sheltered Titokowaru; and in July his purchase of the Kapua block was the beginning of land acquisitions that totalled 185,000 acres. During 1873 and 1874 he negotiated the construction of the inland mountain road between New Plymouth and Hawera, which opened up east Taranaki for settlement. He retired in 1875 but continued to report on Maori affairs in Taranaki until 1884.
Parris was recalled in April 1880 on special service to the West Coast Commission on Taranaki land grievances. He accepted a temporary commission as a judge of the Native Land Court in July 1880 and adjudicated on the purchase of the Mangaere and other inland Taranaki land blocks. He was serving on the Bench when Te Whiti and Tohu were convicted in November 1881. In February 1883 he accompanied the commissioners William Fox and F. D. Bell and others to settle problems north of Waitara.
Parris was a trustee of the New Plymouth Savings Bank from 31 December 1856 to 30 September 1899 and spent the last six years as vice president. He was one of the first four trustees of St Mary's Church, appointed by Selwyn in 1853, and he conducted the church choir in 1852. In 1867 he was elected vice president of the Taranaki Philharmonic Society and became president in 1880. He served as chairman of the local school trustees, visiting justice to the gaol, and as a sinking fund commissioner for the harbour board. He died in New Plymouth on 18 September 1904. Mary Parris died two years later.
Although Parris has been described as 'a man of great force of character and remarkable courage', his long public career was marked by the controversy over the Waitara purchase. Parris accepted Te Teira's title ahead of the claims of Wiremu Kingi Te Rangitake because he believed that Kingi and Te Ati Awa on their return from Waikanae in 1848 had asked permission of Taripa Raru, Te Teira's father, to build a pa on the south side of the Waitara River. He stated that on several occasions Kingi had 'admitted unreservedly' that the land belonged to Te Teira's party but had said he would oppose the sale of it. Rather than being sacrificed to save the government's face after Governor George Grey's abandonment of the Waitara purchase, Parris went on to be entrusted with great responsibilities. Faced with eager settlers on the one hand and truculent tribes on the other, he eventually won the respect of both. Te Whiti said in 1879 that Parris 'always came and told us his intentions before taking action', which his successor, Major Charles Brown, failed to do. William Fox referred to the entire absence throughout Parris's long career of all speculation in Maori land. His critics had been unable to prove otherwise.