Te Rei Hanataua was the leading chief of Tangahoe hapū of Ngāti Ruanui. He was the son of Wakataparuru and Hineao; his ancestry extends back to Turi and Rongorongo. He was born probably early in the nineteenth century, and brought up in the main Ngāti Ruanui pā, Pūtake, a terraced pā on the Tangahoe Stream.
He led the Ngāti Ruanui contingent which went to Te Rauparaha's assistance when the lower North Island tribes assaulted Kapiti Island about 1824. Te Rei Hanataua returned home after Te Rauparaha routed his opponents. He was implicated in the killing of Te Karawa, of Te Āti Awa, at Pūtake, in 1826. A party of Te Āti Awa, with Taranaki and Waikato allies, sought revenge but failed to find Te Rei Hanataua.
When the migration of Te Āti Awa known as Tama-te-uaua passed through South Taranaki in 1832, Te Rei Hanataua allowed them to stay a month at Ketemarae, near present day Normanby. He led a force, said to be 2,000-strong, to their assistance when they were attacked at Wanganui by local tribes and Ngāti Tūwharetoa. He joined them at Kokohuia on the lower Wanganui River, but when it was decided not to attack Pukenamu (in present day Wanganui) he took his men home.
For the next few years Te Rei Hanataua was with Ngāti Ruanui in the Ōtaki district, at a time when relationships with Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Toa worsened. The Taranaki people had suffered at the hands of these tribes at Pakakutu and Haowhenua, on the Ōtaki River. Te Rei Hanataua laid siege to Te Rauparaha's pā at Rangiuru and after his peace emissary, Tūraukawa, was killed, occupied this pā, which then became known as Te Pā-a-Te Hanataua. But Te Rauparaha was reinforced by Ngāti Raukawa from the north and retook the pā by storm. The Taranaki tribes were allowed to return home after acknowledging Ngāti Toa rights to the land.
About 1834–36 Waikato, still smarting from their failure to capture Te Rei Hanataua in 1826, advanced on Te Ruaki, another terraced pā on the Tangahoe Stream, where he was then living. Failing to take it by storm they surrounded it with a palisade and after three months starved its inhabitants into submission. Either then or after a chase to Pātea, Te Rei Hanataua was captured. However, following the defeat of Waikato by Ngāti Ruanui and Taranaki at Waimate pā, he and his people escaped.
Afterwards Te Rei Hanataua lived at Ōhangai, a massive pā near Hāwera, which was surrounded by karaka groves and later fortified with ramparts, trenches and palisades. S. P. Smith visited Ōhangai in 1858, and described it as 'beautifully clean and neat'. Both Wesleyan and Anglican missionaries visited Ōhangai in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1852 its people were growing wheat and building substantial houses. On appropriate occasions Te Rei Hanataua wore European dress.
His son, Piripi, became the principal Anglican teacher at Waokena, near Hāwera, after the killing of their teacher, Te Mānihera, and a fellow teacher, Kereopa, near Tokaanu in 1847. In March 1849 Piripi visited Taupō with the Reverend Richard Taylor to make peace with the tribes responsible for the murder. In June 1850 Te Rei Hanataua's former enemy, Tōpine Te Mamaku of Ngāti Hāua-te-rangi, was brought to him at Waitōtara by Taylor to make a formal peace.
By this time Te Rei Hanataua and his people felt threatened by the advance of European settlement. In October 1851 he protested at the erection of a new flagstaff at New Plymouth which was seen as a claim to land. However he was not a participant in the Manawapou meeting to secure Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki and Ngā Rauru tribal boundaries in May 1854. In March 1855 he responded to Te Waitere Kātātore's request for assistance in the Puketapu feud in North Taranaki and his people took part in some minor clashes. In May of that year Te Rei Hanataua assisted Kātātore in his attack on Ninia pā, an action which brought European troops to New Plymouth. To secure the northern boundary of the Taranaki tribes against Pākehā settlement, Te Rei Hanataua led 100 armed men to Tapuae, south-west of New Plymouth, in January 1856.
Fighting resumed in April 1856 when his son, Piripi, led 40 warriors of Tangahoe hapū to support Kātātore at his pā, Kaipakopako. Piripi was killed there on 16 April. Tangahoe were incensed. Te Rei Hanataua, at the head of 300 people, camped outside Kaipakopako, slaughtered all animals in the vicinity and prepared to take vengeance on either faction within Puketapu. Only the intervention of Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke prevented fighting and Robert Parris, the district land purchase commissioner, persuaded them not to erect a pā which would be seen as provocation. After attacking Īhāia Te Kirikūmara's pā, Ikamoana, Tangahoe warriors returned home and took no further part in the feud. In 1857, when Kātātore offered to sell the Whakangerengere block, adjacent to New Plymouth and adjoining the boundary of Ngāti Ruanui, Te Rei Hanataua joined other chiefs in warning Parris of the consequences.
When fighting broke out in March 1860, Te Rei Hanataua led 130 Tangahoe and Ngā Ruahine warriors to join Taranaki forces at Kaipopo pā, Waireka. The combined force of 400 men, including elderly warriors and boys, fired on Ōmata stockade and then engaged colonial troops at John Jury's farm. Caught in the cross-fire from men of the Niger, their losses included 17 chiefs, among them Te Rei Hanataua.
Te Rei Hanataua's first wife was Mata Hinewai, to whom he was married by Richard Taylor on 12 February 1849. His second wife was Hītaringa. He had at least five children: Taiteariki, Piripi Wiremu, Te Ua Tito, Pita and Tamaohungia. Watikini Hanataua may have been a son or a grandson.