John Ormsby (Hone Omipi), of Ngati Te Waha and Ngati Pourahui hapu of Ngati Maniapoto, was born, according to family information, at Te Kopua, near Pirongia Mountain, on 6 November 1854. He was the fourth child of the Waipa schoolmaster, Robert Ormsby (known to Maori as Pumi), and his wife, Mere Pianika (Mary Bianca) Rangihurihia, daughter of Te Raku. The Ormsby children were educated by their father, who had attended Trinity College, Dublin (without taking a degree), before emigrating to New Zealand. A month before the outbreak of war in Waikato, Ngati Maniapoto relatives gave Robert Ormsby the choice of declaring support for the King movement or the government. He chose the latter and left the Waipa district with his family. John's 10-year-old brother, Arthur, remained with Ngati Maniapoto, while another brother served with the government militia. Having spent the war in Auckland, the family returned to Waipa.
On 6 January 1877 John Ormsby married a neighbour's daughter, Rangihurihia, also known as Rangatahi, in Alexandra (Pirongia). After her death, he married Marama Hiriako; she also died, and he married Rangihurihia's sister, Ngahora, also known as Moe Aranui.
Ormsby first rose to prominence in the 1880s as a protégé of Wahanui Huatare. It was a time of growing conflict between Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto over the former's claim to exercise his mana over the King Country. In April 1882, with his relative, Te Mohi Te Puaha (also known as Tommy Green), Ormsby is said to have assisted the Austrian collector Andreas Reischek to remove the remains of a Tainui chief, probably Te Rauparaha's and Tawhiao's ancestor Tupahau, from a burial cave at Kawhia. The cave was situated on land eventually awarded by the Native Land Court to Waikato, against the appeals of Ormsby's relatives who also claimed it.
In contrast to Tawhiao's continued refusal to compromise with the government, Ngati Maniapoto signalled their intention to work towards solutions to land and other problems. As part of this co-operation, they accepted the establishment of the Kawhia Native Committee under the Native Committees Act 1883. Ormsby was its first chairman. His functions were to investigate and report on land issues such as succession and title and to settle disputes involving claims under £20. The Kawhia Native Committee was seen as the most active and successful of those elected under the 1883 act. Although Ormsby was young, and junior in Maori terms, the authority of leading chiefs supported his chairmanship. They in turn were keen to make use of his considerable skills in speaking and dealing successfully with European officialdom.
In 1884 Ormsby and others successfully petitioned Parliament to permit Wahanui Huatare to address the House on Maori land issues. Ormsby accompanied Wahanui to Wellington. Their main concern was that they be empowered to deal with their own lands. Because of the government's intention to build the main trunk railway line through the King Country, the land had been put under proclamation, preventing sales other than to the Crown.
Their visit bore fruit when a meeting was arranged between Native Minister John Ballance and representatives of Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Tuwharetoa, Wanganui tribes, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Hikairo at Kihikihi on 4 February 1885. In his capacity as chairman, Ormsby presented the Maori concerns. They were anxious to protect their people from losing their land through rates, mounting private debt and consequent freehold sale, but were prepared to grant leases.
Ormsby obtained agreement that the powers of the Kawhia Native Committee would be expanded; that the operation of the Native Land Court would be reformed; and that Maori would have rights over the mining of coal and gold. The most important concession was that no rates would be levied against the land until it was either in production or leased to Pakeha settlers. Ballance rejected Ormsby's argument for increasing the number of Maori MHRs to eight.
The Kihikihi agreement was a success. Ormsby was delegated to discuss amending legislation with the government. The land court hearings proceeded without the drunken debasement or sharp practices that Ngati Maniapoto had noted in Cambridge. Ormsby's committee collected royalties from contractors for the rights to take timber and gravel, issued licences to keep billiard rooms, granted temporary occupation rights to Pakeha storekeepers and railway contractors, and liaised with the government. It also continued to administer Ngati Maniapoto and other lands. Maori land was leased to Pakeha settlers on 21-year leases, with five-year rent reviews and no compensation for improvements. In 1887 a party of young Ngati Maniapoto came to blows with contractors attempting to avoid royalty payments owed to the committee. The government native agent investigated and recommended that no further action be taken. Ormsby seems to have mediated in the conflict, and an arrangement for payment was made.
These successes did nothing to heal the split in the King movement. Ormsby bluntly repudiated Tawhiao's representatives at the Rohe Potae hearing in 1886, and resisted, for both practical and political reasons, the move of the court from Otorohanga to Alexandra or Whatiwhatihoe.
Further responsibilities came Ormsby's way. In 1886 he was made an assessor of the Resident Magistrate's Court for Waikato district, and of the Native Land Court. In 1890 he was appointed a commissioner under the Native Land Court Acts Amendment Act 1889, and he was appointed to the 1920 Native Land Claims Commission.
Ormsby was equally successful in other spheres of activity. In 1890 the Native Land Court confirmed the Ormsby family's title to 3,161 acres of land at Te Kopua and he began sheepfarming. The land purchase officer in Otorohanga, G. T. Wilkinson, complained that the success of the venture was encouraging other Ngati Maniapoto to retain rather than sell their land, but he was confident that Maori sheepfarming would soon fail. Ormsby went on to help establish the town of Otorohanga. He was chairman of the Otorohanga Town Board and clerk of the first Waitomo County Council, and laid the foundation stone of the town hall. He employed his Maori relatives to manage the hotel, quarry, butchery, livery stables, land insurance and interpretation agency, and the bakery which he established. His farming ventures continued to flourish and he established the first local branch of the New Zealand Farmers' Union. Ormsby refused to act as agent for the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation unless they accepted Maori risk; they relented.
A reconciliation between the King movement and Ngati Maniapoto was effected late in Ormsby's life. In 1920 he supported the establishment of the King movement's marae at Turangawaewae. He was also an adviser to the Maori King, Te Rata, and assisted Te Puea Herangi to pioneer differential voting techniques to ensure the election of other Maori to local bodies.
John Ormsby died in Ngaruawahia on 11 June 1927. He was survived by his third wife, two daughters and two sons. He was highly regarded as a speaker and debater; he had an unrivalled knowledge of civic, legal, and government procedure as they affected the Maori; his advice was highly valued and eagerly sought. His work had ensured that Ngati Maniapoto did not lose their lands through settler and government pressure, and helped his people make a successful transition from subsistence living to the market economy.