Te Paea (Sophia) Tīaho, of Ngāti Mahuta, was born probably in the early 1820s in Waikato. Her father was Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Māori King. Her mother was probably his senior wife, Whakaawi, but may have been Raharaha, one of his junior wives. Her siblings included Matutaera, later known as Tāwhiao, who succeeded his father as king; and Tīria, also known as Te Otaota or Mākareta.
Te Paea showed her chiefly qualities as a teenaged girl. War between the Waikato and Hawke's Bay tribes had led to the serious defeat of the latter about 1824. But by the 1830s Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti and Ngāti Kahungunu, led by Te Pareihe, were acquiring arms and had achieved a series of victories over their other enemies. The chiefs of Waikato believed they would be the next to be attacked. Te Paea, accompanied by two other women (the daughters of Wahanui Huatare and Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpipi), was ordered to go to Te Pareihe as a hostage for peace.
The three women travelled to Tāmaki-makau-rau (Auckland) and then by ship to Nukutaurua on the Māhia Peninsula. Thinking that the ship was a whaling vessel, Te Pareihe's people permitted the passengers to land. Te Pareihe assembled the surrounding tribes, and Te Paea delivered Waikato's plea that peace be made. Although opposed by other chiefs Te Pareihe agreed, and instead of retaining the women as hostages or slaves he allowed Te Paea and her companions to carry the news of peace back to Waikato.
Little more is known of Te Paea until she moved from Māngere to Ngāruawāhia. The date of this is uncertain. From the outset of the King movement at Ngāruawāhia Te Paea seems to have been recognised as an influential leader. Apparently writing in the lifetime of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, Erenora Taratoa of Ngāti Raukawa referred in a waiata to Waikato, where 'King Pōtatau, Te Paea And Matutaera…hold sway.…For the prestige of New Zealand'. However, Te Paea told the Reverend Arthur Purchas in 1863 that when her father had gone to Ngāruawāhia in 1858 to be installed as king, she had remained at Māngere in obedience to his wishes, and in consequence she was not present when he died in June 1860.
According to J. E. Gorst's account, on Pōtatau Te Wherowhero's death, there was some difficulty finding a successor. Candidates included Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpipi of Ngāti Hauā, and Te Wherowhero's son, Matutaera. In Gorst's estimation the latter was regarded as weak, and his sister, Te Paea, was put forward. She was then about 35 years old, resolute and intelligent. Wiremu Tāmihana was in temporary disfavour with the King's followers because he advocated peace, and after some hesitation, he declared his support for Matutaera, and Te Paea's claims were withdrawn.
Many acts of leadership during the 1860s are attributed to Te Paea. In 1862 Wiremu Nēra Te Awa-i-taia of Raglan tried to build a road from Raglan to the Waipā River. This was regarded with deep suspicion by the King's supporters, as the road would be a potential route for the conquest of Waikato by government troops. As a relative of Te Awa-i-taia, Te Paea was able to intervene. With her own hands she pulled up the survey pegs that marked his proposed route.
Te Paea's influence was usually employed in favour of moderation and peace. The government's plan to establish a school at Te Awamutu, where young men would be trained as loyal servants of the government, together with the establishment of a bullet-proof steamer on the Waikato River, were regarded by the Kingites as hostile moves. Difficulties arose over the purchase of timber for the school buildings, and when a faction of Ngāti Maniapoto carted away the sawn timber a stormy meeting followed. Gorst, the resident magistrate for Waikato, insisted on its return. Te Paea, while visiting Kihikihi, asked that the disputed timber be gifted to her, which, given her status, was a request impossible to refuse. She then presented it to Gorst. This ended the immediate difficulty, and for a time seemed to promise peace in Waikato.
At about this time the King movement became divided over the advisability of converting to Catholicism. Some were drawn to that religion because it professed no allegiance to the Queen. Te Paea opposed Catholicism. She and other leaders presided over a dinner given for all the local Europeans at Rangiaowhia (Rangiaohia) to commemorate the accession of the King, and a day or two afterwards she took part in a friendly visit to Te Awamutu which resulted in an invitation to the governor to visit Waikato.
As events drew nearer to war, Governor George Grey made an unannounced visit to Ngāruawāhia, at the beginning of January 1863. King Tāwhiao was absent, and Grey was welcomed by Te Paea. She asked Grey why he did not make the surprise complete by cutting down the King's flagstaff; she would have refused him nothing. At Kihikihi in April Te Paea told Rewi Maniapoto that the mission station at Te Awamutu had been entrusted to her safe-keeping for the missionaries until more peaceful times. Rewi and his people had wanted to occupy the mission buildings, but Rewi promised to respect Te Paea's wishes. At Ngāruawāhia, Te Paea went into the chiefs' rūnanga, which was discussing whether to defend Te Awamutu from Ngāti Maniapoto, and harangued the chiefs in the cause of peace.
Te Paea and Pātara Te Tuhi, the King's adviser, made further endeavours to prevent violence, but their efforts were overtaken by events. They then warned Gorst and other officials, settlers and missionaries to leave Waikato because Tāwhiao could not protect them from Ngāti Maniapoto. In consequence, most had left by the end of June 1863. Te Paea had planned to return to Māngere to live, as her father had wished, but, she told Purchas in April, she had been forced to stay in Waikato because of the unsettled state of the people. She would go if they continued to disregard her father's behest to 'Live in peace with the Pākehā'. The outbreak of war in July prevented her from making the move.
Nothing was recorded about Te Paea during the war years, and few official mentions were made of her in the time before her death. It is clear that she continued to be regarded as one of the principal King movement leaders at Kāwhia, and at Te Kūiti, where she lived. The Waikato chief Te Wheoro recorded in 1870 that it was her decision which would permit or block the opening up of the Ōhinemuri goldfield. Europeans sometimes referred to her as 'Princess Sophia'. She died on 22 January 1875. Her tangihanga was held at Tāwhiao's residence at Waitomo, near Te Kūiti. She had no issue.