There is no record of the first Tūhoe encounter with Pākehā, but it is possible that Tūhoe were present at or heard of Lieutenant James Cook’s landing at Tūranga (Poverty Bay) in 1769, and his subsequent voyage to the Bay of Plenty. There was little further contact for another 50 years, when traders and missionaries began to arrive.
Because of their inaccessible territory and the uneasy state of affairs between them and their neighbours on the coast, Tūhoe had fewer dealings with Pākehā than other Māori. Despite this, they encountered European goods, particularly when Ngāpuhi made their devastating musket raids throughout the North Island between 1819 and 1823. Potatoes and pigs were two of the earliest imports, and in about 1820 the tribe acquired maize.
Commerce also thrived with coastal tribes, who had easier access to such commodities. Flax fibre, potted birds and even slaves were exchanged for goods including arms, ammunition, seeds, tools, and animals. Because of the tension between Tūhoe and their Ngāti Awa kin on the coast, Tūhoe hapū (sub-tribes) travelled long distances to Tāmaki, Hauraki and other places to trade.
In the early 1860s, the Tūhoe people became aware of impending war over land and mana in the Waikato, with imperial troops massing on the northern Waikato border in preparation for an invasion. Tūhoe were initially cautious about becoming involved. The prevailing feeling was expressed by one chief: ‘Kia tāwharautia a Mataatua’ (let Mataatua be sheltered). It was suggested that action should be taken only if government troops came into Tūhoe territory. Troops did eventually arrive as a consequence of two incidents: the killing of the missionary Carl Sylvius Völkner at Ōpōtiki, and the involvement of some Tūhoe in the battle for Ōrākau.
In 1863 or early 1864, Ngāti Maniapoto war leader Rewi Maniapoto visited Te Urewera seeking allies for the war in the Waikato. In his request to the chiefs of Tūhoe, Rewi recalled the close bonds between Tūhoe and Waikato. He alluded to the resting place of the ancestor Tūhoe at Kāwhia in Waikato, and the epic duel between the chiefs Te Purewa of Tūhoe and Peehi Tūkorehu of Ngāti Maniapoto at Te Whāiti 40 years earlier. This ended in stalemate, with an exchange of weapons between the two great warrior chiefs. Rewi also referred to the pledge of Tūhoe support for the Māori King at the great conference of tribes held at Pūkawa, Lake Taupō, in 1856, and to the blood ties between Ngāti Whare (a Tūhoe hapū) and Tainui.
Under the leadership of Piripi Te Heuheu and Te Whenuanui, a party of 100 Tūhoe – men, women and children – departed for Waikato, and war. On their arrival, Rewi Maniapoto tried unsuccessfully to check their desire for immediate battle. They replied that they had come too far, and their weapons and ammunition were too heavy to carry all the way for nothing. Despite his own reservations about Ōrākau in south Waikato as a site for battle, Rewi Maniapoto agreed to their request.
Between 31 March and 2 April 1864 the Tūhoe contingent took part in the battle of Ōrākau alongside Rewi Maniapoto. The defenders faced overwhelming odds and were severely defeated. Tūhoe suffered 60% casualties, including their chief Piripi Te Heuheu. On the return of Te Whenuanui and the other survivors to Ruatāhuna, they were jeered by the widows of those who fell at Ōrākau.
The killing of Völkner
In March 1865 Reverend Carl Sylvius Völkner, an Anglican priest suspected by his Te Whakatōhea parishioners of being a government spy, was killed at Ōpōtiki. At the instigation of Kereopa Te Rau (a Pai Mārire missionary sent from Taranaki to enlist followers in the Bay of Plenty–East Coast area), Völkner was hanged not far from his church; his eyes were then scooped out and eaten. Kereopa then fled into Te Urewera. Despite their vehement denials and a lack of evidence of their presence at the killing of Völkner, Tūhoe were accused of involvement.
Months later Hēmi Te Mautaranui (James Fulloon), a government interpreter and agent, was killed in Whakatāne by Ngāti Awa. Tūhoe were indignant at this, as they recognised Fulloon as their kin. Both the Völkner and Fulloon killings resulted in punitive raids by government forces into the northern Tūhoe territories.