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North Americans

by  Nancy Swarbrick

From hunting whales in storm-tossed seas to felling giant trees in the depths of the bush – adventurous money-making schemes lured Canadians and Americans to New Zealand in the early 19th century. Over the next 200 years North American ideas, inventions and expertise left a deep impression on this country. A taste for adventure continues to bring North Americans to New Zealand, but now they often come to watch whales and enjoy the tranquillity of the bush.

1797–1870: years of opportunity

Americans and Canadians

Although they are only a fraction of New Zealand’s population, North Americans (people born in Canada and the United States of America) have left a deep imprint on this country. Of course, Americans and Canadians have different histories, identities and (to the attentive ear) accents. But this has not always been acknowledged by New Zealanders, especially in statistics, so it is sometimes necessary to speak of them as one group.

American adventurers

Americans were first interested in New Zealand for its resources. They began visiting New Zealand from 1797 to work the sealing grounds around Fiordland and Foveaux Strait. Some New England whalers stopped by in the early 19th century, and arrived in large numbers during the 1830s. Following a request by American shipmasters, British merchant James Clendon became United States Consul at the Bay of Islands in 1838. In 1839 there were some 50 American residents in the North Island – about 4% of the total non-Māori population there.

Members of a United States scientific expedition were present when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. But British annexation made New Zealand less appealing to Americans. Some whalers, resenting new customs duties, encouraged Hōne Heke to chop down the British flagstaff and fly the American ensign from his canoe. They also smuggled arms to Māori in the 1845–46 war.

The whaling industry’s decline from the late 1840s probably caused the American-born population to drop; it was only 306 in 1858. But with the start of the Otago gold rushes in 1861 it jumped to 720, and by 1871, as a result of gold fever, it was 1,213. Otago rivalled Auckland as a focus for American settlement during these years. American drifters such as Kimble Bent became participants in the New Zealand wars, and a few travelling entertainers began touring.

Canadian colonists

Until 1874, British North Americans (Canadians) were not identified in censuses, but they too had arrived as sealers and whalers, joined the gold rushes, and participated in forestry ventures. Because Canada was also part of Britain’s empire, its inhabitants, with their farming and bush-felling experience, were seen as desirable colonists. In 1853 the Reverend Norman McLeod led over 800 Scottish highlanders from Nova Scotia via Australia to New Zealand. In the 1860s Canadians were recruited for a timber-milling enterprise at Kohukohu in Northland.

But not all attempts at organised settlement were successful. In 1854 Walter Taylor applied for land north of Auckland to settle about 40 families suffering dire poverty in Canada, but bureaucratic wrangles thwarted his scheme. In 1870 there was talk of establishing a settlement of Canadians to clear bush for the Wellington–Napier railway, but this did not eventuate either.

1870s–1939: rivalry and curiosity

Bridging the gap

From the mid-1800s, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada were rival emigration destinations. Size, distance and economics made New Zealand less competitive. This was reflected in the number of North Americans choosing to live in New Zealand, which did not grow significantly between 1878 and 1939. Moreover, their proportion in the population actually declined. Improved transport and communications, however, led to an increased traffic in ideas, goods and people between the countries.

Americans: imported ideologies

Reduced gold prospecting possibilities and the long depression of 1879–96 deterred American fortune-seekers. The subsequent depressions of the 1920s and 1930s made New Zealand economically uninviting for Americans, except as a market to sell their products.

But if New Zealand was not seen as a potential home, many Americans visited briefly. Travel to and beyond America became easier after the establishment of the San Francisco–Auckland steamship route in 1870 and the completion of the railway across the United States soon after. American visitors included entertainers and popular lecturers. Writer Mark Twain was one of the best-known Americans to visit, and he recounted his experiences in Following the equator, published in 1897. Other travellers included religious, social and political campaigners. The trade union, temperance and women’s suffrage movements all gained impetus from visiting North American activists such as Walter Mills and Mary Leavitt. Religious missionaries, for example Seventh Day Adventists like Nettie Keller and Mormons like Matthew Cowley, also found a ready audience. Their message remains influential, especially among Māori and Pacific Island people. In the early 20th century American visitors such as Frank Parsons and Henry Demarest Lloyd were fascinated by the reforms of the Liberal government in New Zealand.

Brooklyn, NZ

New Zealand’s curiosity about things American in the 19th century led to a Wellington suburb being named after the famous borough of Brooklyn in New York. Some of the streets were named after American presidents, including McKinley, Taft and Cleveland. The large park separating Brooklyn from the city was, of course, named Central Park. American links with Brooklyn were strengthened when, during the Second World War, an American military camp was established in Central Park.

New Zealanders, however, were ambivalent towards Americans. On one hand, American foreign policies and culture were seen as a threat to British – and therefore New Zealand – interests. On the other hand, New Zealanders adopted many American ideals and values. From the 1920s they benefited from Carnegie Corporation educational grants, drove American motorcars and watched American movies.

Canadians: the technology connection

Like Americans, from 1870 some Canadians simply visited New Zealand, but more of them stayed. After 1905 it was easier for other British subjects to migrate to New Zealand, and there was official support for inter-empire migration. Canadian settlers outnumbered those born in the United States by more than half from 1874 until 1891 at least, but their total numbers did not grow much before the Second World War.

Nevertheless, New Zealand benefited from Canadian expertise. The Geological Survey of New Zealand was reorganised by Canadian James Bell between 1905 and 1911. Founders of the State Forest Service in 1919 had Canadian training and experience. Several New Zealand nursing administrators of the 1920s and 1930s visited Toronto, where a public health course was offered. Improved travel and communications helped. The Canadian Pacific Railway made Vancouver an important stopover from the 1890s, and in 1902 the Pacific cable linked British Columbia by telegraph with New Zealand. Flights to and from Canada and the US began in the 1930s.

1940–present: closer contact

Pacific bonds

The Second World War forced Canada, the United States and New Zealand together to protect their interests in the Pacific Ocean. Canada and New Zealand had agreed to an exchange of high commissioners in 1939. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America established full diplomatic relations with New Zealand. After the war, the loosening of ties with Britain made New Zealand realise the advantage of closer defence and trade links with other Pacific Rim nations. Closer bonds with Pacific allies may have had an effect on the number of North Americans choosing to live in New Zealand.

Alliances and arguments

Between 1942 and 1944 about 100,000 American troops were stationed in New Zealand to support the counter-offensive in the Pacific. They were based mainly in Auckland and Wellington, and at any one time swelled the small local population by 50,000. The American presence had an impact on New Zealand’s way of life: nightclubs, milk bars, florists and drycleaners sprang up to cater to American needs, and relationships were forged. Almost 1,500 New Zealand women married American servicemen and emigrated after the war. A much smaller number of American servicemen settled in the country. One enduring legacy of wartime was the New Zealand–American Association, set up to foster understanding.

During the 1950s few Americans visited New Zealand as tourists, and the number of residents remained small, but this began to change in the 1960s. The advent of jet services revolutionised air travel. Favourable impressions from visits to New Zealand may have encouraged some Americans to settle permanently. In the late 1960s and 1970s there was a surge in American residents. After a brief dip, the number rose again from the mid-1990s.

Americans have entered a wide range of occupations, from information technology to winemaking. In particular, they left their mark on New Zealand education. A teacher shortage led to recruitment campaigns overseas, including the western states of the USA, from 1963. Another teacher recruitment programme took place in the early 1990s. The dramatic increase in university teachers with American degrees between 1947 and 1987 may have been partly due to the post-war Fulbright educational exchange programme, but also to immigration.

Although American culture has become entrenched in New Zealand, Americans were not always made welcome in the post-war years. New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War sparked a local protest movement against what was seen as American imperialism. Bad feeling resurfaced in 1985 when New Zealand banned visits by nuclear-powered ships, shattering the 1951 ANZUS defence pact. The resulting anti-American sentiment offended some American residents. Trade barriers imposed by the United States remain a source of discontent. Nevertheless, the number of US-born residents in New Zealand continues to increase – in 2013 there were 21,462, up from 8,451 in 1991.

Similarities and differences

Canadians are often perceived as having more in common with New Zealanders. Yet Canadians who have settled in New Zealand since the Second World War have remarked on deep cultural differences between the two countries. During the war many New Zealand military pilots trained in Canada under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Some brought Canadian brides back to New Zealand. These women had difficulty adjusting to the absence of amenities that were widespread in both the United States and Canada at that time – central heating, double-glazing, electrical appliances and supermarkets. A few found the lifestyle too austere and returned to Canada. Even in the 1990s, teachers recruited from Canada noted the limited educational resources available in New Zealand and the high cost of living.

A war bride’s observations

When Canadian war bride Ruth Strand arrived in New Zealand in 1945, she was struck by the differences between Canadians and New Zealanders:

‘The Canadians pronounce certain words differently, causing much confusion at first. We also found pounds, shillings and pence hard to get used to. Everything seemed to be shut from 6pm until morning, and rugby, racing and beer seemed to be the main topics of interest.

Rationing was still in force when I arrived. … Most people in those days seemed to have roast hogget or lamb for Christmas dinner, whereas in Canada we always had turkey or lamb.’ 1

Like Americans, Canadians have worked in education and for a wide range of industries and multinational corporations. Growth in the number of Canadians living in New Zealand mirrored the American pattern in the 1960s and 1970s, but was not as marked in the 1990s. Since 1971, the Canadian-born population in New Zealand has lagged behind the American: in 2013 it was 9,576.

Why do North Americans come to New Zealand today?

Employment is only one attraction, especially as the internet makes distance-working possible. Many North Americans seek a relaxed lifestyle, temperate climate and opportunities for outdoor pursuits. Others appreciate New Zealand’s pro-environment image and support the anti-nuclear policy. And a few are driven by a taste for adventure – an impulse that brought many of their predecessors to New Zealand.

    • Quoted in Val Wood. War brides. Auckland: Random Century, 1991, p. 149. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in countries of North America.

United States of America

  • 1858 census: 306
  • 1901 census: 881 (and North America*: 776)
  • 1951 census: 1,713 (and America*: 172)
  • 1976 census: 8,383
  • 2001 census: 13,347
  • 2006 census: 17,751
  • 2013 census: 21,462

* A separate category in the census

British North America

  • 1874 census: 1,427
  • 1906 census: 1,547


  • 1951 census: 2,091
  • 1976 census: 7,002
  • 2001 census: 7,770
  • 2006 census: 8,994
  • 2013 census: 9,576

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • American: 10,806 (2006); 12,342 (2013)
  • Canadian: 5,604 (2006); 5,871 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'North Americans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2015