Story: Place names

As Europeans surveyed, acquired and dramatically altered New Zealand’s landscape they replaced older Māori names. They named new places such as towns after historical events and famous people, or places they had come from. Over time though, some original Māori names have been restored.

Story by Malcolm McKinnon
Main image: Detail from a map of New Zealand from about 1852

Story summary

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From the first sighting of land by European explorers, new names were given to New Zealand places. Abel Tasman and James Cook named places and had places named after them. Not all the names stuck.

They named features in the landscape for how they looked, such as the Bay of Islands. Some names referred to things that happened on their journeys – Cape Farewell – or to crew members and famous people, such as Cook Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound.

Later, explorers went further and further inland, naming places there, and recording them on maps or in logs.

Some names, like Coromandel and the Chatham Islands, come from the ships people sailed on.


As they explored the country, people made maps, firstly of the coast and things visible from the coast such as mountains. When larger groups of people arrived from Europe, surveyors began to chart the landscape, recording names on their maps. Settlements were named for:

  • places in Great Britain – Devonport, Canterbury
  • British politicians – Howick, Palmerston
  • imperial heroes – Nelson, Livingstone
  • early pioneers – Morrinsville, Mackenzie Country.


European settlers gave names to features in the landscape and to districts, towns and streets. They used names from places they came from – New Plymouth, for Plymouth in England – or the names of royalty – Mt Victoria after Queen Victoria. Some names were family names or Christian names, such as Helensville.

Māori names

European names replaced Māori names on maps, but many Māori names survived. Some Māori names were replaced but then returned – Pātea was called Carlyle for a while.

Recently, tribes have negotiated with the government to have names for special places restored. For instance, Mt Edgecumbe is now known once again as Pūtauaki.

Names now

People are still naming places in New Zealand, for example new subdivisions. The New Zealand Geographic Board decides which names are official. But people also use their own informal names, such as Gizzie for Gisborne.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Place names', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 24 November 2008