Story: Stewart Island/Rakiura

Page 4. History and society since the 1850s

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Part of a province

Stewart Island/Rakiura became part of the province of Southland in 1863 and in 1864 the Crown purchased most of the island from the local Ngāi Tahu. Mixed-descent families living on the island were to be provided with land at The Neck.

Untrustworthy trustee

In December 1927 Andrew Josey, a fisherman in his 80s, was beaten to death by Southland Harbour Board accountant Arthur Valentine. Josey, originally from Java, Indonesia, had long lived at Horseshoe Bay. Valentine was the trustee for Josey’s estate, and the murder was seemingly to get his hands on a large sum of money. Valentine died in police custody later that month, reportedly of heart failure. At the inquest the doctor who gave evidence indicated that he had intended to recommend Valentine’s transfer to Seacliff mental hospital.

The change of ownership opened the way to exploitation of the resources of the island. Early in 1864 Theophilus Heale of the Southland provincial government explored the island with a view to a survey and subsequent sale of land blocks. However, by 1875 the survey had not been completed, and there were complaints that this was impeding the progress of the island.


Sheep were farmed on the island from the 1880s, and the last two pastoral leases at Mason Bay and Kilbride were only retired in the 1980s. Leases were also taken up along the north bank of the Rakeahua River, the Ruggedy Run, the Freshwater Run and Port William, but the country was too forested, wet and muddy for successful sheep farming.


Timber milling was important from the 1860s until the 1930s. In 1864 three sawmills operated on the north side of Paterson Inlet. The main areas milled were the taller stands in sheltered bays of Paterson Inlet/Whaka ā Te Wera and bays along the north-east coast.


Newspapers featured frequent reports of mineral finds on Stewart Island in the later 19th century. Tin Range at Port Pegasus is named for the tin that saw a short-lived tin rush in the late 1880s. Sporadic prospecting continued in the range up until the 1930s, but it was never a rich deposit.

Death of a fisherman

Many of the island’s sons have been lost to the unforgiving seas. Islander Olga Sansom recalls the recovery of fisherman Jack Mercer’s body after he was caught in a storm off Port William around 1912: ‘When you are twelve it is the loneliness of the dead man you have known alive, lying helpless in his own boat, that is the thing you remember.’1


Fishing for blue cod, crayfish and pāua (abalone) has been a major industry for many decades. Māori have long been very involved in the fishing industry. In the 1890s Māori were running several cutters between the island and Bluff.

A freezer and commercial fishing base established in North Arm, Port Pegasus, in 1897 operated until the late 1930s. A fish factory set up by Otakou Fisheries operated in the 1960s. In 2013 one-third of the Stewart Island workforce was employed in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector, with over 90% of those engaged in aquaculture.


In the 2000s hunting was popular with both mainland visitors and locals. Designated campsites and huts for hunters were associated with different blocks of land that were balloted for hunting introduced whitetail and red deer.

A slow start

In 1892 Walter Robertson was appointed to make up the electoral roll for Stewart Island, to be returning officer for the first election of councillors and to be clerk of the council. A Stewart Island County Council Empowering Bill was introduced into the 1894 parliamentary session but not passed, nor was it ever resubmitted, but the council was in operation by the 1895/96 financial year. In 1900 Robertson was elected chair of the Stewart Island County Council.


Stewart Island county was gazetted in 1876, at the time of the abolition of provincial government in New Zealand, but a county council was not set up until 1895. In 1989 the county became part of Southland district.

Until the abolition of district health boards in 2022, Stewart Island was covered by the Southern District Health Board, which united the Otago and Southland district health boards in 2010. A district nurse was based in Oban.

Halfmoon Bay School in Oban had a roll of 27 in 2015 and offered education to Year 8, after which students attended mainland schools. In 2013 the proportion of Stewart Islanders who were under 15 (15%) was lower than that for Southland as a whole (20.6%).


Tourism was popular from the late 19th century. In 1894 the Otago Witness referred to ‘visitors to the island being very numerous in the summer time, sometimes as many as a hundred being on the island at one time’.2

In the 21st century tourism was one of the island’s main industries, with around 30,000 visitors each year. At the 2013 census one-third of the workforce was employed in the accommodation and transport sectors. This compared with 11.4% for those sectors in Southland as a whole.

  1. Olga Sansom, In the grip of an island: early Stewart Island history. Invercargill: Craig Printing, 1982, p. 18. Back
  2. Otago Witness, 24 Jan 1895, p. 22. Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Stewart Island/Rakiura - History and society since the 1850s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Sep 2008, updated 1 May 2015