Waikato is the ancestral region of tribes descended from people who came to New Zealand on the Tainui waka (canoe) in the 13th century. The waka, commanded by Hoturoa, explored both coasts of the central North Island before making its final landfall at Kāwhia Harbour. The Tainui people explored the area around Kāwhia and settled there first, before spreading to the north, east and south, absorbing other tribes already in occupation.
The Aotea waka, commanded by Turi, later arrived north of Kāwhia. Discovering the Tainui people in residence, its crew travelled south overland to settle in Taranaki. The waka was left behind, giving its name to the Aotea Harbour.
In later generations, Tainui ancestors founded tribes which spread throughout and beyond the Waikato region. The Ngāti Maniapoto tribe were descendants of Maniapoto, who with his people settled the area around Kāwhia and to the south. Ngāti Toarangatira (also known as Ngāti Toa), whose ancestor was Tūpāhau, originally lived at Kāwhia. Ngāti Raukawa, descendants of Raukawa, occupied the south Waikato between Maungatautari mountain and Whakamaru, and north to the Kaimai Range. The ancestor Marutūahu migrated to the area north of Te Aroha mountain, founding several tribes now collectively known as the Marutūahu confederation.
In the Waikato basin the Waikato confederation of tribes, including Ngāti Mahuta and many others, settled. Ngāti Hauā, descended from Te Ihingaarangi, the elder brother of Maniapoto, became established east of the Waikato River. Over the centuries alliances and disputes affected relationships between these tribes.
People and places
One of the most famous sayings of the Waikato tribes shows the close association between people and places:
(Waikato is the river, Taupiri is the mountain, Te Wherowhero is the man.)
The river, the mountain and the human ancestor are all vitally important in defining tribal identity.
Landmarks and settlements
For the Tainui tribes, the harbours, rivers and swamps of Waikato provided food and other resources, and its mountains and ranges were strongholds. These places became identified with ancestors, and were celebrated in sayings and songs. Settlements sprang up throughout the region, usually on hilltops or beside lakes. Whāingaroa and Aotea harbours were traditional centres of population, as were mountains such as Maungatautari. As waka traffic increased along the rivers in the 19th century, riverbank settlements multiplied. Major settlements on the Waikato River included Kirikiriroa (now Hamilton), Kaitotehe pā at Taupiri, and Ngāruawāhia.
Pressure on resources
From the late 18th century Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Raukawa began a struggle with Waikato tribes for control of lands around Kāwhia. Ngāti Toa were defeated by Waikato tribes in the battle of Hingakākā, which took place near Lake Ngāroto about 1780, but warfare continued periodically. In the early 1820s a combined Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto force expelled Ngāti Toa from Kāwhia, and they migrated south via Taranaki to the Kāpiti Coast. Once there, they invited their Ngāti Raukawa relatives to join them, and this led to further migrations south.
Contact with Europeans from the early 19th century gave some tribes access to firearms, which changed the nature of warfare. The Ngāpuhi confederation of Northland, one of the first tribes to obtain muskets, made raids on Hauraki and Waikato in 1822, overwhelming the Marutūahu tribe of Ngāti Maru at Te Tōtara pā near present-day Thames, and Waikato tribes at Mātakitaki pā, east of Pirongia mountain. Waikato tribes temporarily retreated south into Ngāti Maniapoto territory, while Ngāti Maru moved south to Maungatautari.
War beyond Waikato
These movements, and the diffusion of muskets, created further tensions. Ngāti Hauā, which had expanded its influence under the powerful chief Te Waharoa, ejected Ngāti Maru from Maungatautari in 1830. Ngāti Hauā and their allies from Tauranga Moana tribes in the Bay of Plenty continued to fight Ngāti Maru to the north and Te Arawa to the east in the 1830s and 1840s. Ngāti Maniapoto and Waikato tribes waged war against Taranaki tribes and their Ngāti Toa allies in the 1820s and 1830s. Meanwhile, Ngāpuhi made periodic raids. It was during this period of upheaval that Europeans first began to arrive in the Waikato region.