Story: Whanganui region

The Whanganui River has long been important to Māori, and the region is dotted with historic meeting houses. Whanganui town was founded near the rivermouth in 1840, and, after a turbulent initial period, became an important city and port. Today, visitors enjoy its historic architecture and the river’s grandeur.

Story by Diana Beaglehole
Main image: Whanganui in 1889

Story summary

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The Whanganui region lies between mountains and the sea, with Mt Ruapehu to the north and rolling hill country to the south. Many rivers run through the region – most important is the Whanganui River, seen as a sacred ancestor by local Māori.

Whanganui is the largest town, with just over 38,000 people in 2013.


There are four main zones:

  • the Waimarino plain and high volcanic areas
  • part of the North Island’s main mountain range
  • rolling hill country, covering two-thirds of the region
  • coastal lowlands, mostly farmland.


The region was originally mainly forest, some of which was burnt by Māori. European settlers cleared most of the remaining bush, but one large area remains in Whanganui National Park.


Tribes in the region include:

  • Ngā Rauru Kītahi, around Waitōtara
  • Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, the people of the Whanganui River
  • Rangitīkei tribes, who trace their descent from the explorer Tamatea
  • Ngāti Apa, descended from Ruatea, captain of the Kurahaupō canoe.

Europeans arrive

In 1840 the New Zealand Company bought more than 16,000 hectares from Māori, and settlers began arriving. Many Māori disputed the sale. British soldiers were stationed in Whanganui town, and conflict broke out in the 1840s.

In 1848, the government made a further payment for the land.


In the 1860s, many Māori challenged the government, and there was conflict between upper- and lower-river tribes. After resistance in Taranaki, the government confiscated tribal land between the Whanganui River and New Plymouth.

In 1870, the last British soldiers left Whanganui – regiments had been based there for 23 years.


After 1870, Whanganui town grew rapidly. It was the second-most important town and port in the lower North Island (after Wellington). Freezing works, railway workshops and woollen mills were built.

Settlements expanded throughout the region. The main trunk railway line was built through the Rangitīkei valley, with the towns of Hunterville, Mangaweka and Taihape founded along it.

From the 1930s

The region suffered in the 1930s depression, and the population fell. Things improved after the Second World War, but Whanganui still grew more slowly than New Zealand as a whole. People left for jobs and education elsewhere.

Today, tourists visit the region for its historic architecture, and for outdoor activities like tramping, jet boating and canoeing.

How to cite this page:

Diana Beaglehole, 'Whanganui region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Diana Beaglehole, published 16 June 2008, updated 1 June 2015