Story: Whanganui region

Page 6. A troubled decade – the 1860s

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Through the 1860s many upriver Māori challenged the authority of the colonial government. So did other Māori along the coast north-west of Whanganui. Both groups were part of a wider movement that spread across the central North Island. Whanganui, at the junction of the river and coastal routes, became a military base once again.


The Waitōtara–Ōkehu block, along the coast north-west of Whanganui, was purchased from Ngā Rauru in July 1863, despite efforts to reduce the size of tribal reserves which had turned some against the sale. Some became adherents of the Pai Mārire (Hauhau) faith, while others supported the Māori King movement.

Mark Twain and Whanganui

When American writer Mark Twain visited Whanganui in 1895. he saw the monument to lower-river Māori who had defeated upriver Māori advancing on the town at Moutoa Island in 1864. The inscription said they had died ‘in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism’. Twain thought the upriver Māori were also patriots: ‘[T]hey fought for their homes, they fought for their country; they bravely fought and bravely fell.’ 1

Moutoa Island

In May 1864, upriver Pai Mārire supporters were defeated at Moutoa Island, near Rānana, by lower river Māori led by Hōri Kīngi Te Ānaua, with support from Hoani Wiremu Hīpango and Mete Kīngi Te Rangi Paetahi. In anticipation of an attack on Whanganui, a series of redoubts (fortifications) were built along the river and on the town’s north-western outskirts. A provincial councillor, James Hewett, was killed on his farm just 3 kilometres from a redoubt in February 1865.

Land confiscations

In response to Māori resistance in Taranaki, the Crown announced the confiscation of land from the Whanganui River to near New Plymouth in 1865. In early 1866, Major-General Trevor Chute carried out a ‘scorched earth’ campaign north of Waitōtara and into Taranaki, destroying seven and 20 villages. A military settlement, Wairoa (later called Waverley), was established. By late 1866 an uneasy peace prevailed, and Pākehā settlement began around Wairoa and on the Waitōtara block.


Fighting resumed in 1868, and in November the force led by Ngāti Ruanui leader Riwha Tītokowaru came within 8 kilometres of Whanganui. Settlers took refuge in Wairoa and Whanganui. Amidst rumours that Tītokowaru would cross the Whanganui River, blockhouses and redoubts were built south of Whanganui and in Rangitīkei.

Tītokowaru’s support collapsed in February 1869, and Ngā Rauru villages and cultivations were destroyed as government troops pursued him and his followers. Many Ngā Rauru retreated to the upper Whanganui River, living there under the protection of Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui until they were able to return home in 1873.

After the war

After hostilities ceased, European settlement recommenced on the plain north-west of Whanganui. It had proceeded in the meantime on the Rangitīkei coastal lowland, where the town of Marton was established in 1866.

European settlement in the north-east (inland Pātea, the upper Rangitīkei valley) began in 1867 with the establishment of a sheep run on land leased from Māori, which was reached from Napier. Gold prospecting – never successful – prompted the first attempt to find a route between Whanganui and inland Pātea. One outcome was that H. C. Field surveyed a route to the unforested part of Waimarino, then known as the Murimotu Plain, in 1869.

That same year Whanganui became linked to Wellington by both a coach service and a telegraph line. In January 1870 the last British regiment – the 18th (Royal Irish) – left Whanganui. After 23 years it was no longer a garrison town.

  1. Quoted in Jock Phillips, ‘Wanganui: war memorial capital of the world.’ In Heartlands: New Zealand historians write about where history happened, edited by Kynan Gentry and Gavin McLean. Auckland: Penguin, 2006, p. 78. › Back
How to cite this page:

Diana Beaglehole, 'Whanganui region - A troubled decade – the 1860s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

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