Andrew William Rutherford was the eldest of the seven sons of Isabella Scott and her husband, George Rutherford, Scottish Presbyterians who had emigrated to Australia in 1839. He was born on 9 March 1842, probably near Tumut in New South Wales where his father was managing the small Dutzon cattle run. He was educated at Grundy's School in Brighton, near Adelaide.
In 1859 George Rutherford took his two eldest sons over to North Canterbury, New Zealand, with staff and stock for a sheep run; the following year the rest of his family joined him. Early in 1861 he began leasing and freeholding land in the Cheviot district with Alfred Domett, then commissioner of Crown lands in Nelson. Andrew and his brother William were put in partnership with Domett, who named the run Mendip Hills. When Domett retired to England in 1871 the brothers bought him out; Andrew later purchased William's share and became sole owner. Over the next 40 years he increased the run to about 38,000 acres and made it one of the finest in the Amuri district.
Andrew Rutherford was head of a clan of seven brothers who owned extensive pastoral properties throughout Canterbury and were classed among the 'wool kings' of the Amuri district. He also became a leading breeder of merino sheep from South Australia. He was prepared to spend freely in order to have the best strains to breed from, and his sheep were a feature of agricultural shows throughout New Zealand. Rutherford married 15-year-old Emily June (Jane) Monk at Waiau on 3 November 1873; they were to have six sons (one of whom died at birth) and four daughters.
Rutherford early developed an interest in public affairs and was narrowly voted on to the Nelson Provincial Council in 1869. He resigned in 1872 as his small majority of one vote meant he had no political influence. He was voted on to the first Amuri District Road Board in 1866, and was chairman for some years. He served several terms on the Amuri County Council between 1876 and 1899 and was chairman in 1889–90. In April 1895 Rutherford was elected to the first Cheviot County Council and was its chairman from 1900 to 1904. He resigned in 1910. He also spent two years on the North Canterbury Hospital Board and 20 years on the licensing bench.
Rutherford stood for the Hurunui seat in the General Assembly in 1902 as a Liberal, mainly in the hope of obtaining better roads and a bridge across the Waiau River. Premier Richard Seddon endorsed him in preference to George Forbes, who also stood as a Liberal candidate and polled fourth. Rutherford had overwhelming majorities in both the 1902 and 1905 elections.
He found himself in a difficult position in the Liberal caucus. He strongly favoured the optional system whereby land leased from the Crown could be freeholded, while many in the party were in favour of the retention of much Crown land by allowing only leasehold tenure. He also strongly favoured free trade: it would cheapen farm supplies and lessen farmers' dependence on towns. The radical proposal for a single tax on land, aimed partly at breaking up large estates, was, naturally, opposed by Rutherford.
When in 1904 and 1905 a small group of radicals tried to force Seddon to appoint one of their number to cabinet, Rutherford became one of the chief organisers of a country party aimed at checking their influence. He threatened to join the opposition if Seddon agreed to their demands. The resistance of Rutherford and other freeholders forced Seddon's successor, Sir Joseph Ward, to drop his Land Bill in 1906.
In spite of his general conservatism, Rutherford championed the underdog, supported the preservation of birds and the environment and believed that all trades and professions should be open to women. He was regarded as a parliamentary authority on agricultural and pastoral matters and performed useful work in the relevant committees. Physically dominant (he was six feet three inches tall), he was 'a cheery optimist who under the guise of pleasant raillery, [said] the most incisively cutting things'.
Rutherford retired from politics in 1908. In 1910 he took his wife and three unmarried daughters on a world tour, and his experiences, written as articles for the Christchurch Press, were published as The impressions of a New Zealand pastoralist on tour.
Andrew Rutherford died of influenza in Christchurch on 11 November 1918 and was buried in the Waiau cemetery. His death was the occasion of generous tributes from Prime Minister William Massey (a personal friend) and Joseph Ward. Emily Rutherford survived her husband, eventually retiring to Kaikoura. She died on 26 January 1955 and was buried with her husband.