It is likely that the first settlers came to Taranaki about 1250–1300 CE. These migrants from eastern Polynesia found a heavily forested land, rich in natural resources.
The earliest people
Some of the early Māori settlements at the mouths of South Taranaki streams have been investigated by archaeologists. Since the 1840s, the beaches near the Waingongoro and Kaūpokonui streams have yielded moa bones from their sand dunes. In the 1960s and 1970s both sites, dated at around 1300 CE, were proved to be butchering areas for moa and other birds now long extinct in the region. The most common moa was the medium-sized Pachyornis mappini. Weka, kererū (wood pigeons), kākā and tūī were also major food items.
At Waitore, just south of Pātea, a remarkable collection of wooden objects has been recovered, some decorated in typical eastern Polynesian styles. This site has been dated at around 1450 CE.
The iwi of Taranaki relate to three major voyaging waka (canoes). Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Maru and Te Āti Awa descend from the Tokomaru, Taranaki from the Kurahaupō, and Ngā Ruahine, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru from the Aotea. In tradition there were also 10 or more lesser-known waka that arrived earlier. Their people became Te Kāhui Maunga (the mountain people). The descendants of both waves of settlers form the present iwi of the region.
The contemporary Māori tribal structure of Taranaki was established from the 16th century.
Eight iwi (tribes) make up the regional tribal structure. In the north is Ngāti Tama, whose lands border those of the Tainui people at the White Cliffs (Parininihi). Ngāti Mutunga is based around Urenui, and Te Āti Awa, with its several hapū (sub-tribes), includes Waitara and New Plymouth. Inland, along the middle and upper Waitara River and its tributaries, are the Ngāti Maru people.
Further around the coast are the lands of the Taranaki tribe’s hapū. Just south of Ōpunake, the lands of Ngā Ruahine and Ngāti Ruanui begin. In the far south is Ngā Rauru, whose territory borders the Whanganui tribes at Waitōtara.
The musket wars
The clashes between the iwi of the area were traditional hand-to-hand warfare until 1818, when a musket-armed war party of Ngāpuhi from Northland and Ngāti Toa from Kāwhia arrived. This marked the beginning of 20 long years of raids by the Northland and Waikato tribes.
In the face of these devastating raids, many North Taranaki and coastal hapū joined Te Rauparaha and his Ngāti Toa people when they moved south to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), Petone and the Kāpiti coast. By the mid-1830s, when a few Pākehā traders arrived around the coasts, much of northern Taranaki had only a few inhabitants.
In 1835 a number of Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga took over the trading vessel Rodney in Palliser Bay, east of Wellington. They forced the captain to take them to the Chatham Islands, where they compelled the resident Moriori people into slavery and killed many. The descendants of these northern Taranaki iwi often supplied eels, fish, preserved birds and other food to huge gatherings at Parihaka (near Cape Egmont) when the community was led by Te Whiti and Tohu.
The schooner Adventure arrived off the Māori settlement of Ngāmotu (present-day New Plymouth) in 1828 while on a flax-trading trip from Sydney. Jacky Love and Dicky Barrett, partners in the venture, established a trading station at Ngāmotu. Both later married women (Hikanui and Rawinia respectively) from Ngāti Te Whiti, the local hapū.
In 1832 the Pākehā at the station and the local hapū at Ōtaka pā were besieged by a warrior party from Waikato. After the battle many Te Āti Awa people, along with Love, Barrett and the other traders, moved to the Cook Strait area and settled there.
Barrett became involved in the land sales between Te Āti Awa and the Plymouth Company. In 1839 he returned to Ngāmotu with Love, William Keenan and others to establish a short-lived shore whaling station.
Wesleyan (Methodist) mission stations were established in the early 1840s at New Plymouth, Waimate (near Hāwera) and Pātea. Missionary John Whiteley was killed during a Ngāti Maniapoto attack on a military redoubt at Pukearuhe in 1869.