Archaeologists believe Māori settled in Palliser Bay in the late 1300s. They lived on small birds, fish, seals and kūmara (sweet potato). There is evidence that about 300 people lived in six separate communities on the eastern side of the bay. By the 1600s these settlements had gone. A rising population and falling food supplies – caused by over-hunting, a cooling climate, and lower soil fertility – may have led to the exodus. Some communities may have resettled in the fertile Ruamāhanga valley.
A tradition tells that the early Polynesian explorers Kupe and Ngake camped by the Mangatoetoe Stream. The two argued over who could make a sail first. Kupe finished his by midnight; Ngake took until dawn. Ngā-Rā-o-Kupe (Kupe's Sails) can be seen in the form of a triangular rock face above the stream. This large sandstone slab, originally deposited on the sea floor about 15 million years ago, is 2 kilometres east of Ngāwī.
The Rangitāne, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Kahungunu tribes settled in Wairarapa. Rangitāne migrated south from Heretaunga (around Hastings) to occupy Tāmakinui-a-Rua (Dannevirke) and Wairarapa.
Ngāti Ira left Tolaga Bay when their leader Te Whakaumu decided to join Wairarapa relatives. Te Whakaumu married Hineiputerangi, the daughter of the Rangitāne leader Te Whakamana, and settled in Palliser Bay. Their descendants later moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington).
Ngāti Kahungunu arrived after their leader Rakaiwerohia died in battle. Fearing further losses, his son Te Rangitāwhanga led the tribe from Heretaunga to join relatives living at Lake Ōnoke. Wanting to settle, they offered the Rangitāne leader Te Rerewa some patu and mere (clubs) and garments in exchange for land. He replied, ‘I will not part with my home for your cloaks, but I should do so for the bowl [canoes] of your ancestors.’ 1 A swap took place, and Te Rerewa moved to the South Island with some of his people. These events roughly coincided with the depopulation of Palliser Bay in the 1600s.
Peace and war
Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu lived in relative peace, intermarrying extensively. In 1821 a Ngāti Whātua and Ngāti Maniapoto war party entered Wairarapa, killing those who opposed them. Further invasions by Taranaki tribes followed. Ngāti Tama settled on the western shore of Lake Wairarapa and built a pā, Te Tarata, with Ngāti Kahungunu’s help. The alliance was short-lived. Hearing Ngāti Tama planned an attack, Ngāti Kahungunu struck first. In revenge, Ngāti Tama and their Taranaki allies breached Pehikatea pā, forcing some Kahungunu people to retreat to Māhia Peninsula.
Meanwhile, Rangitāne remained around present-day Pahīatua and Woodville, moving into the forest during enemy raids.
In the 1830s the Ngāti Kahungunu leader Nuku-pewapewa attacked the Te Āti Awa people at Tauwharerata (near Featherston). Their leader Te Wharepōuri escaped, but his daughter Te Kahape was captured. In exchange for her return, Nuku-pewapewa insisted that all Ngāti Kahungunu’s lands be restored. Te Wharepōuri and his allies agreed.
By this time Europeans had begun exploring Wairarapa with a view to settling there.