Upper Hutt: Pre-1840

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The earliest known illustration of the Upper Hutt district showing the valley as it was when Europeans first arrived. 

Samuel Charles Brees, The Upper Hutt District, 1843, Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives. 


The present day city of Upper Hutt is located largely upon the alluvial soil of an ancient river flood plain.

This lowland strip of land lies between two parallel mountain systems, with the Te Awa Kairangi/Hutt River winding its way along the western side.

The river, which flows on down to what is now Wellington Harbour, has two main drainage basins, with Upper Hutt occupying the uppermost of these.


Ancient forest ecosystem

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An 1847 drawing of black birch forest in Upper Hutt.

Black birch forest, Upper Hutt., 1847, by William Swainson FLS FRS. Gift of Mrs W Turton, 1916. Te Papa (1916-0001-19)


Long, long before the first human beings arrived here, the environment that established itself in what would become Upper Hutt was one of extremely dense bush, replete with enormous trees, covering the entire Te Awa Kairangi/Hutt River floodplain.

The earliest written descriptions and drawings of this area made by the first Pākehā to explore it emphasise the spectacular character of the landscape. For instance, the scientist Ernst Dieffenbach, spoke of 

travelling through totara trees of immense dimensions with trunks averaging 5 to 6 feet in diameter … [I]n the Upper Valley the alluvial land is covered with trees, of which the rimu and kahikatea pines are especially remarkable for their size … similarly ratas were plentiful, with tops covering half-an-acre.   

These forests were also full of bird life, with thousands present for every hectare. This would have included large flocks of kereru, kokako, bellbirds, saddlebacks, and tuis, as well as the now extinct huia. The sound made by this dense accumulation of birds must have been almost deafening at times. Many small creatures, such as geckos and wetas, would have scuttered along the forest floor, while eels and other aquatic life made their home in the river that flowed through the valley.  

While the eventual arrival of Māori would have little overall impact on this environment, European settlement was entirely another matter. Within half a century, driven by their wish to create pastureland and provide timber for construction, Pākehā had almost entirely cleared this area of its original forest and drastically altered the nature of a landscape previously unchanged for thousands of years. 

The arrival of Māori

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A Māori waka on Te Awa Kairangi, drawn in the early days of Pākehā settlement.

Scene on the Hutt River, 1845, by William Swainson FLS FRS. Gift of Mrs W Turton, 1916. Te Papa (1916-0001-20)


Māori have inhabited Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui, the lower tip of the lower North Island, for centuries. Archaeological evidence shows signs of human presence around the Tararuas as far back as the 13th Century. 

The first people to settle in the Wellington region were Ngai Tara and the Māori name for the harbour, Te Whanganui-ā-Tara, honours their ancestor. The river that had originally been called Te Awa Kairangi by the great Polynesian explorer Kupe, was re-named by them Heretaunga, after the place near Hastings on the east coast from where they had migrated. They also named the district now known as Upper Hutt, Ōrongomai, meaning the place of Rongomai – an ancestral deity of those iwi, like Ngai Tara, who traced themselves back to the Kurahaupo waka.

Successive waves of heke (migration) shaped the subsequent Māori history of the Wellington region, with different iwi exercising influence in this area at different times, including Ngāti Rangi and Ngāti Kahungunu. By 1800 Ngāti Ira predominated around the harbour, while two branches of Ngāti Ira known as Rakaiwhakairi and Ngāti Kahukuraawhitia inhabited territory along the Heretaunga/Te Awa Kairangi River. The river was both a transport route and a food gathering source for Māori and they lived largely along its banks.  

The main Māori settlements that we know of in the Upper Hutt basin at this time were a kainga (village) at Whirinaki, around where St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, currently is; and another at Haukaretu, sited at the bend of the river now occupied by the suburbs of Totara Park and Māoribank. A major pa, Pa-Whakataka, situated in the Te Marua area, provided fortified protection for the latter settlement, while another pa, Parihoro, did the same somewhere in the vicinity of Whirinaki.   

Early 19th century raids and migrations

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View from Kaiwharawhara, across the harbour to the Hutt Valley, with the snow-capped Tararuas in the distance. Painted soon after the arrival of Pākehā, it shows Te Whanganui-a-Tara as it was when Taranaki Whanui had migrated there and established Mana Whenua over what became Wellington and the Hutt Valley.

Kaiwarawara [Kaiwharawhara], Port Nicholson Harbour, 1844, by G.F. Angas. Upper Hutt Libraries Community Archives.   


The early decades of the 19th Century were a turbulent time of inter-tribal warfare for Māori. These are sometimes referred to by historians as the Musket Wars, because they were partly brought about through the de-stabilising effects of European contact in the upper North Island, including the introduction of new weaponry. 

In 1820, as part of these conflicts, a tauā (war party) of Ngāti Whatua, Ngapuhi, and Ngāti Toa warriors from up north, as well as warriors from iwi in Taranaki, ventured on a raiding mission into the Te Whanganui-ā-Tara region. They travelled up the Heretaunga/Te Awa Kairangi River into the upper valley and destroyed the settlements and pa there, killing the inhabitants. Another raid followed a couple of years later. These raids marked the beginning of the end of Ngāti Ira control over Te Whanganui-ā-Tara and Heretaunga. A series of heke over the next decade and a half saw them gradually replaced by iwi migrating from Taranaki, including Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama, Ngāti Ruanui and Taranaki (the iwi). Skirmishes were still being fought with Ngāti Ira and they were reluctant to move far up the valley as they were unsure if Ngāti Ira were living up there or if a tauā had come over into the valley from Wairarapa. People were still arriving from Taranaki in 1834.  

Ngāti Toa, led by Te Rauparaha, had also migrated south during this time from their original home in Kawhia, establishing themselves as a very important regional power from their base on Kapiti Island and around Porirua Harbour. While Ngāti Toa did not establish settlements in Upper Hutt, they too are recognised as Mana Whenua on the grounds of their participation (under Te Rauparaha) in the 1820 tauā that conquered the settlements there, along with their subsequent influence, following migration over the Upper Hutt valley that neighboured their new home.

By the arrival of the NZ Company in 1839 Ngāti Ira had been driven out and the Taranaki migrants had control of Wellington and the Hutt Valley.

Click here for more information on Mana Whenua.