Mahitahi River


The traditional name for the river flowing through Nelson City was “Mahitahi”, truncated to “Maitai” from early colonial times.  For centuries the Maitai Valley has been an important access route, not only to the upper reaches of Te Hoiere (Pelorus River) via the Maungatapu Saddle, but also to a number of outcrops of argillite along the mineral belt to the east of Nelson, of which the “Rushpools” was one of the more significant quarry sites.

A Rāhui on the Mahitahi
An eye-witness account of Māori on the Mahitahi was provided by Tamihana Te Rauparaha in a biography of his father’s life.  A temporary camp on the Mahitahi  River, occupied by Te Rauparaha and his families, was the site of an upsetting experience.  Te Rauparaha did not take part in the late 1820s invasions of central Te Tau Ihu and districts further west, as he was engaged in battles on the east coast - at Kaikoura, Kaiapoi and Akaroa.  However, in the early 1830s he undertook a tour to inspect the territories which his allies had secured in the central districts of the northern South Island, and to receive tributes of taonga (treasures) and mokai (slaves) taken as spoils of conquest.


Rauparaha. Chief Capiti. [Coates, Isaac] 1808-1878 :. Principal chief of all New Zealand. [1843?], Alexander Turnbull Library, A-286-012 [permission must be sought from ATL for further use of image]

En route to Mohua (now Golden Bay) and Te Tai Tapu, Te Rauparaha’s party, including several members of his families, camped on the banks of the Mahitahi  River in Whakatū.  Here Te Rauparaha’s sons, Te Katu (a.k.a. Tamihana Te Rauparaha) and his half-brother, Matata, were charged to fill cartridges with gunpowder.  Being a somewhat precocious child, aged about 11 or 12, Te Katu flicked a spark from the campfire into the keg of gunpowder.  In the ensuing explosion, Te Katu, Matata and Matata’s wife suffered serious burns to their bodies.  Te Rauparaha who was close by and narrowly missed being injured himself, was far from pleased;  he severely berated young Te Katu who, with the other injured and carers, had to remain at Whakatū for several days while the visits to western districts took place. 

As a result, Te Rauparaha and Ngāti Toa imposed a rāhui (ban) over the Mahitahi  River, restricting visits to, and exploitation of, the area by members of the tribe, and possibly by associated iwi.  In his biography of his father, Tamihana Te Rauparaha (Te Katu) recounts the incident in considerable detail, his father’s reactions, and his own object lessons about learning the hard way.

Māori Accounts of Early Nelson
Perhaps the rāhui was respected, at least for a time;  in a letter to Governor Grey in 1879 Frederick George Moore asserted that in 1841, when he assisted Arthur Wakefield and the New Zealand Company, “There were no natives settled near Nelson at this time”.  Moore’s assertion may well have been correct, for in an 1892 Native Land Court hearing witnesses representing claimant iwi gave sometimes-conflicting evidence of their tribes’ connections to Nelson Town and environs. 

Ramari Herewini and Taka Herewini Ngāpiko, representing Ngāti Rārua, testified that their tribe was actually living in the Nelson Town area when Arthur Wakefield arrived, although Ngapiko later conceded that Ngāti Rārua did not cultivate at Nelson, but only used the area as a fishing station.  Ihaka Tekateka testified that his father and two others, Kurua and Tengi, established the Ngāti Koata kainga at Punawai, at the mouth of the Mahitahi River where they lived “… long before the Company came … and cultivated at the Port and grew potatoes”.  Ihaka was generous in supporting other iwi;  that he had heard that “Wi Katene [Ngāti Tama] had a clearing at Nelson”, and “Ngātirarua had a house at Nelson and at Waimea at the time the Company came.  The place they occupied …  at Nelson was near the mouth of Washington Valley” which may have been on the banks of the Wairepo (York Stream), near its confluence with the Mahitai River near Matangi Āwhio.

Maitai River. Hargreaves Collection 8602. Nelson Provincial Museum

Maitai River. Hargreaves Collection 8602. Nelson Provincial Museum

At least two witnesses, Paramena Haereiti of Ngāti Tama and Hohaia Rangiauru of Ngāti Awa, testified that at the time of the Tainui-Taranaki invasion c.1828 no Māori were living in the Nelson Town area, the previous residents having fled.  Paramena said “… the ope [war party] came on to Nelson but found no one there – the people had fled – they had been warned by a messenger …”.  Paramena also said that nine years later, c.1837, when he accompanied Wi Katene Te Puoho from Mohua back to Wakapuaka, “There was no one at Nelson when we went there.  Did not see any clearings about … Saw an eel pond. … We went to the other side of the Mahitahi  to collect firewood”.  For a period afterwards Paramena was in the North Island, but said that on his return “… there were no natives at Nelson” other than “Wi Katene had a mahinga over in the Wood about the place where Bishop Hobhouse [later] lived”.  Under cross-examination, in a vigorous defence of his chief, Paramena asserted that Wi Katene had, “… before the Company came … cultivated the land alongside the Maitai River”. 

Hohaia Rangiauru of Ngāti Awa stated that his iwi, and Ngāti Rārua from Motueka “… used to come over to fish at Wakatū, and that is how they knew of it”.  

Meihana Kereopa, for Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne, claimed exclusive occupation of Nelson Town, cultivating and dressing flax, prior to and up to the time of the Company’s arrival.  He denied the presence of any other iwi:  “Did not see any of the other hapus come to Nelson fishing.  Did not hear … that the people from Motueka used to come over to Nelson to fish off Fifeshire Rock. … Did not see any cultivations in the bush beyond the Mahitahi .  Did not hear that Wi Katene had a mahinga in that locality”. 

European Records
Moore claimed to be the first European to become aware of the “Mahitahi ” River; he and his party – Heaphy, Cross, Browne and MacDonald, accompanied by Hamiora Haeana Pito, Ngāti Rārua guide from Motueka - carried out Arthur Wakefield’s instructions to explore the eastern shore of Tasman Bay, from French Pass back to Motueka.  Presumably following instructions from the chiefs who were eager for the Company to establish Nelson Town at Motueka, Pito did nothing to reveal the existence of the harbour and haven at Whakatū.  However, Cross claimed he had heard a description of its features from Paremata Te Wahapiro of Ngāti Tama of Wakapuaka (half-brother of Wi Katene), who was equally keen for European settlement to be based on their side of Tasman Bay.

Despite Pito’s evasion, Moore took credit for discovering the haven;  many years later he wrote that on arriving at the northern end of the Boulder Bank:

“Here I landed and for the first time any white man discovered a good sheltered Harbour now familiarly known as Nelson Haven.  I directed Cross to sail while I walked along the boulder bank until we came to the entrance when I re-entered the boat and we sounded, took bearings etc. and proceeded up to the mouth of the fresh water river Mahitahi .  We found the woods and river alive with birds and many pigs while the waters of the Haven were in constant commotion with shoals of fishes.  We stocked ourselves plentiously and camped with a grateful belief that we had discovered a haven of plenty for many coming pioneers”.

Moore and company had discovered what Māori had known for hundreds of years;  that there were rich resources in the vicinity of the haven and river which, prior to the late 1820s invasions, supported successive resident populations, and in immediate pre-Company times still attracted seasonal harvesters from outlying pā and kāingaSamuel Stephens, for example, recorded Motueka Māori fishing for snapper off the Boulder Bank at Nelson.

F.V. Knapp’s archaeological investigations identified a number of camps or more permanent occupation sites in the vicinity of Nelson – on the Boulder Bank, at Todd’s Valley and Dodson’s Valley to the north of the town, on the shore of the Haven near Wainui Street and a permanent occupation site on the northern bank of the Mahitahi  River near the mouth.  Other substantial sites were found at Auckland Point/ Matangi Āwhio) and at the foot of Richardson Street (Punawai), as well as on the shores of Waimea Estuary at Tāhuna, Stoke and the islands off Monaco.

Other signs of Māori uses of local resources were recorded by various settlers in the early 1840s.  Alfred Saunders, the first to disembark from the first immigrant ship, the Fifeshire which docked on 1 February 1842, described being vigorously dissuaded from consuming deadly poisonous tutu berries which a welcoming party of local Māori had loaded in eight canoes, presumably gathered from resources near their meeting place (where “Salt Water Bridge” was built), near the junction of Wairepo (York Stream) and the Mahitahi  River. 

Another interesting traditional Māori use of the resources growing on the banks of the Mahitahi River in the Wood area of Nelson Town was recorded by William Simmonds: 

“To the seaward, a number of trees of the Pukatea were growing.  Some of these being hollow were much sought after by the native youth of the time for making canoes, and many a daring feat was performed in these frail craft, in running out by the rocks with the tide, to the fishing grounds in the Waimea”.

In their exploration of the upper reaches of the Mahitahi  Valley in November 1843 Parkinson and Drake found:

“… the remains of an old Maori Warre” [Whare – house] on the track leading to the Pelorus Valley;  their guides, two unnamed Maori from Wairau, said the whare was a camp for Maori travellers.  Parkinson and Drake also noted that they “Saw great numbers of the blue duck”;  blue ducks - “whio” – are immortalised in the place-name Matangi Awhio (tangi a whio – the cries of the blue duck), a.k.a. Auckland Point, near the lower reaches of the Maitai River in the 1840s.  According to H D Skinner when John Barnicoat explored routes up the Maitai Valley: “… in the ‘forties’ the late J W Barnicoat passed the pool [i.e. the Rushpools] as he was following up the Native track into the Pelorus Valley he saw the ruins of Maori whares”.  

Nelson Town Tenths Reserves, 1842
The records are clear:  when the Company arrived in late 1841 the Mahitahi  River was still an important resource area for Māori – for the natural foods living in, on, and adjoining the river itself (tuna, inanga, tamure (snapper), kahawai, whio and other fish and birds), for its waters for irrigating crops, and for access from its valley and tributaries to pakohe and pounamu sources, and for routes to neighbouring watersheds to the east and south.     

In April 1842 the importance to Māori of the Mahitahi  River and other shore-line mahinga kai (food-gathering places) was recognised by the selections by Henry Thompson, Police Magistrate of the New Zealand Company’s Tenths Reserve sections.  The map highlights in yellow all 100 Tenths Reserves sections selected in the Nelson Town area, and those marked red are located on the banks of the Maitai River or on the shores of Nelson Haven, or close nearby.  Tenths Reserve sections on or near Waimarama (Brook Stream) and Wairepo (York Stream) – tributaries of the Maitai River - are identified on the map:

Native Tenths Mahitahi sections

Tenths Reserve sections - the Mahitahi sections (marked with red +). Mitchell Research

At least 28 Tenths Reserve sections – Nos. 5, 50, 62-65, 148, 191, 205, 227, 229, 231, 233, 241, 248, 253, 256, 261, 262, 303, 305, 344, 352, 406, 417, 521 and 522 - adjoin the river and estuary and one other, Section 203, bounded the Eel Pond.  A further seven (Nos. 524, 537, 542, 543, 551, 561 and 575) were on or near Waimarama and two (144 and 152) fronted the lower reaches of Wairepo.

Mahitahi Flood, September 1844

In September 1844 there were serious floods in the Nelson region, and the usually unthreatening Mahitahi  River became a raging maelstrom.  Strangely, an incident in which a family was rescued by a brave, unnamed, Māori man was not reported in the Nelson Examiner, but it was recorded by Samuel Stephens and John Barnicoat.  Stephens wrote:

“In one instance a few days ago, the lives of a labouring man and 4 children were saved by the courage and intrepidity of a Maori, who rushed across the foaming torrent at the most imminent risk of his own life, to a wooden house in which they were, and rescued them from inevitable death – as in less than an hour afterwards, the force of the current completely broke up the building and swept away the whole.  The Maori nearly lost his own life by the attempt – we raised a subscription immediately for the gallant fellow.  The Natives have often been instrumental in saving the lives of persons in this way, and I have always found them very prompt in rendering assistance in all cases of the least danger…”.

In Barnicoat’s version the essence of the incident remains the same although there are interesting differences in detail:

“One of the greatest floods ever known here last night.  A house standing near the Banks of the Mahitahi  was observed to give way after having been surrounded by waters for a long time.  There was great danger of its turning over altogether, in which case the lives of the occupants would have been greatly endangered.  A great crowd stood on the banks of the river, but the strength and depth of the current prevented anyone giving assistance.  At last a native (first having bargained for the utu) leapt into the stream swam across and reached the house and was the means of getting the man, his wife and three children away in safety.  Shortly after the house fell over and was washed down the stream.”

So, was there a man and four children rescued, or a man, wife and three children?  And did the onlookers voluntarily raise a subscription for the rescuer, or did he insist on being paid before risking his life?

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Further sources - Mahitahi River



  • Te Mana o te Wai – Te Tauihu Case Study Report Volume I (July 2021). Retrieved March 2022 from:
    [Prepared for the iwi of Te Tauihu o te Waka-a-Māui - Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Kuia, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama Ki Te Waipounamu and Te Ātiawa Manawhenua Ki Te TauIhu - as a case study contributing to a nation-wide project commissioned by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge: Enacting Te Mana o te Wai through Mātauranga Māori.

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