Samuel Stephens (1803-1855)


New Zealand Company Surveyor, Politician and Quaker

Samuel Stephens sailed from England on the Whitby in 1841 with Arthur Wakefield, and they became close friends. As they sailed near the entrance of the Marlborough Sounds, Samuel wrote: " all the hills being covered with rich woods mantled with foliage of a very vernal tint. We saw a native hut on the shore and a canoe lying on the beach, but did not distinguish any natives."

Camp near Kaiteriteri Greenwood, S : Camp near Kaiteriteri (summer home of the Stephens family 1848-53), The Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection AC 344
Click image to enlarge

By January 10, 1842 he was in Nelson and wrote to his mother: " It is very amusing to see the variety of shapes and modes of constructing the various houses by the men around us.... although but a few weeks have elapsed since we landed, there are little short of 100 houses (most of them comfortable) erected or in the process of erection."

A qualified surveyor, Samuel was involved in the survey of Nelson's town acres, as well as detailed assessments of the Takaka and Aorere Valleys, and he had high hopes for the new colony.

While his wife, Sarah, did not relish pioneering life, she wrote to Samuel's mother in October 1843: "The next time we emigrate to a new country we shall know better what to do. There is one thing I have never regretted which was following my beloved Samuel."

Samuel often described warm and friendly relations with their Maori neighbours, Mary and Etani at Riwaka. In January 1843 he noted:"Oh! How do I blush for my countrymen, when I write that our fears for the safety of ourselves and property are not from the natives, but from the gangs of bad white men who now infest the country."

Samuel became the New Zealand Company's  chief surveyor for Nelson in January 1844. The following year was very productive for him, with exploration of Lake Rotoiti and the Buller Valley, the construction of a water-powered flour mill and the survey of a demarcation line between disputed lands at Wakapuaka.

On August 26, 1844, Samuel Stephens noted in his journal that the New Zealand Company had suspended colonising operations: "(They have) discharged nearly all their officers, as well as put a stop to all the public works that were going on at Nelson under their auspices....the news has spread a gloom over the Colony. "

From mid-1845 Samuel's activities were restricted by an outbreak of abscesses and ulcers, which were to plague him for the rest of his life. No further journal entries or letters are held by the Nelson Provincial Museum Research Archives until January 1848, when Samuel wrote to his sister explaining that his ‘miserable affliction' had left him a mental and physical wreck and that he had been unable to walk without great pain for nearly three years.

Unable to continue work as a surveyor and clearly depressed by ill health, Samuel wrote: "During the first year or two of my residence in this land, there was always something fresh and stirring in the progress and circumstances of the Colony....But after the shocking catastrophe(the Wairau Affray)which laid our poor settlement prostrate, and combined with other numerous depressing causes, occasioned its almost utter stagnation."

For several months each summer, between 1848 and 1853, Samuel and Sarah lived at a beach camp at Stephens Bay near Kaiteriteri, where daily swims were beneficial to his health. His journal entries show a lifting of spirits. "We have just returned from a three months residence at the a kind of bush life under a tent, supplied with the usual necessaries of life in the eating way from my farm at Riwaka," he wrote on April 28, 1849.

Stephens held many positions of responsibility, and in June 1854 he was elected to represent Nelson in the General Assembly. He died at Grampian Cottage in Nelson on June 26, 1855.

Sarah had not been a willing pioneer, and after his death she disposed of their property and returned to England. 

The contents of the Stephens' larder on New Year's Day, 1843: "The great part of two pigs, part in salt and part fresh, a leg and loin of nice mutton, 3 red birds (a bird rather less than a pigeon), 2 pigeons, 2 kakas, 1 duck, new potatoes, green peas, turnips, spinach, plum puddings....I only wish all our friends of both families were here to partake of this bountiful fare."

This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007.


Note - Samuel Stephens was buried in Trafalgar Street Cemetery (now Fairfield Park). His gravestone is now illegible, but contained the following:
"Sacred to the memor of Samuel Stephens Esq., who died at Nelson, N.Z. 26th June 1855. He was one of the first Englis settlers and ever took the warmest interest in the progress of colony. This tomb is erected in affectionate remembrance by his widow.."

Updated: April 03, 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Lash, M. D. (1992). Nelson notables 1840-1940 ; A dictionary of regional biography . Nelson, N.Z: Nelson Historical Society, 133-135

  •  Stephens, S. Letters & Journals. Bett qMS (4 vol typescript). [Nelson Provincial Museum]

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Further sources - Samuel Stephens (1803-1855)


  • Broad, L. (1892) The jubilee history of Nelson: From 1842-1892. Nelson, New Zealand: Bond, Finney & Co., pp.79, 93, 102, 104, 108, 114-115-6, 120, 164.

  • Cyclopaedia of New Zealand: Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical, facts, figures, illustrations (1906). vol 5. Nelson Marlborough and Westland Provincial Districts. Wellington, Cyclopedia, Co., 1897- p.32

  • Host, E. (2006) Thomas Brunner: his life and great journeys. Vivienne Nelson (Ed.). Nelson, New Zealand: Nikau Press. pp. 31, 40-41, 43, 45, 49, 50, 53, 200, 208, 214, 220.

  • Lash, Max (1992). Nelson notables 1840-1940: A dictionary of regional biography. Nelson, New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society, p.133-135.

  • McAloon, J. (1997). Nelson a regional history. Whatamango Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound, N.Z : Cape Catley Ltd in association with Nelson City Council.

  • McGlashen, R. (1984). Samuel Stephens 1803-1855: surveyor, farmer and man of affairs. In And so it began, volume 2.  Motueka, New Zealand: Motueka and District Historical Association.p.10-32.



Resources at The Nelson Provincial Museum:

  • Stephens, S. Letters & Journals. Bett qMS (4 vol typescript). [Nelson Provincial Museum]

Web Resources