Motueka and early settlement


Around 1839-1840, the Ngāti Rārua and Te Ātiawa people living in the Motueka region heard that a European settlement was likely to be established there and realised this offered  good business opportunities. By the time the first European settlers arrived, they were able to supply them with large quantities of potatoes, vegetables and pork.1

Captain G. F. Moore.  Nelson Provincial Museum, Isaacs & Clark Collection: 8206. Click image to enlarge.

In May 1840, Captain F.G. Moore’s ship was blown off course from the North Island’s West Coast. Sailing through Golden Bay / Mohua, Moore and his crew explored the Riwaka Valley and Motueka areas. In this neighbourhood, they found about 500 contented Māori with large areas of cultivation.  Moore reported fertile lands, abundant timber, good shelter for ships and a fine climate.2

Moore returned with Captain Arthur Wakefield in October 1841 and they were considering the region as the site of ‘Nelson’ until they discovered the sheltered Nelson Haven across the bay.2

In the 1840s, there was a  brisk trade in timber and vegetables between Motueka and Nelson, with small vessels loaded on the beach at the Motueka River mouth. Fourteen year old Sarah Fowler arrived with early settlers to Riwaka. She remembered the land being divided into 10 acre blocks where each settler built his own house from clay and chopped grass.3 H. P. Washbourn  who lived in Motueka from 1852-59 wrote: “The village was laid out in small sections in the middle of a splendid bush, and had some good open land all around on which the farms were situated.”4

The cheerful and hardworking Greenwoods  arrived in 1843 and while their budget was tight, within a year they had built a home for their large family and had a good garden with cows, poultry, rabbits and pigs.5 In 1850, Sarah Greenwood wrote that Motueka was ‘assuming quite a settled appearance’ with a church, various tradespeople, a general store, a doctor, a clergyman, a magistrate and a constable.6

In the early 1840s, Occupation reserves had been designated to resident Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama and Te Ātiawa families.  But in 1853, these reserves were, by and large, taken away for the Anglican church and to establish a Native school. Thomas Brunner was not happy: “I was obliged to select all, if not quite all, the lands that were then let, which of course was the best of these lands….I consider that the Native Reserves at Motueka were made for the benefit of the whole of the Natives in Blind Bay…..”7

SS Lady Barkly on cradle. Nelson Provincial Museum. Sclanders Collection 8955
Click image to enlarge

By 1853, Motueka consisted of a large Maori pā and some settlers- mostly with little capital and large families.8 John Park Salisbury arrived in 1853 with his two brothers, Tom and Edward.  In 1855 the Salisbury brothers cut a 20 mile track to several hundred acres of grassy land up the Motueka River.  It was rough and trying work in the dripping bush, but by midsummer they drove a flock of sheep to the new grazing land.  J.P. Salisbury set off for the Collingwood goldfields in 1856 to make some working capital for the farm, which was eventually a successful business.9 Thomas Salisbury is regarded as the first European to graze sheep on the Tableland.

Areas like Motueka were regarded as the back blocks. It was a six day return journey to Nelson by bullock dray.10 The steamer, SS Lady Barkly, plied the waters between Motueka and Nelson, along with other passenger and cargo ships.

Halls House and farm. Motueka Valley. Nelson Provincial Museum. Tyree collection. 179204
Click to enlarge

The Motueka River was ‘…the biggest thing in our lives. We had to cross it to reach a road…it was our enemy, our playground, our bugbear and intimate friend,” wrote Colonel Cyprian Brereton.11 A great flood in 1877 drove many settlers off the river flats.12 A 20 foot wall of water came down the valley and spread out over the whole district, with most buildings in High Street being flooded.13

Mr E. Rowling's family, Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection: 179233.
Click image to enlarge

Subsistence farming and gold were the mainstays of Motueka’s early economy, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that hops, tobacco and apples all helped the economy to grow.

Prime Ministers

The Motueka region has produced two New Zealand prime ministers. (Sir) Keith Holyoake’s great grandfather, Richard, settled at Riwaka in 1843 and Sir Keith spent his early life there. He was prime minister between 1960 and 1972.

(Sir) Wallace Rowling came from an old Motueka/Tasman family. A school teacher, he taught at Lake Rotoiti and Motueka before entering politics in 1962. He was prime minister in 1974 following the death of Norman Kirk.14


Updated, August 27, 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Mitchell, H. & J. (2007). Te tau ihu o te waka:  A history of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough. Volume 2 : Te Ara Hou : The new society. Wellington, N.Z. : Huia. p. 305.
  2. Peart,  J.D. (1998). Old Tasman Bay. Christchurch, N.Z. : Cadsonbury. p. 98-104. 
  3. Brereton, Cyprian Bridge (1947). No roll of drums. Wellington, N.Z. : A.H. & A.W. Reed. p 17-18.
  4. Motueka and District Historical Association (2011). And so it began : continuing the story of Motueka, Vol. 7. Motueka, N.Z. : Motueka and District Historical Association. p. 23.
  5. Neale, June E. (1984). The Greenwoods : a pioneer family of New Zealand. Nelson, N.Z. : General Printing Services. p 31.
  6. Neale (1984), p.62-63.
  7. Mitchell (2007), p. 376-77.
  8. Brereton, Cyprian Bridge (1947). No roll of drums. Wellington, N.Z. : A.H. & A.W. Reed, p.13.
  9. Brereton (1947), p 20-21.
  10. Newport, J.N.W. (1962). Footprints ; the story of the settlement and development of the Nelson back country districts. Christchurch, N.Z. : Whitcombe & Tombs, p. 166.
  11. Salisbury, J. Neville (2006) Bush, boots and bridle tracks: the Salisburys: pioneers of the Motueka and Aorere Valleys. Auckland, N.Z.: J. Neville Salisbury. p. 96.
  12. Harris, Jill (2002). A place to live : the Tasman District...a community profile. Nelson, N.Z. : Tasman District Council p. 56.
  13. Parker, Edmund (1959). Recollections of earlier days in Motueka - Part Two. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 1(4), 6-9.
  14. Gregory, Kenneth (1976?) Land of Streams: life in the Waimea County Province of Nelson 1876-1976. Waimea, N.Z.: Waimea County Council, p 113- 11.

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  • There is another former Prime Minister associated with Riwaka: Mike Moore. His (and my)great-great grandfather Bernard Macmahon came out in the early 1840s with Captain Arthur Wakefield. He and his wife Margaret lived at Riwaka. Mike himself did not live in the district.

    Posted by Beverley Bell, 30/12/2013 4:20pm (11 years ago)

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  • The Motueka District Museum has a photographic collection and archive material. The main archive source is the Motueka and District Historical Association, which is housed in the museum. Contact the Association through the Motueka District Museum.

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