By the time Europeans started to arrive, this region – stretching as far north as Auckland’s Manukau Harbour – had long been the homeland of the Waikato tribes, descended from the Tainui migration. In settling this land they displaced or absorbed tribes from earlier migrations.
Initially European contact was on Maori terms and to the advantage of the local people. Their fertile land, which was already cultivated with kumara and other crops, was well suited to the introduction of new fruits and vegetables. By the 1840s the Waikato economy was booming, with bulk quantities of produce exported to the settlers in Auckland and beyond. Rangiaowhia, near Te Awamutu, became a prosperous farming town – much to the envy of the new arrivals, who coveted the flat fecund Waikato plains.
Relations between the two cultures soured during the 1850s, largely due to the colonists’ pressure to purchase Maori land. In response, a confederation of tribes united to elect a king to safeguard their interests, forming what became known as the ‘King Movement’.
In July 1863 Governor Grey sent a huge force to invade the Waikato and exert colonial control. After almost a year of fighting, known as the Waikato War, the Kingites retreated south to what became branded the King Country. Europeans didn’t dare to venture there for several decades.
The war resulted in the confiscation of 360, 000 hectares of land, much of which was given to colonial soldiers to farm and defend. In 1995 the Waikato tribes received a full Crown apology for the wrongful invasion and confiscation of their lands, as well as a $170 million package, including the return of land that the Crown still held.