Local Māori iwi (tribes) have long contested Taranaki lands. In the 1820s they fled to the Cook Strait region to escape Waikato tribes, who eventually took hold of the area in 1832. Only a small group remained at Okoki Pā (in today's New Plymouth). When European settlers arrived in 1841, the coast of Taranaki seemed deserted and there was little opposition to land claims. The New Zealand Company bought extensive tracts from the remaining Māori.

When other members of local tribes returned after years of exile, they fiercely objected to the land sale. Their claims were upheld by Governor FitzRoy, but the Crown gradually acquired more land from Māori, and European settlers sought the fertile soil. Settlers forced the government to abandon negotiations with Māori, and war erupted in 1860. By 1870 more than 500 hectares of Māori land had been confiscated.

Ensuing economic growth was largely founded on dairy farming. The 1959 discoveries of natural gas and oil in the South Taranaki Bight have kept the province economically healthy in recent times.