The Rotorua area was first settled in the 14th century when the Arawa canoe, captained by Tamatekapua, arrived at Maketu in the central Bay of Plenty. Settlers took the tribal name Te Arawa to commemorate the vessel that had brought them here.

In the next few hundred years, subtribes spread and divided through the area (the main subtribe of Te Arawa who live in Rotorua today are known as Ngāti Whakaue). A flashpoint occurred in 1823 when the Arawa lands were attacked by Northland tribe Ngāpuhi, led by Hongi Hika, in the so-called Musket Wars. After Te Arawa were defeated at Mokoia Island, the warring parties made their peace.

During the Waikato War (1863–64), Te Arawa threw in its lot with the government against its traditional Waikato enemies, preventing East Coast reinforcements getting through to support the Kingitanga (King Movement).

With peace in the early 1870s, word spread of scenic wonders, miraculous landscapes and watery cures for all manner of diseases. Rotorua boomed. Its main attraction was the fabulous Pink and White Terraces, formed by volcanic silica deposits. Touted at the time as the eighth natural wonder of the world, they were destroyed in the 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption.