History of Whanganui

With more than 40 generations of settlement by Māori, and European settlement since 1840, Whanganui's history has hundreds of years worth of stories of interest.

The Whanganui River catchment is regarded as a sacred area to Māori with the river and settlements holding a special place for Māori and European settlers alike.

Originally known as Petre, the town was established 4km from the river mouth in 1840. The official name change to Wanganui took place on 20 January 1854. The city’s spelling has now been corrected to Whanganui, which in te reo Māori can be interpreted as ”big bay or big harbour”. Declared a city in 1924, it was New Zealand’s fifth-largest, until 1936.

The history of Whanganui is a rich amalgam of all settler and Māori cultures with the Whanganui River central to historic, cultural and artistic development. The river (Te Awa O Whanganui) has provided inspiration and is the essential heartbeat for oral, visual and written creative expression over many centuries.

Māori History of Whanganui


“E rere kau mai te Āwanui,
Mai i te Kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa
Kō au te Āwa, kō te Āwa kō au.”

“The great river flows From the mountains to the sea.
I am the river, the river is me.”

This whakataukī (proverb) defines the Iwi (Māori) of the Whanganui River and region. From the sacred mountains of the Central Plateau, the Whanganui River begins its journey of nearly 300km and is eventually released into the Tasman Sea, off the western coastline of Whanganui. Along its length, the people of Te Ātihaunui-a-Papārangi (Whanganui Iwi) have descended for over 40 generations.

Throughout time, custodianship of the river has been bestowed upon the descendants of three sibling ancestors, the female, Hinengākau, assigned the top reaches near Taumarunui, the eldest sibling, the male Tamaūpoko, the middle reaches, and Tūpoho, the younger sibling, the lower reaches.

Our district boundaries fall across the ancestral boundaries of Tamaūpoko and Tūpoho on the river, the South Taranaki Iwi, Ngā Rauru Kītahi and Ngāti Āpa of the Rangitīkei. Customs, Tikanga (protocol) and values including manaakitanga (hospitality) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) emphasise the affinity of Māori with their ancestral landscapes and culture.


From Māori art, craft and carvings, historic Māori buildings and colonial churches to Victorian and Edwardian buildings, Whanganui is a heritage city providing much to explore.

Whanganui Early European Settler History

Negotiation for purchase of land with Whanganui Māori started as early as 1840 and was finalised in 1848 when 80,000 acres were purchased. In 1841, the first settlers from England, Scotland and Ireland arrived in Whanganui. Many had already bought land from the New Zealand Company but until land sale issues were resolved most settlers were confined to town.

Tensions between Māori and settlers saw the installation of a military garrison in 1846 and for the next 15 years, the 65th Regiment of the Imperial British Army was in residence. Other regiments followed with the last, the 18th (Royal Irish), leaving in early 1870.

In 1843 Anglican missionary Richard Taylor recorded 3,240 Māori living in the Whanganui River valley and 205 settlers living in town with about a dozen families living outside the town boundary. Taylor served the Whanganui Mission from 1843 for the remainder of his life. With total dedication, he was an ardent family man with an intense interest in scientific matters. Richard Taylor was the forerunner of many others who came to serve the communities of Whanganui.

By the early 1900s business in Whanganui was booming. The Whanganui River tourist trade took off, with thousands of passengers being transported on Alexander Hatrick’s riverboat fleet. Hatrick made the river accessible to everybody: rich tourists, farmers in the interior and Whanganui citizens.

Whanganui thrived as it serviced a huge fertile agricultural catchment area, rearing sheep and cattle, as well as growing barley, wheat, oats, maize, fruit and timber.

Seven kilometres upstream from the river mouth, the town was developed and wharves established. Most coastal shipping berthed just downstream from the present town bridge. The Whanganui town wharf was the centre of activity until 1908 when Castlecliff Port was developed around the frozen meat trade. The town wharf closed in 1956 as it was uneconomic to operate both ports.


Read about Whanganui’s Te Awa Tupua legislation

Whanganui is a UNESCO City of Design

Where to stay in Whanganui

For a quick overview of what’s available and to book online, use our Booking.com accommodation widget.

For expert local advice or further help on your stay, contact our Whanganui isite visitor centre or browse our guides on Where to stay.

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