A Barrier History

Aotea (Great Barrier) is an important place in Maori traditional history.

The Ngati Rehua, hapu of Ngati Wai, who live on the island today can trace their association back over many centuries, with the island having been continuously inhabited for much of the past 1000 years.

Māori oral history speaks of early occupation, and of Ngāti Wai and its chief Rehua settling on Aotea and claiming mana whenua over the land in the late 1700s. Being ancestral land, all of the island is sacred land to Māori. Its forests, bays and rivers tell stories of journeys, battles, living off the land and settlement.

Captain James Cook named the island Great Barrier in 1769 for the shelter and protection it provides to the Hauraki Gulf. You can experience the island’s culture and heritage by visiting some of the fascinating historic sites. Archaeological sites in accessible coastal areas have been dated to the earliest period of Polynesian settlement. From the 1840s, the island’s natural resources attracted European settlement. A number of boom and bust industries exploited the island’s forests, minerals (copper, silver, gold) and migrating whales.


Copper was discovered in the remote northern part of the island in 1841, with New Zealand’s earliest mine being established at Miners Head in 1842. Gold and silver were discovered in the 1890s. The massive stone walls of the Oreville stamping (ore crushing) battery—above and below Whangaparapara Road—are an impressive reminder of the mining period.


The remains of New Zealand’s last whaling station can be seen at Whangaparapara. Whaling began in and around New Zealand waters in the 1790s, and peaked in 1839 when 150 American and 50 other whaling ships were recorded around its coasts.


The kauri forests of Aotea were logged with increasing intensity between the 1880s and early 1930s. Many walking tracks within Great Barrier Forest follow old kauri logging and milling tramway routes. One of the island’s best-known historic landmarks is the Lower Kauri Dam on the Kaiaraara Track.

The ruins of the Kauri Timber Company sawmill (in operation 1905–16) at Whangaparapara, which once processed logs rafted by sea from the Coromandel and Northland, include a steam tractor and cast iron chimney stack. A few areas of original kauri forest survived, and much of the forest is now regenerating.

Historic buildings

Built in the 1860s, Ollies Cottage still stands at Puriri Bay. Homesteads at Harataonga, Tryphena, and Port Fitzroy are reminders of colonial times. Tryphena School was built in 1884 and is now used as a community service building.


Since 1854, around 50 shipwrecks have occurred on the coast of Aotea. In 1894, the SS Wairarapa smashed into rocks near Miners Head and 121 passengers and crew died—New Zealand’s third worst shipping disaster. Two grave sites remain: one on the west coast, the other on the east. Both sites are easily accessible.