Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 14, October 1970
By NORTON WATSON
It is difficult nowadays to visualize Puriri as the hub of a communications system linking the Bay of Islands with the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty; yet Puriri did fill such a role during the brief existence of the mission station there in the thirties of last century. In the days before there were roads in the area missionaries travelled by some rather odd routes to the Waikato or to Tauranga, generally touching Puriri on the way.
For almost two decades after Rev. Samuel Marsden preached his famous sermon at Rangihoua on Christmas Day, 1814, missionary commitment was practically confined to the Bay of Islands and the Hokianga, largely because of limited resources; but in April 1833 Rev. Henry Williams submitted to the C.M.S. [Church Missionary Society - E] committee his views on the extension of the Society's operations, pointing out the need for a more considerable exertion and for the adoption of a new system if they were to so dispose themselves as to assure a settlement, not only at the Thames but with a prospect of extending through the two islands. The time was opportune. Not only was there a war weariness among the tribes after the devastation wrought by Hongi with his muskets, but released or escaped slaves returning from the north took with them something of the Christian teaching to their own tribes and helped to create an ever-widening demand for missionaries.
It was missionary policy to approach the leading chiefs of an area before establishing a mission station within its bounds, and preparatory to establishing new stations in the Thames Valley a party of missionaries set out from the Bay of Islands in October 1833. They were Revs. Henry Williams and Alfred Nesbit Brown, Messrs. William T. Fairburn and John Morgan, with some Maori companions. They sailed in small boats with the cutter, KARERE, as tender, and arrived at Kopu on Saturday 9th November. At a service on the following day Henry Williams preached to the Maoris on the New Birth, noting in his diary, "It was doubtless as new and strange to them as it was, hundreds of years ago, to Nicodemus." At Kopu Henry Williams met the renowned Parekawhiowhio, then blind, "a sly, murderous fellow... wild as a hyena and anxious to return to the woods". Williams also met Horeta and walked with him to see his plantations, passing over land that was level and extensive; afterwards he visited Te Totara pa.
The journey up the Waihou was commenced and after passing Turua and remarking the swampy nature of the ground, the party met some natives in a canoe and followed them up a small river to their settlement (probably Puriri), where the natives were anxious for the missionaries to remain, and enquired for books and slates. Next day Raupa (PAEROA) was reached and on November 14th the party left their boats at Ruakoawa and struggled through swamps until they came to open, park-like country around Te Waharoa pa of Matamata, near the present town of Waharoa. Te Waharoa met them and feasted with them, and appealed to them to have a missionary stationed at Matamata. The Ngatihaua wished for the friendship of Ngatimaru and hoped that Ngapuhi might no longer be tutu (vexatious).
When the missionaries got back to Puriri the tide was out and a landing was made by putting down a lot of fern tops on the mud. Many natives were present and a council was held to decide on a suitable site for the mission in Thames district. Puriri was chosen because of its central position, abundance of level land, and fresh water streams. "Orders were given for the erection of three houses. This led the next day to a vociferous argument on the question of the best method of construction". Mr. James Preece was appointed to take charge of the new station, and among others who served there at various times were John Morgan, William T. Fairburn, and John Wilson. The missionaries were shuffled around a fair bit in the early years and it is not easy to tell who was where, or when. Later the situation became less fluid, and Brown for instance was stationed at Tauranga for fifty-three years.
On 21st of April 1834 Preece and Morgan welcomed two weary travellers to Puriri. They were Brown and Hamlin who had just completed an arduous journey of exploration through the Waikato. They had travelled overland from Waimate North to Tuakau, and by trader's boat up the Waikato to Ngaruawahia where they had talked with Te Wherowhero, who told them he had no desire to continue fighting Ngapuhi. They had visited Raglan and Kawhia, re-crossed the hills to the Waipa Valley, and noted Mangapouri at the confluence of the Puniu and the Waipa as a likely place for a mission station, and finally they had arrived at Puriri via Whakatiwai. Four days later, Henry Williams with Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Fairburn arrived in the schooner, FORTITUDE; this vessel took Brown and Hamlin back to the Bay of Islands.
A few months later Brown was back at Puriri with William Williams and James Stack on their way to the Waikato to decide on sites for new stations. They fixed on Mangapouri, 25th August 1834, and Matamata, a week later, although Matamata was not occupied till 1835. Hamlin and Stack were appointed to Mangapouri, and Brown and Wilson to Matamata.
Early in 1835 a report of trouble brewing between Whakatiwai natives and Waikato brought Henry Williams and James Hamlin to Puriri. Puriri itself was comparatively free from trouble and was regarded as a city of refuge. Arrived at Puriri the news was better than expected. "More noisy natives arrived from Whakatiwai. Next day was Sunday and services were held, and Mrs. Fairburn's infant school was inspected. The children were well dressed and could repeat their Catechism, and had greatly profited from general instruction". They left for Whakatiwai the next morning and were met by Wharerahi, where matters were amicably settled. They went to Te Waharoa at Matamata and to Te Wherowhero at Ngaruawahia for discussions on the general situation.
Puriri was a regular port of call for missionaries, on the way to their stations, or on urgent peace-making missions. One of the two main routes into the Waikato was from Puriri to Whakatiwai, by portage to the Maramarua river, then by boat down that stream and up the Waikato and the Waipa to Mangapouri. The other way was up the Waihou, (a branch to Tauranga led over the Wairere track) across to Matamata and through the Hinuera Valley, thence by water and portages to Mangapouri. Puriri was regarded as more settled and civilized and Mrs. Stack stayed there for her confinement rather than go on to Mangapouri. She gave birth to a son, James West Stack, the future Canon Stack, who later wrote, "as soon as my dear mother was strong enough to travel from the Maori pa at Puriri, where I was born on 27th March 1835, bearers were hired to carry her in an amo, something like an ambulance stretcher".
In 1836 fears were held for the safety of the Tauranga Christians, and Mr. Fairburn sailed round from Puriri to ascertain their fate. In September 1836 the Matamata mission station was stripped by a gang of thieves, the station was abandoned and Brown stayed at Puriri for awhile before moving to Tauranga. Mangapouri was closed in 1837 because of the unsettled state of the natives, and in the same year, because Puriri was proving an unhealthy location, a move was made to Kauaeranga. James Preece later had a mission station at what is now called Preece's Point, at the entrance to Coromandel harbour, and Major Bunbury called on him there in May, 1840, on his remarkable journey in search of signatures for the Treaty of Waitangi. When the missionaries returned to the Waikato in 1838 they went in by way of Maunsell's station at Waikato Heads, or over the Wairere track from Tauranga.
The Life of Henry Williams - Hugh Carleton; The Story of Te Waharoa - J.A. Wilson; Early Maoriland Adventures – J.W. Stack; Christianity Among the New Zealanders - Rt. Rev. William Williams; Te Aroha and the Fortunate Valley - article Rev. R.L. Connoly; Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 5 - article Walter Wylde [see Journal 5: First Missionary Settlement in Thames Valley - E].