It was early Maori who first lived in the Clutha District. The sea and rivers were abundant with fish and the now extinct Moa could be found in the forest and lowlands. The Catlins, in particular, was populated with Maori as moa were plentiful and readily hunted, and the timber from the forest was ideal for canoes. Hunting camps were located at Papatowai and near the Tahakopa River mouth. Maori legends tell of the great escapes of chiefs, such as the great Tuhawaiki, from the Maeroero – wild giants of the forest.
Arrival of the Europeans
Although descendants remain in the Clutha District today, the indigenous people succumbed to waves of European disease brought in by the new generation of hunters, whalers and sealers. Over the first half of the nineteenth century these hardy profiteers exploited the rich supply of whales and seals. The whaling stations at Taieri Mouth, Port Molyneux and Tautuku had, by the end of the 1840s, depleted the resource, so much so that crews had to desert the camps. Historical accounts tell of a pleasant climate in a land of flax-covered plains and valleys.
First to explore and adapt to these Clutha lands were the agents of Sydney-based land claimants, brought over by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Of these agents, two gentlemen stayed to become the first established settlers in the Clutha district, namely Messrs Willsher and Russell, who landed at Kaka Point in 1840. Willsher went on to guide Frederick Tuckett, employed by New Zealand Land Company on behalf of the Free Church of Scotland, for the purposes of finding a suitable location for a Scottish colony in New Zealand. Tuckett walked the Clutha District from top to bottom, discovering a seam of coal that would later see the mining town of Kaitangata flourish, and concluded that although the district had superior land, the harbour was not sufficient to support a large settlement. The site for New Edinburgh was chosen where Dunedin is today and the first settlers arrived in 1848. Authorities tried to keep colonists centralised, but hardy settlers soon took up their selections and by the mid 1850s clusters of bark huts and Wattle and Daub Cottages were dotted through the Taieri and Tokomairiro plains, river deltas, and onto the fertile valleys reaching out to Mataura.