The history of the area and its importance in Māori culture is shown by the names given to the area and its surrounds.
The earliest known name for Wellington city, derived from Māori legend, is Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui or the head of Maui’s fish. Te Whanganui a Tara is another name Māori gave the area – a name said to come from Whatonga’s son Tara who was sent down from the Mahia Peninsula by his father to explore southern lands for their people to settle. It literally means the great harbour of Tara.
Kupe, the great Māori explorer, is said to have stayed in the harbour hundreds of years ago and many place names in the harbour acknowledge his presence – Matiu and Makaro, or Somes and Ward Islands as they are also known, are the names of two of Kupe’s nieces.
When European settlers arrived they found thriving Māori settlements stretching from Waiwhetu on the eastern side of the Hutt Valley, Petone, round to settlements at the mouth of the Kaiwharawhara Stream to Pipitea Pa, Kumutoto Pa, Tiakiwai Pa and finally into Te Aro Pa in the heart of the waterfront.
Te Ātiawa settled the inner harbour area and had a close relationship with Ngāti Toa further north.
Not only were the settlements thriving, there was also a healthy water-based trade and communication system.
The area south of Te Aro Pa was well-cultivated. Gardens extended to where the old Museum at Buckle Street now stands and on some of the hilly area up to Brooklyn and Vogeltown.
Streams, the Waitangi Lagoon on the eastern side of Te Aro Flat (near the site of Waitangi Park), surrounding bush and the harbour itself were rich food sources, and a source of other supplies such as flax and wood.