The original name still used by local Maori is Te Kohanga o Te Tai Tokerau (the nest of the northern people) or Te Puna o Te Ao Marama (the wellspring of moonlight). The full name of the Harbour is Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe - the place of Kupe's great return.

Hokianga iwi are Ngapuhi and the harbour was one of the first points of Maori-European contact. The occasional ship called from around 1800 but the dangerous bar made the harbour entrance risky. But from the 1820s the kauri forest was exploited in a thriving timber trade as a combined Maori European venture that included flax milling. Ship-building started at Horeke about the same time.

Missionaries followed the traders. A Wesleyan mission was established in 1828 at Mangungu, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by 60 chiefs on 12 February 1840. Two years earlier Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier said the first Catholic mass from Totara Point and in 2002 his bones were returned from France to be reburied there. Indeed, French colonisation of New Zealand was a very real threat at the time.

The eccentric Charles Philippe Hippolyte de Thierry proclaimed himself 'Sovereign of New Zealand' in 1837. Although he was largely ridiculed and deserted by his followers, both Maori and the English were sufficiently worried that Ngapuhi provided land for him at Hokianga on the condition he abandon his audacious scheme.

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As the exploitative kauri and gum trade diminished around the start of the 20th century, farming developed, if slowly, since much of the land remained in Maori ownership.

Rawene - Ra (sun) Wene (setting) Sits on the narrow peninsula in the middle of the harbour and is today linked by car ferry to Kohukohu. It housed a mill and shipyards in the 1800s. The last house of James Reddy Clendon, US Consul in the 1830s and a witness to the Treaty signing, still stands today.

Opononi -The place of Pononi - on the harbour's south shore near Omapere is another of the north's world famous areas. So popular was 'Opo' the dolphin in the summer of 1955-1956 that she was given protection by law but died in mysterious circumstances before it came into force. Today there is a sculpture at her grave.

Mangamuka - Manga (stream) Muka (shoot of nikau) at the junction of Purehu and Mangamuka rivers, both of which feed the upper reaches of the Hokianga
Harbour. The Mangamuka Gorge is at the base of the Maungataniwha Range and the
mountainous forested area contains giant kauri trees.