Museum - History of the Whakatipu

The Queenstown Region is an area dominated by a beautiful landscape of mountains, lakes, rivers and ice, despite 130 years of European settlement and the growth of a thriving international tourist centre. There are two theories regarding Queenstown's name. One was because it was a town fit for Queen Victoria, and the other is that it is named after Queenstown, now Cobh, in Ireland.

Human History

The land surrounding Queenstown and Arrowtown was regularly visited by Māori during their seasonal trips to the area. Kāti Māmoe, Waitaha and Ngāi Tahu travelled from their permanent settlements to hunt native birds such as moa and weka. They would carefully preserve the meat in hinu (fat) and store it in pōhā (kelp bags) for the journey home. These seasonal hunting trips were valuable to supplement the seafood diet of southern coastal Māori.

Māori would also visit the area to extract pounamu (greenstone or nephrite jade) which is an extremely hard stone that can be found in the mountains to the west of Queenstown. It was carved into ornaments such as tiki (a pendant worn around the neck). Pounamu was also uses to make mere (club-like weapons) and toki (adzes).

The Crown Range route between Wanaka and Queenstown via the Cardrona Valley was one of the principal tracks used by goldminers and early pastoralists. Rising to 1,120 metres it is the highest sealed road in New Zealand.

This was the route which pioneer runholder William Gilbert Rees and fellow explorer, Nicholas Paul Baltasar von Tunzlemann followed in 1859 to mark the first successful approach to the Whakatipu basin from the east. Other individuals and groups had arrived at the lake before them but Rees in particular is regarded as the pioneer of Queenstown because he established his homestead on the town’s present site, facing Queenstown Bay.

After applying for land to farm, Rees took the Queenstown side and had two years of peaceful settlement before miners poured in for the gold rush that overtook Queenstown, erecting a canvas and shanty town on their doorstep. Ree’s property was declared a goldfield and he was paid £10,000 to vacate the land. Across the lake Von Tunzlemann suffered stock deaths and a lack of money that finally forced him off the land.

Gold Rush

Large quantities of alluvial gold were discovered in the Arrow River in late 1862 by Jack Tewa, one of Rees's shepherds, William Fox, John O’Callaghan and others. This sparked off an invasion that attracted miners from the Australia and Californian goldfields, joined by other nationalities with little or no experience. Makeshift towns of tents, stores and bars sprang up almost overnight establishing Queenstown and Arrowtown.

Fox’s, as Arrowtown was first called, became a hive of industry with more than 1,100 prospectors, trying their luck in the Arrow Gorge, and with more than 500 working the river in its upper reaches between the Eight Mile and Twelve Mile Creeks. The settlement at the Twelve Mile was named Macetown where groups worked all the tributaries and creeks until much of the alluvial gold was worked out.

In November 1862 discoveries were made at Arthurs Point on the Shotover River, at Skippers and beyond. The Shotover River became the second richest gold bearing river in the world.

Chinese miners didn’t come to mine in the Whakatipu until after the initial gold rush. When gold was discovered on the West Coast of the South Island in 1864 many gold miners at the Arrow packed up and followed the rush. The wider Otago province was faced with losing its main source of wealth – income from taxes on gold. The Otago provincial government had a solution, they invited the Chinese to come and work on the Otago goldfields. By the 1870’s more than 5000 Chinese were working throughout Otago, mostly at goldmines, though many assisted with local building, market gardening and whatever was offered.