The story of John McKinnon of Aropaoanui

Compiled by:- Myra Frew McKinnon, Ranee McKinnon and David Gregorie.

John McKinnon was born on the Isle of Lewis, the largest of the Western Isles of Scotland, in 1823. He was the son of Angus MacKinnon and Ann MacFarlane, who were married at Stornoway, the Island's Capital on 21 January, 1822. Their issue:-

Georgina, b 1822; John, b 13/12/1823; Catherine, b 1828; Christina, b 1831.

As a boy John worked as a shepherd on a croft near Stornoway. He went to sea at the age of 15, as boys often did in those days, and spent the next ten years voyaging around the world, gaining his "mate's" and then his "Master's" certificates.

A tale he loved to tell was when the sailing ship "Mary Florence" was wrecked off the coast of Africa and everyone on board had to take to the boats. There was a heavy sea running and the boats overturned in the surf. Seven of the ship's company were drowned, including the Captain and his wife. Only the Mate, an able-bodied seaman and John McKinnon survived. On reaching shore they were taken prisoner by African tribesmen who marched them inland and tied them to a stake at their camp. According to John's story, the Mate and the seaman were eaten by the cannibals, but John managed to escape at night and headed for the coast. Four months later he was picked up by a passing ship and landed at Aden.

He worked for the East India Company for a while and then went to America where he worked for two years on the steamboats of the Mississippi River. At the age of 25 he returned home and married Catherine (Kate) MacIver, from Holm Village, Stornoway. Their first child, Catherine, (Kate), was born in Stornoway on 23 May 1853. The following year, John McKinnon sailed from Dundee for Melbourne as mate of the "Kossuth", leaving Catherine expecting their second child. Mary Ann McKinnon was born at Stornoway on 8 September 1854. One story has it that Catherine found the deeds to land which John had bought on the banks of the Mississippi and burnt them, having no wish to settle in America.

John, meantime, had left Melbourne for New Zealand as mate on the brig "Kirkwood". At Wairoa he took command of the 40 tonne schooner "Wave", which was owned by the Hamlin brothers, but shortly afterwards he left the sea and went into the sawmilling business with a partner named Peatman, working a block of Matai and Kahikatea at Turiroa, near Wairoa. At this time pit-sawn timber was fetching one pounds per hundred superficial feet at Napier.

In 1856 he was appointed Pilot for the Port of Napier, the second man and first European to hold that position. He brought the Port's first paddle steamer, the "Wonga Wonga", into the harbour and the first English ship to her anchorage in the roadstead. There was no breakwater in those days. After two years as Pilot, he had charge of the river ferry at Clive for four years.

John McKinnon decided to make his home in New Zealand and in 1857 he asked his wife Catherine, to join him with their two daughters. She refused, saying she would not live in a land of cannibals. John is said to have told her that if she didn't come to New Zealand he would marry a Maori maiden. That apparently made up Catherine's mind. She arrived in New Zealand in 1858 on the ship "Oliver Lang", with two little girls, now aged 5 and 4, and accompanied by her youngest brother, Murdock MacIver. (He married Elizabeth Sutherland, widow of James Tait)

Angus in 1859 and John in 1861 were born during their time at Clive.

In 1862 the Government opened up the Araopaoanui Block for public settlement. John McKinnon took up 5000 acres between the Aropaoanui River and the Waipapa Creek, on the coast between Petane and Mohaka and facing Napier across the bay, which he named Arapawanui, a miss-spelling of the original Maori name. For several years he was helped on the land by his brother-in-law, Murdock MacIver.

Donald McKinnon, John and Catherine's third son, was born on 23 May 1863, the first McKinnon to be born at Arapawanui. Their third daughter,Isabella (Bella) was born there on 13 January, 1865.

In those days there was no proper road into Arapaoanui. The Coast Road between Westshore (then known as Western Spit) and Petane, near the mouth of the Esk River, continued as far as Tongoio, and a bridle track led from there over the hills to Waipatiki and Arapaoanui. The Aropaoanui River was tidal and so was the bridle track north along the coast to the mouth of the Moeangiangi River. North of Moeangiangi, the track wound over the hills and along the coast to Mohaka and Wairoa. Mrs. McKinnon always offered meals and accommodation to travellers held up by the tide. John McKinnon held a Bush License. The sea was the main highway. All the wool and other heavy goods were taken by horse and dray as far as possible through the surf to be put onto large whale boats and rowed out to a scow which would be waiting in deeper water. It was wet, strenuous work. Friends and relatives sometimes took the chance of a sea trip from Napier to Arapaoanui. Passengers would be lowered into a whaleboat which was bobbing about alongside the scow and rowed in as close to the beach as possible, then each passenger would be carried by the men to dry land.

During the land wars, which flared up through Taranaki and the East Coast from 1866 to 1872, European settlers living on isolated farms in the province went in daily fear of surprise attack, as the authorities found it difficult to give them any warning.

In the summer of 1866 Hauhau fever spread. In October 1866 about 130 fighting men and horsemen from Taupo, planned to attack Petane, while others attacked outlying homesteads. They congregated at Omarunui village and planned to attack Napier. The local Militia were called out with Napier Rifle volunteers, also from Wairoa Major Fraser and his Military Settlers and Ngati Kahungunu. The Hauhau forces were finally routed at the Battle of Omahunui, near Taradale,and the threat to Napier was averted.

In 1869, John Powdrell, a young settler from the Wairoa district, was returning home from Napier riding the racehorse "Queen of the Vale" when he was stopped by the military and told of Te Kooti's attack on Mohaka. He was asked to make a detour to warn the McKinnon family before returning to Napier to report the attack. John McKinnon thought that the family should leave together and seek refuge in some place where the children would be safe, but all the horses had been turned out and none could be caught immediately. They decided that Mrs McKinnon and the children should head for Napier escorted by John Powdrell, while John remained behind to bury the family valuables and round up the horses. The younger children were piled on the back of the racehorse, while Mrs. McKinnon, John Powdrell and the older girls walked alongside. Back at Arapaoanui John McKinnon collected the family valuables and buried them in the garden. Just as he was leaving to look for the horses, he heard a commotion in the fowl run and found there three Maori helping themselves to the hens. There was a Maori village on the south side of the Aropaoanui River, mostly friendly but one family with Hau Hau sympathies. The Hau Haus took several cattle and horses, but the friendly Maoris later went after them and brought the animals back. John McKinnon caught up with his family and they arrived at Petane in an exhausted state. The hotel was already overflowing with women and children seeking refuge and they slept in the loft over the stables. John Powdrell rode on to report at Napier, where additional forces were being readied to reinforce the troops in the field and to relieve the one Pa, Hiruharama at Mohaka, which had managed to hold out against Te Kooti. When the refugees reached Western Spit the following day, they found that the only hotel in the hamlet had been burned down and they had to camp overnight in a sail-maker's building.

Next morning they saw a party of Volunteers being ferried across from Napier to Western Spit to hold off Te Kooti's forces who were believed to be advancing on Napier. This was the first meeting between Mary Ann, now 14, and her future husband, Peter Dinwiddie, an officer with the volunteers.

Many of the settlers' homesteads north of Napier were burned down but the McKinnon family returned home to find their house and farm buildings untouched.

William McKinnon and his still-born twin, were born at Arapawanui on Christmas Day 1869 and Norman on 27 January 1871, Joanna, the youngest on 26 June 1873.

John McKinnon was to have one more voyage as master of a sailing vessel. One year when he was loading his wool clip, the mate of the ship told him that their captain had died at sea. Since the insurance cover would lapse if the ship sailed without a certificated master, the owners were particularly anxious to secure a captain for the voyage home to England. John McKinnon made a contract with the agents to take the ship to England and back for 500 pounds, if the agents would agree to spend this amount on felling a block of bush on his run and convert it to pasture. In addition they agreed to keep his property in good order and to provide Mrs. Mckinnon with stores and any necessary assistance. He was away for more than a year, returning to find that the agreement had been honoured and a large tract of land had been cleared and grassed.

Mary Ann and Peter Forrest Dinwiddie were married at Arapawanui on 26 December 1872. Mary Ann was just 18 and her husband was 38. After the ceremony they set out on horseback for Napier, their future home.

In 1873, Murdoch McIver married Elizabeth Sutherland, widow of the late James Tait, and took up land at Waikari, between Aropaoanui and Mohaka. By then, John McKinnon was employing several shepherds and other hands who lived in the large single mens' quarters

In 1886 John McKinnon took up a Crown leasehold property extending from the coast right up to Lake Tutira, in the Wairoa County, and in 1892 he bought the Moeangiangi Estate of some 5000 acres freehold with 5000 acres leasehold (a total of more than 4000 ha) together with 13,000 sheep, for the sum of 15,000 pounds. About the turn of the century the McKinnons ran 9000 crossbred sheep and 100 head of cattle.

Joanna McKinnon died in Auckland in 1888 of Scarlet Fever. She is buried on a sunny terrace overlooking the mouth of the Aropaoanui River. She was 15.

In his later years John McKinnon liked to sit by the river and write poetry. He was nostalgic about his old home on the Isle of Lewis and translated several old Hebridean folk songs from his native Gaelic into English - but he also wrote long poems about his new New Zealand valley.

In the Valley of Moangi
Where the river's running clear,
Between hills of passing grandeur
Rising in the ranges near.

When in flood it met the ocean
With a roar and mighty bound
The surf beating on the shore
In commotion all around.

The scene is changed to the westward
Where the hills are rock-fast bound
Where the wild pig and the rabbit
Find a cavern from the hound.

Where the Tutira Valley
Is running parallel with the sea,
With its lake of limped water
Rippling to the mountain breeze.

Down the Glen of Pawanui,
Where the sun rise in the morn,
Where the Clan McKinnon settled,
Pioneers who hold their own.

Long may live that clan together
In a friendly loving way,
Is the prayer of the founder
Of that Clan in early days

John and Kate McKinnon celebrated their Golden Wedding at Arapawanui over Christmas Day and Boxing Day in 1898. Most of their children and grandchildren, 24 in all, and many friends were there to join in the festivities. Several photographs survive, some of them family snap shots, some taken by a Napier professional, showing a bearded patriarch with his lady, their prosperous looking sons and daughters and their families. By then John McKinnon was a prominent farmer and landowner, with three generations of descendants and a wide circle of friends. He had been a member of the first Wairoa County Council and an early member of the Napier Harbour Board.

During the 1880's John McKinnon took up several Crown Lease properties in the Wairoa County. A condition of holding the lease was to erect a dwelling within the first year. The land was undeveloped. John (Jnr) married Martha Davis in 1890. Kaihunahuna lease was put in her name as a wedding present. They lived at Karamu on the main road. Norman married Ellen Walker in 1895. They lived and farmed at Stratholm, Waihua Valley. Kia Kia lease was in the name of Ellen, as a wedding present. Before he married, Stratholm was run in partnership between Angus and Norman.

Catherine McKinnon died on 12 December 1902 at the age of 74 after a long and painful illness. Bella had managed the household for several years and nursed her mother during her last illness.

The steamer "Fairy" made a special trip from Napier to take mourners to the funeral, which was conducted by the Rev. C. O'Connor. Catherine McKinnon was buried in the same plot as her youngest daughter Joanna and an inscription on the tombstone commemorates them both. A Gaelic inscription on the stone has been translated as follows:-

"As long as the family
of McKinnon remember
their mother and family
come from the land
of the mountains."

In 1903 John McKinnon and Bella left for a trip to Scotland. Shortly before they returned to New Zealand, Bella was introduced to a Rev. MacKinnon at a tea party. They had met only once or twice, but after their arrival back in New Zealand, Bella received a letter from the Rev. MacKinnon proposing marriage. Her father advised her to accept.

Some months later, John McKinnon placed Arapawanui in the hands of his sons Angus and William. Donald married Mary Millar in 1898 and was farming Moeangiangi.

He and Bella sailed again for Scotland on 6 April 1904, on the liner "Ophir"

The Rev. MacKinnon was supposed to meet the "Ophir" at Glasgow, but he did not turn up and no more was heard of him. Old John McKinnon married Christina McLean, nee Murray , a widow with five children, at Glasgow, on 22 August 1904 and left Bella, still single, on her own.

Bella married Captain John MacLean on 26 June 1912, but Captain MacLean's ship was lost with all hands in about 1914. Bella lived at "Roseneath" Matheson Road, Stornoway.

John McKinnon died at Stornoway on 13 November 1912 in his 89th year. He left his widow, Christina, then aged 45,and his daughter Bella, aged 47, annuities from his estate at Arapawanui

Bella died on 26 March 1924 at the age of 59. She left all she had to her niece Kate Dinwiddie.

In 1912 a road was constructed between Tongoio and the Aropaoanui River, allowing wheeled traffic to reach Arapaoanui for the first time. An item in the Hawkes Bay Herald, dated 18 November of that year, reads: "For the first time a trap was driven along the new Tongoio- Arapaoanui Road on Saturday, when Mrs. Annie Bolem and her daughter Winnie, of Dunedin, were brought from Arapaoanui into Napier. They left at 1 pm and got into Napier at 4 pm. In future the mail from Napier to Waikari will be taken by coach to Arapauanui and thence by pack horse over the bridle track and hills to Waikari".

In 1914 Kate Orr and her daughter Bessie Bygum visited Stornoway and were amazed to find no stone to mark their father's grave. The family in New Zealand were appealed to, and a stone erected. In 1927 Mary Ann Diniwiddie and her daughter Kate visited Stornoway and were photographed beside their father's grave. Isabella McKinnon is also remembered on her father's tombstone.

Of John and Catherine's nine surviving children:

The parents of John McKinnon had lived at 14 Newton. His sister Christina, 73 when he returned, probably lived at 14 Newton. The Murrays lived at 12 Newton. John McKinnon built a substantial new house for his new young wife, 37, and her five children, at 8 Newton. One of her daughters married Dr. C.B. MacLeod, who practised from the house, until he exchanged it for a more central property owned by the Episcopalian Church. All the houses are in good repair.


In 1904 when Bella and her father went to Stornoway, Kate Orr and her daughter Bessie kept house at Arapawanui for Angus. Ella Dobson was Bessie's friend. Bessie married Ralph Bygum that year. Angus married Ella Dobson in 1904.

Chris, Kate and Bella Smith in Sydney were cousins on the McIver side.

In 1869 during the Te Kooti raids, the family stayed at Westshore for several weeks. Angus then aged 10, rode out to the farm at Arapawanui to get meat.

From James Shaw Grant: "Newton - In almost every house there was a ship's captain. Most of them learned their navigation in John Mackay's school on Keith Street. There were always bearded men sitting among the boys in John Mackay's, men who had been round the Horn under sail, sitting in class with their own and their neighbours' children, taking advantage of a short spell ashore to study for a mate's, or master's ticket. Mr. Mackay would take them down to the beach at Holm to do their practical navigation.