Volume 12

Cook Landmarks at 'The Thames' (New Zealand), November 1769

David Wilton


This article briefly examines the travels and landmarks of James Cook's ship HMS Endeavour in the Firth of Thames - Waihou River area during November 1769. Cook named the Waihou as 'River Thames' as it reminded him of the Thames in England. He regarded the Firth of Thames as part of the river. The name 'Waihou' came back into common use during the 20th century, but the name for the firth has endured. During the gold rushes of the 1860s, the Hauraki - Coromandel area became known as 'The Thames', as a result of Cook's legacy.

There are three main sites of interest related to Cook's visit to the Firth of Thames area: the Endeavour's anchorage in the Firth, the pa site visited when Cook and a small party voyaged by two ship's boats up the Waihou, and the place where they went ashore to measure a large kahikatea, which was probably also the limit of their journey up the river.

Figure 1: A simulated view of HMS Endeavour at anchor off Te Puru, in the Firth of Thames. The Hunua Ranges and Hauraki Gulf islands are in the background.
(The author's photo and re-creation)

One of the advantages of historical research on this topic is also an impediment - there is such a plethora of primary and secondary sources, and analyses relating to Cook's voyages, that it is difficult to know where to start, and who to believe, from an historical point of view. However, a knowledge of local geography and archaeology does assist in trying to make sense of it all. Caroline Phillips' book: Waihou Journeys (2000) is a key reference for the history of the Waihou River. Dr Phillips' work involved a detailed reconstruction of the environment at the time the events happened (geomorphology), and the archaeology of the Waihou area (i.e. investigation of the material remains of human activity).

Roger Strong's (2014) article: James Cook in the Coromandel in the Treasury Journal Volume 7 (2014) is a good historical summary of Cook's travels in the wider Coromandel region.

A very useful compendium of the journals of Cook, Banks and Parkinson, and the official record of Cook's first Pacific voyage, written by Hawkesworth (1773), is presented by The National Library of Australia.

An extract from Hawkesworth (1773), covering the period Cook was in the Firth of Thames area, during November 1769, is at Appendix 1.

Cook's and Banks' Journals record a voyage of 12-14 nautical miles (nm) up the Waihou River from the Endeavour in two ship's boats, and return to the Firth, within a day (on 21st November 1769). The author undertook an analysis to check the feasibility of this. This was based on the military 'Time and Space Appreciation' technique, which is used when planning an operation, to determine feasibility from a physical standpoint. Results are at Appendix 3.

Firth of Thames Anchorage

Numerous modern references state that the Endeavour was anchored in the Firth of Thames, somewhere off Te Puru or Waiomu. The key historical information relating to this is as follows - emphasis added:

After having run about five leagues from the place where we had anchored the night before, our depth of water gradually decreased to six fathoms; and not chusing (sic) to go into less, as it was tide of flood, and the wind blew right up the inlet, I came to an anchor about the middle of the channel, which is near eleven miles over; after which I sent two boats out to sound, one on one side, and the other on the other.
The boats not having found above three feet more water than we were now in, I determined to go no farther with the ship, but to examine the head of the bay in the boats; for, as it appeared to run a good way inland, I thought this a favourable opportunity to examine the interior part of the country, and its produce.
At day-break, therefore, I set out in the pinnace and long-boat, accompanied by Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and Tupia; and we found the inlet end in a river, about nine miles above the ship...
(Hawkesworth, 1773)

The key navigational points are: the ship was anchored in 6 fathoms of water, at a spot about nine miles from the mouth of the Waihou Riverand ... about the middle of the channel, which is near eleven miles over. Cook's chart for the area is at Fig 2 below.

Figure 2: Cook's chart entitled River Thames and Mercury Bay in New Zealand

The above chart was published in David (1988).The source of this digital image was Wikimedia Commons.

A zoomed extract of the area around the Firth of Thames anchorage is as follows:

Figure 3: Zoomed version of Figure 2 showing Endeavour anchorage at 6 fathom mark (anchorage marked in red - would have been at the '6' rather than the anchor symbol)

According to the chart Legend, the depth readings are in fathoms (1 fathom = 6 feet). There is a scale of 'leagues' (one league = 3 miles) along the border of the chart, however it was debatable whether these are nautical miles (2,025 yards) or statute miles (1760 yards). The scale on the borders of Cook's main chart of New Zealand has the annotation: 'A scale of leagues -20 to a degree'. As one nautical mile represents one minute of arc, (i.e. 1/60th of a degree) at the earth's equator, it is apparent that the scale is in nautical miles (three per league). The scale in the left margin of the River Thames and Mercury Bay chart (Fig 2) shows 15 minutes of latitude is identical to 5 leagues, so the scale of this chart is also in nautical miles. It appears that these units are also used in the text of the Journals, as the distances given match those measured from the charts.

The latitude-longitude grids marked on the margins of Cook's River Thames chart (Fig 2) are clearly different from modern coordinates. For example, according to the chart's coordinates, the present-day town of Thames would be located at 47.15 degrees south, 184 degrees west (ie 176 degrees east): in modern coordinates, the town is 37.1 degrees south, 175.5 degrees east. Although half a degree (30 minutes) difference in longitude may seem insignificant, it actually represents approx 50 km on the ground (as one minute of arc represents one nautical mile). Measuring longitude was considered a difficult problem in Cook's time, and he used several different methods on his voyages (e.g. see article by Dunn and Higgett (2014) Finding Longitude: How Clocks and Stars Helped Solve the Longitude Problem.) The 10 degree discrepancy in latitude appears to be a drafting error on the part of the cartographer, as Cook's main chart of NZ shows the latitude of Thames as being around 37 degrees south. So, it is not feasible to determine the Endeavour's anchorage site simply by reading lat/long coordinates off Cook's chart.

In an attempt to determine the location of the anchorage with some degree of accuracy, a modern nautical chart (NZ 533, Firth of Thames) was downloaded from the LINZ web site as a .kml file and imported into Google Earth. Depths on the modern chart are shown in metres (and decimals of metres for lower readings). The anchorage depth of 6 fathoms (36 ft) is equivalent to 11 metres. The Waihou 'river mouth' used in the constructions was the estimated 1769 mouth, as determined by Phillips (2000). This is around the junction of the Waipapa Stream and the Waihou, between Te Totara and Kopu (about 1 nautical mile south of the present mouth).

The first step was plotting an arc of 9 nms from the Waihou river mouth (the 1769 mouth). This arc is about 1.3 nm short of the 11m depth contour (the 10m contour is marked in light blue on Chart 533). The depth variable is likely to be unreliable; as a result of silting due to the draining of the Hauraki Plains c.1910 and ongoing farming operations in the Waihou valley. Therefore, the 'half-way across the channel' data was used, to determine an estimated anchorage location, as per the following figure. Both possible locations have been included (by depth and by distance from the 1769 mouth) - see Fig 4 below.

Figure 4: NZ Chart 533 Firth of Thames imported into Google Earth, showing constructions done to determine the Endeavour anchorage. Two possible locations have been plotted; using the 6 fathom (11 metres) depth and an arc 9 nm from the 1769 river mouth.

Figure 5: Cook's chart superimposed on NZ533 nautical chart in Google Earth. Cook's anchorage, as marked on his chart, is coincident with the estimated location.

In an attempt to see how the above estimates compares with Cook's chart, the latter was imported into Google Earth as an overlay, and the coastlines lined up as best as possible. The results are shown in Figure 5 above.

The anchorage location as per Cook's chart is very close to both estimates (almost identical to the 9 nm from river mouth construction). This gives a best estimate of the location of Endeavour's anchorage (from the data used above) as about 3.5 nm west of Te Puru. The reconstruction also demonstrates the high quality of Cook's original survey work.

Pa Visit - Waihou River

On 21st November 1769, Cook, Banks and a party of about 10 others made a trip from the Te Puru anchorage, up the Waihou River, in two small ship's boats. They record that they saw, and visited, an occupied pa site a short way up the river. The historical information relevant to this site is as follows (Hawkesworth 1773):

'...we entered with the first of the flood, and within three miles found the water perfectly fresh. Before we had proceeded more than one third of that distance, we found an Indian town, ... as soon as they saw us, thronged to the banks, and invited us on shore. We accepted the invitation ...'
Figure 6: A simulated view of Cook and party on the Waihou River.
(The author's photo and re-creation)

This could be interpreted as meaning the pa they visited was 1/3 of 3 (nautical) miles upriver, ie one mile; or it could be that having gone three miles and found fresh water, they proceeded another mile to the pa. In view of the archaeological record for the lower Waihou river, the latter makes more sense, and 3.2 nm would have taken them to Oruarangi pa (recorded as archaeological site T12/192) whereas one nautical mile from the river mouth would have taken them to about the modern Kopu Bridge. The nearest pa to this location would not fit the Journal description of the pa visited: ' ...we found an Indian town, which was built upon a small bank of dry sand, but intirely surrounded by a deep mud, which possibly the inhabitants might consider as a defence ...' (Hawkesworth 1773).

Support for Oruarangi pa as the landing site is provided by Phillips and Best. Further evidence which supports Oruarangi as the pa site visited comes from the Journal entry regarding the return down-river to the ship:

' ...the inhabitants of the village where we had been ashore, seeing us take another channel, came off to us in their canoes ...' (Hawkesworth 1773).

Best provides evidence that the Waihou River was split into two channels, around Tuitahi Island, adjacent to the site of Oruarangi pa (see Figs 22 and 23). A natural change in the course of the river meant that this channel had largely disappeared by 1886. A 1908 map of the Hauraki Plains (Fig 10) shows Tuitahi Island still existing at that time, although the channel to the east of it had significantly narrowed.

Oruarangi is also supported as the site for the pa visit by evidence given to the Waitangi Tribunal, as summarised in the WAI 686 ('Hauraki Claim') report:

'We are greatly concerned at the desecration of the Oruarangi pa site and the lack of protection offered to prevent the desecration once the Crown was aware it was taking place. When the ancient pa (visited by Captain Cook in 1769) ... and used as an urupa in the nineteenth century, was desecrated by fossickers ... in the early 1930s, little could be done to stop it, and the Auckland Museum purchased many ... finds.' (Waitangi Tribunal Report 2006 Vol 3 pp. 956-57)
Figure 7: NZ Chart 533 superimposed on Google Earth; showing 4 nm (by river) from the 1769 mouth. Oruarangi pa is marked at the recorded GPS waypoint (as per the archaeological site record) and is about 3.2 nm (by river) from the mouth. A channel of the river passed very close to the pa site in 1769, creating what was then known as Tuitahi Island.

Figure 8: 1944 aerial photo of the Matatoki area, showing Oruarangi pa site (indicated in red). The Waihou river has changed course since 1769, and the flood remediation works of the 20th century means that the pa is now several hundred metres from the existing river bank.
Photo SN292-985-10 downloaded from Retrolens. Recorded as archaeological site T12/192; the site type is 'swamp pa'.

Figure 9: Contemporary Google Earth view, showing Oruarangi pa.

Figure 10: Extract from NZ Map 4335, Hauraki Plains (1908) - obtained from MAPSPAST. This shows the remains of Tuitahi Island - the channel to the east of it has almost disappeared.

A memorial to Cook and his party was erected near the original Kopu Bridge (opened 1928), to mark the approximate site of Cook's first landing on the Waihou River, to visit a pa. Government department correspondence (Dept of Internal Affairs memo dated 15 November 1939) outlines the rationale for the choice of site for the memorial:

'River Thames: It is impossible to ascertain exactly where Cook landed. Cook's Journal (Wharton page 159) records: 'We found the inlet end in a river, into which we entered with the first of the flood and before we had gone three miles up it found the water quite fresh. We saw a number of natives and landed at one of their villages ... etc. A spot approximately three miles from the mouth of the river is therefore indicated, and the suggestion is a suitable spot close to the river on the main road near Kopu be arranged [for the memorial]. The kahikatea tree, which you mention, was seen by Cook after his second landing, about 12 to 14 miles up the river.'

It appears the memorial site chosen was more related to visitor access than historical accuracy (which is considered reasonable). The history of the memorial is as follows:

'The stone to build this monument was obtained from a quarry on the Kauaeranga Valley Road. Unveiled by Mr J Thorn, MP for Thames, on 21st November 1941, originally sited by the Hauraki Bridge at Kopu, over the Waihou River. In the early 1980s, the monument was re-sited alongside Kopu Public Hall, by the State Highway 25 in Kopu.' Cook Memorial)
Figure 11: View of the memorial in its original position, north-east of the 1928 Kopu Bridge.
From The Ohinemuri Regional History Society Journal.

Figure 12: Inscription on memorial
From: A list of National Monuments.

The design of the memorial was not without controversy - in 1941, noted Cook scholar J.C. Beaglehole wrote to J.W. Heenan, Undersecretary of Internal Affairs, about the Kopu memorial design as follows:

'This grotesque outrage is the essence and summation of all we have been struggling against since this matter of memorials came up for consideration. ... I have delayed comments for some days as I wished to employ only scrupulously moderate language. It is very disheartening indeed.' (Handwritten memo, included with TCDC Historic Heritage Item Record for Cook memorial at Kopu.)

The memorial was moved to a site near the Kopu Hall in 1969. The hall was demolished c. 2014 and consideration is currently being given to re-siting the memorial (as at June 2018). From the above analysis, there is no particular reason for the memorial to be at Kopu other than for accessibility to visitors. However, re-siting it on, or closer to, Oruarangi pa would not be particularly sensible, as the pa site is now very difficult to access, and is on private property. A small plaque along the Thames-Paeroa cycle trail, in the vicinity of Oruarangi, may be appropriate, however.

Kahikatea Measured - Waihou River

At, or about, the furthest limit of the Endeavour party's voyage up the Waihou River, the party measured a large kahikatea and took some samples of what is now believed to be a matai. This site is of at least national importance, as Cook's measurement of the kahikatea, and report of vast timber resources, was the catalyst for the prolific ships' spar and kauri timber trades which followed his return to England. The relevant historical information relating to the site where the tree was measured is as follows:

We proceeded up the river till near noon, when we were fourteen miles within its entrance; ... we landed on the west side, to take a view of the lofty trees which every where adorned its banks. They were of a kind that we had seen before, though only at a distance, both in Poverty Bay and Hawke’s Bay. Before we had walked an hundred yards into the wood, we met with one of them which was nineteen feet eight inches in the girt, at the height of six feet above the ground: having a quadrant with me, I measured its height from the root to the first branch, and found it to be eighty-nine feet: it was as strait as an arrow, and tapered but very little in proportion to its height; so that I judged there were three hundred and fifty-six feet of solid timber in it, exclusive of the branches. (Hawkesworth 1773).

Cook's Journal is slightly more specific regarding distance from the river mouth:

... we landed on the West side in order to take a View of the lofty Trees which adorne its banks, being at this time 12 or 14 Miles within the entrance and here the tide of flood run as strong as it doth in the River Thames below bridge ... From Cook's Journal

Local anecdotal evidence puts the site near the small town of Netherton. However, a measurement of 12-14 nm from the 1769 mouth indicates the site was somewhere between the mouth of the Hikutaia Stream and the junction of SH2 with Hauraki Rd (known locally as Sarjant's Corner).

An article in the 1969 Ohinemuri Regional History Journal In The Wake of Cook by Tony Barker suggests that the tree measured by Cook was known to local iwi, who regarded it as sacred. The article recounts a river journey taken by the local historical society in 1969 to commemorate the importance of the Waihou River to local history:

'Having the foregoing in mind as well as the fact that over the years our river has played an important part in the development of Ohinemuri, members of the Paeroa Historical Society decided to arrange a river excursion. We embarked on the two excellent launches (which however could not be overloaded because of snags and shallows) and then with the ebbing tide we slipped away downstream towards our anchorage at Turua. Under the helpful guidance of our hosts coupled with that of Mrs Neta Brown and Mr. Pat Murdock our attention was drawn to historic land marks, or rather water-marks, for the very necessary 'stop-banks' often obscured views that pleased early travelers. ...

In the vicinity of Netherton, the left bank particularly interested us, primarily because of 'Cook's Tree'. For many years this was regarded by the Maoris as 'tapu', hence it survived as a living memento of the famous explorer. Eventually milling interests had it cut down, but the stump [which was hollow] remained for many more years and was photographed by the late Mr. Courtenay Kenny [early surveyor in Paeroa]. The site is now the property of Mr. Hayward who farms at the end of Captain Cook Road. Netherton was an early European settlement of people who milled forests in order to make farms long before there were either roads or drains on the low-lying Hauraki Plains.'(Barker 1969)

The article included a photo of what purports to be the original kahikatea, after it was felled.

Figure 13: 'Captain Cook's tree' as published in the ORHJ
Photo also held at Paeroa Museum.

Whether this was the tree actually measured by Cook is open to speculation. An obvious issue is: how was it known and remembered, in an area whether there would have been numerous kahikatea of the same age and size. However, it is possible that iwi members followed Cook's party and observed the tree being measured, or the crew 'cruised' the tree (i.e. cut an upward-pointing arrow in it) with an axe, to mark it as HM property. Investigation by the author revealed two historical sources that state that Cook (or his crew) marked trees with the name of the ship and the date: Beaglehole (1955) re a tree at Mercury Bay, and Kitson (1911) re a tree on Norfolk Island.

Begg and Begg (1969) state:

'Maori tradition identifies the tree which Cook measured as a kahikatea which grew on the west [true left] bank of the river near Hikutaia. It was felled for milling just before 1900, and its measurements tallied exactly with those given by Cook.'

Beaglehole (1962 p. 436) comments on the location of the measured tree as follows:

'Cook gives the circumference of this tree ... Cook and Banks were in the great forest of kahikatea ...that then covered the valley of the Waihou or Thames River for about 25 miles - now alas completely vanished. Mr Leslie G. Kelly tells me that their [Cook's] activities were watched by Maoris close by, and the tree remembered in tradition which, in due course was passed on to Europeans. It was felled for milling a little before 1900, but abandoned because the trunk was hollow. Measurements taken by Mr Courtenay Kenny, surveyor, of Paeroa, and his brother, tallied with Cook's. The site of the tree is given by Mr Kenny as almost due west of the Hikutaia railway station, on the west side of the river and close to the Cook Road.'

'Almost due west of Hikutaia station' gives the site of the tree as near the end of Captain Cook Rd, as per Fig 14 below. This is consistent with the historic location of the tree site visited by the author and described below, which construction shows is on a 'true' bearing of 268 degrees from the old Hikutaia station site - due west being 270 degrees. It is likely that Kenny was at the site of the stump when he heard the whistle or saw smoke from the locomotive as it was entering or leaving the station, which was only about 2 km away. Being a surveyor, he was probably carrying a prismatic compass, which would have allowed him to record a bearing. It also establishes the latest possible felling date as 1898, as that was the year the Thames - Paeroa railway opened.

Noted botanist, Thomas Kirk also mentions Cook's kahikatea:

[Kahikatea] was originally discovered by Captain Cook in the great forest between the Thames and Piako Rivers; a tree measured by him was found to be 19ft 8in in circumference at 6ft from the ground and 89ft to the first branch. He states 'It was straight as arrow and tapered but little in proportion to its height so I judged there were 356 cubic feet of solid timber in it exclusive of the branches. As we advanced we saw many others that were still larger.' The forest in which it was first discovered is probably the largest kahikatea forest in the colony and I am informed by Mr Bagnall of the Turua Sawmills that he has discovered a tree which he believes to be the one actually measured by Cook. (Kirk 1889).

This tends to imply that the tree was still standing in 1889 - the year of publication of Kirk's book.

Figure 14 Extract from NZMS 1 Sheets N53-54, Paeroa, (1943), 1:63,360 showing location of measured tree, '... west of Hikutaia station', as per Beaglehole (1962).
(Map obtained from MAPSPAST.)

Additional local historical accounts obtained by the author include the following:

Thames historian T.W.G. (Toss) Hammond (1869-1967), in a hand-written manuscript (undated but probably c.1950) held by The Treasury, Thames, stated:

'Probably our first record of timber in the Hauraki district is that given by Captain Cook when he made his way up the Waihou River for fourteen miles and there took the measurements of a large kahikatea tree standing near the river. This historic tree was still standing when Bagnall Bros were cutting out the kahikatea forest in the latter part of last century [19th]. This tree was known to the bushmen as 'Captain Cook'. Being worth a few pounds it suffered the fate of the other trees.'

Miti More, of Turua (pers. comm. July 2018) told the author that his grandfather, Hira More, was part of the gang that felled the 'Captain Cook' tree. They knew it was Cook's tree as it was marked; although he didn't know exactly how.

Paeroa historian Lawrie Smith (pers. comm. July 2018) was involved in the project to re-site the 1975 memorial from Sarjant's Corner, and to build a new memorial at the junction of Hauraki Rd and Captain Cook Rd. He extensively researched local historical resources and came up with recommended sites for the two memorials (outlined below), which, in the end, were partly dictated by access and land ownership, rather than purely historical, considerations. Lawrie stated that Mr Hayward, the owner of the land at the downstream end of Captain Cook Rd (previously mentioned in the Barker 1969 article) showed him a depression in the ground near the end of the public road which was believed to be the site of the stump of Cook's tree. The 1975 memorial was re-sited adjacent to that spot.

The author met with Kevin Campbell of Paeroa (pers. comm. September 2018). Kevin was a long-serving staff member of Waikato Regional Council (now retired) and worked extensively on the Waihou River catchment and its various flood protection schemes. He was also involved in investigating the site of Cook's tree for the memorials project around 2010-11.

The author also discussed the topic of 'Cook's tree' with John Hayward, now resident near Pipiroa, by telephone (pers. comm. 1st October 2018). John was a previous owner of the farm at Captain Cook Rd where the stump was reported to be. His father had been the owner before him, including in 1969 when the Ohinemuri Regional History Society made their cruise. John said he had never seen the stump, but had seen the depression left when it rotted away. Family tradition was that the tree had been marked in some way, and was able to be identified. John's description of where the depression was, is consistent with that of Kevin Campbell and Lawrie Smith; i.e. opposite where the re-sited memorial now is.

The author visited the memorial sites and searched for depressions in the ground, along Captain Cook Rd, alone, in July 2018, and again in September 2018, accompanied by Kevin Campbell. A map showing GPS waypoints and photos are at Figs 15-19 below. During the July visit, the author noticed a prominent depression, marked as Waypoint 182, which would have been about the circumference of the stump of Cook's tree. However, the depression is very regular: circular and saucer-shaped, and appears to be man-made (see Fig 17 below). The stump photographed c.1900, believed to be that of Cook's tree (Fig 13), has prominent buttresses on at least two sides, and it is unlikely that it would have decomposed to leave such a symmetrical depression.

Later investigations, including superimposing 1942 and 1983 air photos on Google Earth, reveal that the depression was adjacent to an internal drain structure crossing the adjacent farm, and the author considers it is probably associated with that (Fig 16).

During the September visit, Kevin Campbell pointed out the area indicated to him as the site of the stump by Mr Hayward, the farm-owner dating back to at least the 1960s (as noted in the ORHJ article by Barker 1969). This is in a paddock, outside the stop bank, almost opposite the re-sited memorial (Fig 16 Waypoint 190, and Fig 19). A brief inspection was conducted from outside the fence, and the top of the stop bank, but there are no longer indications of a stump, nor depression where it may have been. There has been extensive stock movement in the paddock, and the surface is well churned up.

Unless further historical evidence comes to light, or below-ground investigative techniques, such as geophysical scanning or micro-fossil analysis, can contribute, it appears the historical trail to the site of Cook's measured kahikatea peters out at this point. However, as discussed below, there is an alternative theory that the measured tree was actually downstream of the Hikutaia Stream junction.

Figure 15: GE view of Waihou River in the Hikutaia - Netherton area, showing GPS waypoints from author's July and September 2018 visits, and Cook memorial locations. The site purported to be that of the stump of 'Cook's tree' (WP 190) is within the 12-14 nautical mile upriver range, as per Cook's journal, (measured from the 1769 river mouth and including the detour to Oruarangi pa).

Figure 16 Close-up of waypoints around the end of Captain Cook Rd, with 1983 air photo superimposed. This shows the depression at WP 182 which was discounted as being the site of 'Cook's tree' due to its man-made appearance and close proximity to flood protection works. WP 190 is the general area pointed out as the tree site - no above-ground remains, nor a depression, are now evident.

Figure 17: Depression in the ground near the end of Captain Cook Rd (Waypoint 182); initially suspected by the author to be the remains of the stump of 'Cook's Tree'. The regular shape suggests it is man-made and there are two posts protruding, which are obviously man-made features. Later investigations, using 1942 and 1983 air photos, indicate this was probably part of an internal drainage system across the adjacent farm.

Figure 18: 1970s memorial (from Sarjant's Corner) re-sited near northern end of Captain Cook Rd (WP 183). (Further information on the memorials is in the following section.)

Figure 19: Area opposite re-sited memorial considered by local historians to be the site of the tree Cook measured (WP 190). There was reported to be a depression, visible some years ago, but this is no longer evident, nor any other above-ground evidence. (The top corner of the memorial is visible at the lower left of the photo.)

Kahikatea Memorial Sites

The first stone cairn erected

The approximate site of the kahikatea measuring has been memorialised, in two separate locations (in 1975 and 2011):

The landing area was identified back in 1975 as part of the Paeroa district centenary celebrations. With the co-operation of the Ohinemuri and Hauraki County Councils a small stone plinth and cemented to it a small anchor was placed on the left bank of the Waihou River, close to Sarjant's Corner (before it was realigned)—the intersection of Hauraki Road and State Highway 2 ...

The monument could not be easily viewed from the road, and there was no easy access for motorists to park off the busy roads.

This monument (minus anchor, but with the bolts previously used to mount it) has been re-erected along Captain Cook Road, at a site considered to be closer to the tree that Cook's party measured - see Fig 18 above.

Figure 20: Plaque on re-sited memorial.

Figure 21:'Anchor' memorial for Cook's visit to Netherton area (completed in 2011). This site, and that of the re-sited 1975 memorial, are both within the 12-14 nautical mile upstream range that Cook noted in his Journal for the kahikatea measurement site.

In 2011, a new memorial, based on a large ship's anchor, was erected at the junction of Hauraki and Captain Cook Roads. (See Althea Barker's Blog for a description and more images.)

An Alternative Theory re the Site of Cook's Measured Kahikatea

The author was born and raised in the Hauraki - Coromandel region, and local belief was that the site where Cook measured and recorded the kahikatea was in the stretch of river immediately downstream from Netherton. 'Captain Cook Road', on the true left bank of the river, was named for that reason. Local historical accounts invariably state the Hikutaia - Netherton stretch of the river as containing the measurement site. This can therefore be termed the 'orthodox' historical view of the kahikatea-measuring site. However, Caroline Phillips reconstructed the environment, in particular the width and course of the river as it was prior to 1800, based on soils, early survey maps, aerial photography and excavation data. She then measured the route, taking into account the bend around Tuitahi Island to visit Oruarangi. Based on this analysis, she concluded that they landed downstream from the Hikutaia Stream junction, in the fairly straight stretch before the Hikutaia bend. This is supported by Cook's chart of the river which ends at about that point, implying that was how far upriver the party went. Additionally, both Caroline Phillips’ reconstruction and William Wilson's 1801 chart show that the Waihou River narrowed considerably upstream of the Hikutaia Stream junction, and Cook and Banks commented that the width of the river had not changed significantly where they landed. This is shown pictorially as follows.

Figure 22: Left: Cook's chart of lower Waihou River, showing limit of travel (or at least limit of charting); with Phillips' interpretation of the same section of river (right)


Figure 23: Waihou chart of William Wilson, Master of the Royal Admiral, 1801.

It is also useful to compare Cook's chart with William Wilson's chart of the Waihou, which was compiled in 1801 (32 years after Cook's visit). Wilson was Master of the Royal Admiral; one of several ships sent to the Waihou area to gather spars and timber, after Cook's reports reached England.

In discussing the merits of these two alternative theories of the location of the measured kahikatea, it is convenient to label them 'Theory O' (for orthodox historical view) and 'Theory P' (for Phillips' view). This approach is based loosely on McGregor's 'Theory X and Theory Y' in the management psychology field, which presents two contrasting theories of peoples' attitude to work. In the author's view, Theory P is logical, and feasible. However, both have pros and cons, which are compared in a table at Appendix 2.

One of the points put forward by Caroline Phillips which supports Theory P is that the nature of the river would have changed from around the Hikutaia stream mouth (particularly, it would have narrowed). This may just be a matter of the level of detail which was recorded; however, Banks' Journal entry is relevant, and states:

'After this visit [Oruarangi pa] we proceeded and soon met with another town with but few inhabitants. Above this the banks of the river were compleatly cloathd with the finest timber my Eyes ever beheld, of a tree we had before seen but only at a distance in Poverty bay and Hawks bay; thick woods of it were every where upon the Banks, every tree as streight as a pine and of immense size: still the higher we came the more numerous they were. About 2 leagues from the mouth [2 leagues = 6 nm - significantly different from Cook's figure of 12-14 nm] we stopd and went ashore. Our first business was to measure one of these trees ...

As far as this the river had kept its depth and very little decreasd even in breadth; the Captn was so much pleasd with it that he resolvd to call it the Thames. It was now time for us to return, the tide turning downwards gave us warning so away we went and got out of it into the bay before it was dark.'

In essence, Theory O primarily relies on Cook's estimate of the measured tree being 12-14 nm upstream from the river mouth, while Theory P relies on Cook's chart covering the river journey completely, and terminating before the Hikutaia - Waihou junction. Although there is considerable historical evidence supporting Theory O, most of it is secondary, circumstantial and/or relies on oral tradition. In the author's view, either theory could be correct, and it may not be possible to resolve the issue without some new evidence coming to light. Often, archaeological evidence fulfils this function. While the probability of archaeological evidence of the stump remaining is very low, it is not impossible. For example, remains of the stump of the famous giant kauri of the Tararu valley were located, 110 years after it burned in a bush fire in 1898 (see The Giant Kauri Tree by Althea Barker and Dave Wilton in The Treasury Journal Volume 3 (2010)).

The depression purporting to be from the stump of Cook's tree near the end of Captain Cook Rd has now disappeared, and it would require an extensive below-ground investigation and/or geophysical or other scientific techniques to find the site of the stump. Even if successful, this would not absolutely identify the tree as the one that Cook measured, as there would have been many kahikatea of similar size in the area.

Even if the kahikatea site is not identified exactly, the full range of possible sites (from about 1 nm downstream from the Hikutaia junction to the downstream end of Captain Cook Rd) still only covers about three kilometers of river bank (or about 1.5 km2 total area), and any memorial which states: 'in this vicinity ...' would still be factually correct. There should be no need to re-write local histories, nor move any memorials. If memorials are sited primarily for public access, they are going to tell their story much better than at sites which may be historically correct, but unreachable by visitors.

Why Kahikatea and not Kauri?

A question often asked (including in the author's mind for many years) is why Cook described and measured kahikatea, when kauri, which proved to be a much more durable and useful timber, was readily available in the northern regions of the North Island. The answer is probably multi-faceted. Firstly, neither Cook, nor the scientists in the party, had seen any of the botanical specimens they encountered in NZ, had no idea of their properties, and (as far as they were concerned) they were un-named. Most of their observations of flora within the 'kauri belt' were from well out to sea, from where the bush would have just looked like a jumble of greens, with no readily distinguishable species. The only places that Endeavour personnel got close enough to see individual species was at Mercury Bay and on the Waihou River. It is not clear why no-one noticed kauri at Mercury Bay, but apparently no-one did, or at least, no-one recorded it.

The second reason is that, when sailing on the Waihou River, the dominant tree species visible would have been kahikatea. There were apparently a few kauri which grew on what is now the Hauraki Plains, but they were not common. The view from the ship's boats, when on the river, would have been almost exclusively that of kahikatea, growing right to the river bank, as demonstrated in the following figures. It is unlikely that kauri could have been seen, even in the distance.

Figure 24 Views from Waihou river: contemporary (left) and with (simulated) vegetation as it would have been in 1769 (right)
(Author's photo and re-creation)

Summary and Comments

It is hoped that the above historical and geospatial analyses provide a clearer idea of the three main locations associated with Captain Cook, his ship, and party, in the Firth of Thames - Waihou River area in November 1769. These include the anchorage of the Endeavour in the Firth, the pa site visited, and the site where a kahikatea was measured. . With the passage of nearly 250 years, however, some of the evidence is circumstantial, and/or secondary, and some of the geospatial analyses rely on assumptions: for example, that the distances given in the various Journals (particularly Cook's) were in nautical miles. However, the locations of the anchorage and pa visit sites can be identified with some certainty, and the kahikatea measurement site can be narrowed down to about three kilometers of riverbank.

Provided any re-enactments or memorialisations are clearly indicated as '... thereabouts' or '...in this vicinity ...', historical accuracy can be maintained. The author believes that current sites for memorials are appropriate, and that siting for visitor accessibility, rather than pure historical accuracy, is a sensible approach.

Another notable feature, observed during this research, was the high quality and accuracy of Cook's navigation, and of the recording of observations on the part of all members of the party. In particular, they were working under conditions that would have seemed completely foreign, and potentially hostile, to them. In the author's view, accolades to Cook and his party, which have been expressed over the years, are well deserved.


The advice and assistance of the following are gratefully acknowledged: Althea Barker, Roger Strong, Caroline Phillips, Miti More, Lawrie Smith, Bill Vant, Kevin Campbell, Ian McLeod, John Hayward, Shirley Rawlins, Lindsay Hill, and the staff of Paeroa Museum (particularly Ron and Margaret Tyrrell).


  1. Extracts from Cook's and other Journals.
  2. Comparison of 'Theory O' and 'Theory P'.
  3. Time and Space Analysis - Cook's Voyage on Waihou River, 21st November 1769.


  1. Barker, T. (1969). In the Wake of Cook - (Paeroa Historical Society Sails), Ohinemuri Regional History Journal, 12.
  2. Beaglehole, J. C. (Ed.) (1955). The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery: Vol. 1. The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, University Press for the Hakluyt Society, Cambridge.
  3. Beaglehole, J. C. (Ed.) (1962). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, Halstead Press, Sydney.
  4. Begg, A. C. and Begg, N. C. (1969). James Cook in New Zealand: Part 1 The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, Government Printer, Wellington.
  5. Best, S. (1980). Oruarangi Pa: Past and Present Investigations, New Zealand Journal of Archaeology, 2, 65-91.
  6. David, A. (Ed.) (1988). The Charts and Coastal Views of Captain Cook's Voyages: Volume 1 The Voyage of the Endeavor 1768-1771, Hakluyt Society, London.
  7. Hawkesworth, J. (1773). Account of the Voyages in the Southern Hemisphere, London.
  8. Isdale, A. M. (1967). History of "The River Thames", County Chronicle Press, Manurewa.
  9. Kirk, T. (1889). The Forest Flora of New Zealand, Wellington.
  10. Kitson, A. (1911). The Life of Captain James Cook: About Captain Cook, On-line edition.
  11. Monin, P. (2001). Hauraki Contested: 1769-1875, Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.
  12. Phillips, C. (2000). Waihou Journeys: the Archaeology of 400 Years of Maori Settlement, Auckland University Press, Auckland.
  13. Waitangi Tribunal Report (2006). The Hauraki Report WAI 686, Wellington.


No items found.

Subscribe to our news

Support us