There is a tombstone in the Paeroa Cemetery which reads:
JAMES MACKAY 1831 - 1912
Pioneer, Explorer and Friend of the Maori People.
Became Magistrate on the Collingwood Field: 1858.
Civil Commissioner at Thames: 1864.
Warden and Resident Magistrate on Hauraki Goldfields: 1868.
Throughout troubled times in the Thames Valley and the Waikato
he was energetic, just, and A Maker of Peace.
Erected by the N.Z. Government.
It was 1942 before this memorial tablet was unveiled by Mr. James Thorn, M.P. for Thames. Mr. Edwin Edwards, Mayor of Paeroa, and Mr. W. H. Taylor had used every endeavour to have a memorial erected to commemorate James Mackay, who had made valiant efforts not only to serve his Government in many capacities, but also to bring peace and progress to a region already torn by tribal war and then roused to hostility by the intrusion of the Pakeha people.
James Mackay was the eldest son of a distinguished Scottish family. In 1844, the Mackays chartered a ship, the 'Staines Castle', to bring their family with two nephews, and some servants from Scotland to Nelson. They built a house on a terrace overlooking their landing place and called it Drumduan after a Mackay home in the far north of Sunderlandshire in Scotland. Mr. Mackay had been a banker in Scotland and was afterwards connected with the firm of Lloyds in London. In New Zealand, he not only farmed but took a keen interest in the affairs of both the new country and the local settlement.
The 'Staines Castle' left England in October 1844 and arrived in Nelson on 26th January, 1845. James Mackay junior celebrated his 13th birthday on the high seas. He was naturally robust, and quickly developed - strong, active, and shrewd. This was fortunate for the period was one of great distress for the settlers, food being extremely scarce. It was necessary for all members of the family to work hard, and the boys were soon initiated into the mysteries of farming, bush work, sheep and cattle management, stock riding, etc.
On coming of age in 1852, James received some money and procured a Depasturage Licence of a sheep and cattle run at Cape Farewell. He subsequently bought 1500 acres of land. Being interested in the Maori people, he soon learned much about them and became a good linguist. By the time he was 25, he was able to supply the Provincial Government with a number of carefully drawn maps and valuable information. This led to his being entrusted with the task of exploration further south.
When Mackay returned to Nelson, he found that a gold rush had set in, with 1300 Whites and 600 Maoris in the field. By virtue of his knowledge of Maori lore, he was made Assistant Native Secretary, and was soon appointed Warden of the new Collingwood Goldfield, thus becoming the first Gold Warden in New Zealand in 1857. In 1859, he received another assignment, being instructed by the Government to return to the West Coast to complete the purchase of 7,500,000 acres of land from the Maoris. Mackay was then transferred to the Auckland Office of the Governor's Land Purchase Commissioner, Sir Donald McLean, and from that time was destined to play a very prominent part in the progress of the Coromandel Peninsula, where he spent much of the remainder of his life. In 1863, he married Miss Eliza Sophia Braithwaite of Nelson, and they lived for many years in Thames and later in Paeroa.
Governor Grey succeeded in having coveted ground near Coromandel opened in 1862 for goldmining, and mining continued there for a time in a restricted area.
In the early 1860's, the Auckland Province was suffering an acute depression. Numbers of labouring men were starving for lack of employment and many went south to the then flourishing goldfields. When in 1864, hostilities were nearing an end in the Waikato, and the Hauraki Maori Contingent returned home, MacKay was sent to the Peninsula to receive the surrender. He was then 33 years of age, and showed utter fearlessness and supreme confidence, many times risking his life in order to conclude a successful mission. His patient but firm stand paved the way for great future development. In his report to the Government in 1864, Mackay stated that while visiting the various settlements in the Hauraki District, he was informed that Nepia Te Ngarara had found gold in the alluvial deposit near Ohinemuri and from Hauauru Taipari (later named Willoughby Shortland) that gold had been obtained near Kauaeranga. So it was not surprising that James Mackay was appointed Civil Commissioner for the Waihou and Hauraki District, and played a prominent part in land negotiations.
Mackay and Hauauru Taipari persuaded the Ngatimaru people to allow European prospectors to test a limited area at Thames, resulting in the opening of that field in 1867. The opening of the Ohinemuri Block however, proved a much more difficult problem, and years of negotiations were necessary. Meanwhile, the Commissioner made his home at Thames and was instrumental in the laying out of the Shortland end of the town. A street there commemorates his name.
Later a temporary depression on the Thames field created a stronger pressure, and James Mackay was recalled from other duties to again apply his talents to the task of opening other fields. Finally the prolonged negotiations bore fruit, and Ohinemuri was declared a Goldfield in 1875. It was opened to prospectors in circumstances as colourful as any of the stirring migrations of the earlier fields. The rush that followed is the story of 'Mackaytown', named in honour of the man who had striven to this end - the opening of the fields of Ohinemuri.
A report in The Thames Star 23 February 1878 issued an ominous note of warning that all was not well between the Government and James Mackay. His position had been rendered difficult by jealousies of Provincial and General Government, and he tendered his resignation. There had been considerable delay in completing the purchase of lands negotiated for and partially settled by him, and this led to trouble amongst the Maoris because they were being importuned on all sides to sell their lands privately. The difficulty appeared to be a monetary one which the Government did not wish to face.
Mr. Mackay had carried on negotiations for the purchase of immense tracts of land in the course of which he had incurred considerable liabilities, and had become entitled to commission amounting to a large sum. His connection with the Government as Land Purchase Commissioner being about to terminate, he naturally wished for settlement of his claims and this was not forthcoming. He therefore declined to hand over his papers containing valuable securities, and no one could proceed to complete purchases. It is possible that there was disapproval in some quarters of the perhaps over-enterprising methods Mackay had used to induce the Maoris to cede land for gold mining purposes. It is frankly disclosed in his report that he sometimes deemed it expedient to advance sums up to £500, which was to be refunded from Miner's Rights, but at no time did he scheme for personal profit.
A later report in The Thames Star on 19 September 1878 indicates that Mr Mackay made a final effort to help to settle land matters in Ohinemuri before resigning.
A banquet was tendered to 'James Mackay Esq.', at Thames on the eve of his departure. The repast was spread in the long room of the Governor Bowen Hotel, where Mr Ehrenfried presided over a very large attendance of both Maori and Pakeha people, representing the whole of the Peninsula. Reference was made to the great courage and heroism displayed by Mr Mackay in the early days of the Goldfields and to the fact that his services had been widespread, his knowledge and experience being sought throughout New Zealand. As a private citizen, his generosity had been unsurpassed, as had that of Mrs Mackay who had always shown great readiness to help the poor and needy. He was presented with an address as a memento of sincere regard and the acknowledgement of the great services he had rendered to the district.
At that time, Mackay was not yet 50, and could have been expected to continue to play a large part in public affairs, for it was well known that he never spared himself in any way. But he was hot headed at times and made enemies, particularly in Government circles. He also suffered from rheumatism after much exposure and hard living. After leaving Thames on his retirement, he resided in Auckland for some years, acting as Maori Agent and Interpreter, but never at any time did he live in luxury or profit by his endeavours.
In 1896, James Mackay published in both Maori and in English 'A Narrative of the Opening of the Hauraki District for Gold Mining'. The pamphlet was written for the information of the younger Maoris but was dedicated to his old friend Wirope Hoterene Taipari, principal Chief of the Ngatimaru Tribe, who had rendered him great assistance. The story commenced with greetings and lamentations indulged in on the meeting of old friends. It is a most explicit document.
James Mackay spent the last 14 or so years of his life in Paeroa. He and his wife lived in a small cottage on the Puke Road farm of their daughter, Mrs Brunskill. He was the first President of the Paeroa A & P Association, from 1898 -1902, and took an interest generally in the affairs of Paeroa, but the younger generation little realized what a prominent part this old man with the long white beard had played in the days of his youth, before bush-clad Ohinemuri was shared by both Maori and European. He died in Paeroa in 1912 at the age of 81.