Riverton was first settled by Europeans as a whaling station in 1835 or 1836 making it the oldest permanent European settlement in Southland and one of the oldest towns in New Zealand. It was founded by whaler Captain John Howell, a whaler who was dispatched to the area by his employer Johnny Jones on his ship Eliza with a crew of nearly 60 Europeans and some 200 Maori. Jones was a whaler and trader who established the first whaling station at Waikouaiti, north of Dunedin.
Prior to European settlement the area was known to Maori as Aparima. Aparima was the name of an important ancestress of the Kati Mamoe Maori tribe who were settled in the area. She was a daughter of very respected chief Hekia (an old name for the Longwood Hills) who was a son of Te Anau.
When Europeans arrived in the 1830s the settlement became known as Jacob’s River after a local Maori who lived along the river. In later years it became known as Riverton with the name being formally ratified in 1858. In 1998 the town was given the dual bilingual name Aparima/Riverton, as part of the Ngai Tahu Deed of Settlement under the Treaty of Waitangi.
Captain Howell enjoyed good relations with local Ngati Mamoe, but refused to take a Maori wife, which was regarded as an insult by the Maori. After an altercation he married Kohi Kohi, the daughter of the local Ngati Mamoe chief, who was based at Centre Island. By doing so, Howell secured Pakeha tenure to a large area of land between the Waimatuku Stream and Jacob’s River. Kohi Kohi died about 1841, leaving two young children, and in 1845 Howell married Caroline Brown or Koronaki, who was part-Maori and with whom he had 17 more children.
With a downturn in whaling, in 1850 the whaling station was abandoned but settlers remained, establishing the port and turning to the land and farming. In 1853 Captain Howell shipped 500 sheep into Riverton, the first in Southland. It was at this time that Captain Howell’s ownership of the vast tracts of land he believed were his from the time of his marriage to Kohi Kohi was questioned. In response, central government sent a representative in 1851 and began negotiations with the various Southland chiefs. In 1853 the area of Murihiku (encompassing Southland) was purchased from its Maori owners, opening the way for European settlement, farming and industry.
There are seven heritage listed buildings in Riverton:
- Kohi Kohi’s Cottage (Howell’s Cottage) at 22 Napier Street (no public access)
- St Mary’s Anglican Church at 173 Palmerston Street
- Riverton’s former Courthouse (former) at 170 Palmerston Street (part of Te Hikoi Museum)
- Daniel House at 85 Palmerston Street (no public access, visible from road)
- Three cottages at 82, 84, 86 Palmerston Street (no public access, visible from road)
Another notable house is Trotter House, a brick house on Palmerston Street (no public access), which was Dr. Trotter’s house. A notable Rivertonian, Dr. Trotter served for 28 years as mayor for 28, was president of the Rowing Club, the Regatta Society and Riverton Racing Club before his death in 1956.