Kawau Island, according to local tradition, was discovered by the great navigator and Maori ancestor Toi to Huatahi and some of his descendants settled in the area, mixing with people who were already there, known variously as Ngati Kui, Tutumaiao and Turehu. Toi named the island Te Kawau Tu Maro, ‘the island of the motionless shag’. The island was subsequently occupied for some three centuries by people who became known as Ngai Tai, and who have ancestral association with the Arawa and Tainui waka, until defeated by the Te Kawerau iwi, specifically Ngati Manuhiri in the early 1600s.

During the 18th century there was continuing conflict between the resident Kawerau and the Marutuahu confederation of tribes from the Hauraki area over access to the shark fishing grounds. The island was vacated by 1826 under terms laid down by Hongi Hika (Nga Puhi) after the battle of Te Ika a Ranganhui at a place between Mangawhai and Kaiwaka.

The first European to see Kawau was Captain James Cook in 1769, Samuel Marsden was to visit briefly in 1820 and a trader, a Mr Wheeler, visited in 1827 but found the island uninhabited. By 1837 this had changed and a Mr Henry Taylor had purchased the island from the Maoris. By 1839, prospectors had been searching the island for economic deposits of minerals and in early 1842 the island was being mined for manganese. Copper was discovered by accident and between 1846 and 1951 60,000 pounds worth of cooper was extracted, but when the workings were flooded by the sea in 1851, the mines closed. During that period Kawau became the centre of one of New Zealand’s early metal industries with over 200 people engaged in mining and smelting operations or providing social and economic support.

After the end of the mining era Kawau Island was purchased by Governor Sir George Grey in 1862. Over the next decade, Grey poured his considerable energy, knowledge and finances into creating a private kingdom, with a farm, an orchard, stables, a dairy and a community of around 100 people. Grey converted and expanded on the former mine manager’s house to create what is now known as Mansion House in Mansion House Bay, Bon Accord Harbour. In addition to Mansion House, there are considerable remnants of this period of the island’s history including surviving remnants of Grey’s gardens, his dairy cottage, and his coach road all found within the Kawau Island Historic Reserve. It is probable that some of today’s walking tracks follow Grey’s Coach Road.

In later years, Moores Bay became the site of the infamous Pah Farm Furino Fishing Competition.