Tolaga Bay was known to its original inhabitants as Uawa. The first people to settle in the district were Maori tribal groups who were descended from ancestors such as Maui Tiki-Tiki-a-Taranga (who fished the North Island from the sea) and Paikea, who voyaged from the ancestral home of Hawaiki to the East Coast of Aotearoa.
About the 16th century, Hauiti a descendant of both Maui and Paikea established himself as chief and leader of the people of Uawa and from his time to the present day the major tribal group has been known as Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti (The descendants of Hauiti). The first Europeans, Captain James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour came ashore at Uawa in October 1769. During his visit Cook was able to take on board fresh water, cut wood, fish and kumara (sweet potato). The area was misnamed Tolaga Bay by Cook evidently as a result of some misinterpretation of the wind blowing in the bay which was the teraki - the name Tolaga Bay has subsequently evolved. Cook's Cove is the name which commemorates the actual area of Cook's landing. Cook did not come back to Tolaga Bay on his second voyage aboard the Resolution but the other ship in the expedition, the Adventure under Captain Tobias Furneaux, called in briefly in November 1773. D'Urville the French explorer, aboard the Astrolabe called briefly in 1827.
In the early 1830s flax trading was established between Uawa and other areas in New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. Joel Samuel Polack, one of the first European traders, was in Uawa for some months in 1835 at the height of the flax trade and wrote an interesting account of his visit. Another of the early flax traders in Uawa was Barnet Burns who serviced the trading station established by Harris, an early settler in Poverty Bay. Burns was a remarkable character, and perhaps the first European to have full facial moko (tattoo). He stayed in Uawa for about three years and married Amotawa, having three children. One son Hori Waiti (George White), became a stalwart and familiar figure on the East Coast. Amotawa was later to marry the great chief Te Kani-a-Takirau.
The first missionary to reside in Uawa was Charles Baker. Born in 1803 in Yorkshire, Baker moved to New Zealand in 1828 and was stationed at Kerikeri and Pahia in the Bay of Islands before being sent to Uawa in 1843. His mission station at Uawa was on the site of the present school on the northern side of the river.
Te Kani-a-Takirau was the chief of Uawa at the time. It was Te Kani who was first approached to accept the Maori kingship. He declined however, the reason being that the exalted lines of his birthright pre-empted any title of king. Te Kani-a-Takirau died in 1865. A contemporary of Te Kani-a-Takirau who lived around the same time was Rangiuia who was the last high priest of the whare wananga (higher school of learning) Te Rawheoro, which had been established some 12 to 13 generations earlier by his ancestor Hingangaroa. Te Rawheoro was one of the most famous of the traditional Maori schools of learning in Aotearoa. The curriculum included the celestial lore of the Maori and the higher forms of traditional Maori arts and crafts. With the passing of Rangiuia so also passed these forms of teaching from Uawa.
In 1873 a ferry was established across the Uawa River. This was set up by Robert Waddy; mariner, whaler, boat builder and ferryman. Another pioneer European in Tolaga Bay was Nathaniel Goodhue Gilman. Originally from Kent in England he reached Uawa in 1847, coming to New Zealand in a whaler of which his brother was master. He was engaged by Te Kani-a-Takirau as a boat builder and in 1866 built for Captain William Henry Glover the first hotel in Uawa. Gilman died in Tolaga Bay in 1895. Captain Glover was born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and settled in Uawa in 1855. His son Harry was amongst those who ran the river trade until the opening of the wharf in 1929.
The township of Uawa - Tolaga Bay was brought about by government buyers in 1875. It was an area of 252 acres bought for 505 pounds. There were an estimated 800 people living in Uawa at the time, 52 of whom were European settlers. From the 1890s it was officially known as Buckley and but usually called Tolaga Bay.
In 1872 a 'native' school was established at Tolaga Bay, but closed in the early 1880s. Tolaga Bay School was re-established in 1888 The first post office was established in the late 1870s, and another subsequently opened at Hauiti in 1893. A police base and court house were also built in the 1880s and expanded in later years.
In 1887 the weekly coach service from Gisborne through to Uawa began. Right up until the early 1920s access to Uawa from Gisborne was along the coastal beach route which provided a scenic but frightfully bumpy ride by horse drawn coach.
The first race meeting was held in 1876. The Tolaga Bay Jockey Club was formed in 1885. The first course was situated at Wharekaka. Later a course was established on the inland bank of the Uawa River a short distance north of the township. In 1949 the Tolaga Bay Jockey Club merged with the Poverty Bay Turf Club. The Tolaga Bay Golf Club was formed in 1919 and became an incorporated society in 1920. A nine hole golf course was made part of the Uawa Domain and remains a feature of the township.
The first bridge in Uawa was built and opened in 1905. In 1916 there was a series of floods and two spans of the bridge were washed away. The ferry came into use once more. Repairs were again carried out but in February 1938 the bridge was destroyed by yet another flood. Fortunately the new concrete bridge was almost finished at the time and opened immediately.
After an initial unsuccessful attempt to float a dairy company in 1906-07, the Tolaga Cooperative Dairy Company was established in 1912 and a butter factory built on the banks of the Uawa River above Hauiti. At its peak in the 1930s there were over 120 suppliers and a production of 700,000 lbs. The dairy factory closed in 1959.
Uawa County was formed out of the northern part of the then Cook County in 1919, and the council began on a series of ambitious public works, including a series of suspension bridges over the Mangaheia River on the road to Tauwhareparae. This local authority also built a local oil-fired electricity generating station in the 1920s to serve the township area. The maternity hospital, which opened in 1925, closed in 1966 and is now the golf club building.
Shipping goods over the Uawa River bar became increasingly difficult as ships became bigger and the river silted up due to the clearing of bush in the headwaters. Work commenced on the Tolaga Bay Wharf in 1926 and was completed in 1929 - 660 metres in length. Metal for the structure was brought by barge from Napier. Supplies of fertilizer, petrol and beer were brought in via the wharf from boats servicing the coastal reaches. Outgoing from the wharf was maize, livestock, dairy products and wool - some 30,000 bales going to Russia! The wharf was closed to shipping in 1967.
Businesses were established at Tolaga Bay from the late 1870s as the centre of an expanding farming community. These included, at one stage three hotels, Tolaga Bay and the Seaview on the north side of the river, and the Ferry Hotel in Hauiti. By the early 1900s there were a number of general stores, several blacksmiths and saddlers, a shoemaker, and, by World War I, there was a branch of the Union Bank of Australasia and a dentist, an accountant, and a doctor were in residence. The township now has a number of stores including dairies, drapery, hotel, motel, several food outlets and garage. There is a resident doctor at the Uawa Health Clinic. There is also a motor camp and within walking distance of the camp is the wharf and Cook's Cove.
Uawa, with a population of over 600 people boasts very warm temperatures during the summer months of November, December and January. With accessible swimming beaches Uawa is an area rich in historic lore and natural resources.