Tāwharanui was originally occupied by ancient people known as NgātiKui, Tūtūmaiao and Tūrehu. A small hapū of the Te Kawerau tribe, called NgātiRaupō, lived in the area until the 1870s. Tāwharanui was rich in food resources on land and sea, and NgātiRaupō, NgātiManuhiri and related hapū came to the area to fish until well into the 20th century.
After 1870, Tāwharanui was farmed by the Martin, Jones and Young families. Kauri trees were milled for timber and shingle was extracted from the area for 100 years. The former Auckland Regional Authority purchased the land in 1973. A 2.5 km pest-proof fence was constructed across the peninsula in 2004, creating an open sanctuary, in which the Tāwharanui Open Sanctuary Society now carries out restoration work.
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