The nearby Manukau Harbour and passageways to the Waitematā Harbour made Onehunga an ideal settlement location for Māori. Before Europeans arrived, Onehunga was occupied by Māori tribes including Te Waiohua and Ngāti Whātua. Onehunga beach was a significant trading place for both Māori and Europeans.

Auckland became the colonial capital of New Zealand in 1840. In 1847, Onehunga was chosen as New Zealand’s first Fencible settlement. Three other Fencible settlements were established on the southern side of Auckland in Howick, Panmure and Otahuhu.

The Royal New Zealand Fencibles were military pensioners and discharged soldiers sent from Britain to assist the Imperial troops in defending Auckland during the mid-19th century New Zealand Wars. To be eligible to join the Fencibles, soldiers with at least 15 years of service had to be physically fit, of good character, and younger than 48 (later changed to 41). Once enlisted, the Fencibles would get free passage to New Zealand for themselves and their wives and children. During their service in New Zealand, they would be given a cottage on one acre of land that they would own after seven years of service as a Fencible.

More than 800 people lived in Onehunga in 1850, and by the mid-1860s the population grew to more than 2,000 people. 

Looking south towards Onehunga from Mount Smart Road, 1860s. Showing (from the left) the old Māori church and Mangere mountain, the military camp, the Catholic church, St Peter's church, the Presbyterian church, and Colonel Kenny's house, the Blockhouse, Dr Purchas's house, F M P Broomfield's house, Hardington's stables and Puketutu Island. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 5-730.

The Town District of Onehunga became a Borough in 1877. In the late-19th century, Onehunga became home to many successful industries, such as timber quarrying, fellmongery, and wool scouring. Onehunga became famous in 1893 when the Elizabeth Yates was elected as Mayor of the Onehunga Borough – the first female Mayor in the British Empire.

By 1901 the population was more than 3,000. From the 1960s onwards, the population became more multicultural when more people moved to Onehunga from the Pacific Islands and Asia. In 1989 Onehunga Borough became part of Auckland City Council.

Heritage Trail Sites:

Onehunga Heritage Trail site map, Auckland Council 2016.