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Settlers and Pioneers

9 — A Story of Pioneer Endeavour

page 68

A Story of Pioneer Endeavour

The farmhouse, with its garden and orchard and its stables and stockyards, lies comfortably on a gentle northward-looking slope, facing the direction of greatest sunshine, on the old Confiscation Boundary line. The land here rests with an easy tilt to the north; a few hundred yards in rear of the willow-shaded homestead there is a steep drop to the levels along the bank of the clear, gravelly river which once was the border between the settled farm country and the dangerous land. From this height you may trace east and west for many miles the geological break in the land facing the south, a long irregular line of quick descents. The farmhouse is just under the lee of the highest part of this tilted table; and so escapes the direct bite of the winter southerlies. Not far away is a Maori settlement of the half-pakeha, half-native sort; away down on the flat below is another village where the shining river comes round in a half-loop. Not so long ago all this country beyond the homestead was page 69a ferny desert, roamed over by mobs of wild horses and by fernroot-hunting wild pigs, and the few oases of grass were thick with rabbits. Now there are grass and clover paddocks and turnip fields; there are herds of milking cows, and on the hills beyond are sheep. The once far-out struggling settler's home is the centre of an industry in which the most modern methods and modern appliances are drawn upon to earn the highest returns from a kindly soil.

The pioneer settler to whose courage and pioneering energy the transformation of this part of the out-back is chiefly to be accounted, is a shrewd kindly Scotsman (from Perthshire) whose tongue after more than sixty years' absence has not lost its agreeable tang of old Caledonia. But we must cast back over the decades and show the young pioneer in his first years of endeavour, making his start and striving with all his native shrewdness to establish himself in the Maori land.

In the very early sixties the flax curtain goes up on the riverside trader, a brisk youngster who set up his flax store and his trade room on the Lower Waikato River. His trading-place is a long raupo shed; he stocks blankets and prints, three-legged cooking-pots, pannikins, bags of sugar, tobacco, jew's harps, tomahawks, anything and everything page 70that his Maori customers require. He buys flax, pigs, wheat, potatoes, anything that is marketable at Auckland, forty miles away by bullock-dray road. The broad river is alive with big canoes, passing up and down; the thatched store is lively, too, with bartering noisy throngs of tattooed Waikatos. Not a steamer, not a boat of white man's build has yet floated on the breast of the Waikato. He is on the border line of that period. There are missionaries and traders higher up the great river.

Then comes the Waikato war, and the trader's head sits uneasily on his shoulders for a while, for Kingite war parties are abroad, and he is one of the first marked for attack by the Waikatos from up-river. Though he is well liked by every Maori, he is a Queen's pakeha, and that is sufficient. So when the troops come up he becomes a military contractor; he organises a corps of friendly Maoris to carry supplies up-river from the Heads for General Cameron's army. He is by this time a practised hand with a paddle himself, and sometimes at night he drops into his own canoe and, running the gauntlet of the war-painted raiders who may be lurking on the banks, paddles quietly down-river to one or other of his store posts. From the Waikato banks he is a witness of the first engagement in the campaign, the fight at Koheroa where the British soldiers rush in with the bayonet.

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The war is over; the lands of the Waikato and the garden country of the mid-Waipa have passed to the conquering Queen, and our trader, turned farmer, is now settled on a section of confiscated land just beyond the spot where the final battle of the campaign was fought and where a hundred Maori patriots He buried in the trenches that they held with such desperate courage.

When the Thames gold-diggings are at their height of production and new rich finds are being made daily, he leaves his lonely farm a while and tries his fortune on the Thames. Returning with a little welcome capital, he sets out to develop his square miles of hill, slope and swamp. He marries, a bonny daughter of a sturdy Scot, a farm girl, a good horsewoman, and as plucky as himself over rough country. But the frontier is troubled. There are alarms of raid and massacre, for the evicted Maoris are just over the border.

The most uncomfortably adventurous period on this part of the frontier was long after the war. Often when the settler's wife was left alone in the house during the day she imagined how easy it would be for the Maoris to creep up and attack the place, for high fern grew almost to the back door. Her husband left her a double-barrel gun, loaded, but what was that against a war party?

The settlers along the border formed volunteer mounted corps, and these troops of Waikato Cavalry, page 72composed of settlers and settlers' sons, put the fear of the pakeha into the Hauhaus. Our pioneer and his nearest neighbour, a settler who had already seen service, were two of the first officers of one troop, a particularly active body of well-horsed, alert frontier stalwarts. Their mobility was their great military quality. Night after night the pioneer's troop, split up into detachments of six or eight men, patrolled the tracks, watched the river fords, reported at the Constabulary blockhouses, and kept guard over the farmsteads. In this way the whole border was patrolled, and to the Maoris who chanced to be abroad a silent squad of determined men, good riders and good shots, armed with sword, carbine, and revolver, was a reminder that a Hauhau war party would not have things all its own way; and so an attack was never made. Sometimes a squad would spend the night in the pioneer's house, the most exposed point of the frontier salient thrust into the Maori fern.

Those were some of the passages and episodes of life that developed the pioneer's native virtues of resourcefulness, courage, and self-reliance. There were hard times, harder than any that try the settler's pluck to-day. Markets were far away; there were no freezing companies, no dairy produce buyers chasing the farmer with cheques. A milking cow fetched barely as many shillings as it would pounds to-day. page 73A fat bullock then brought no more than is now paid for the hide alone. Butter, made by the wife in the primitive home-made churn before the days of the separator, was carried into the township miles away and sold for fourpence and later sixpence a pound. The first farm, in which so many perilous days and nights had been spent, passed out of the pioneer's hands through financial misfortunes and a fresh start had to be made. It was hard, unremitting toil for many a year; there was scarcely enough money sometimes to buy grass-seed for the breaking-in of the fern land, and living was of the plainest. Town and town amusements were rare and wonderful breaks in a hard life. But the family, now a tribe of boys and girls, struggled along. The Maori neighbours now were friends. The wife was the best Maori linguist of the family and the helper of sick natives for many a mile around. At holiday times there were as many grandchildren and children of visiting city friends about the easy-going, happy old farmhouse as would set up a small schoolhouse. (Now she lies in the flower-decked graveyard, but her work lives after her.)

The home farm is a thousand acres in extent; the sons' farms cover another four thousand acres or so, and nearly every acre of this area, most of it only lately broken in, is producing wealth in fat stock and in butter and cheese and wool. The newer country brought into use has been broken in from page 74the fern and manuka at the rate of three hundred to four hundred acres yearly, a task requiring the hardest of hard work. The scrub has been swept away, deep swamps have been drained, bush has been felled, the plough has gone where never plough went before.

On the family estates there were at the time of which I write more than 1,500 cattle, mostly Shorthorns, a good-sized flock of sheep, and about 150 horses. There were 200 milking cows, which assured big monthly cheques; but fat stock for the freezing works was the great standby. Horse-breeding, too, at one period paid well; quite fifty horses of good pedigree were sold off the place in the year. Maori labour was largely employed; but the hardest work has always been tackled by the pioneer and his sons, the finest type of frontier-reared farmers. Three boys went soldiering in the Great War; one fell in France; the married ones remaining did their part in turning out food to help fill the refrigerators for England.

The head of the clan reached a patriarchal age, living his sanely active life in the open air—helped by a sanguine temperament that declined to take a gloomy view of things even when times were hardest and a generous touch of the wit that is the salt of life. He was good yet for a fifty-mile horseback ride over the back country or for a long day with the farm wagon or in the shearing shed. Most often, however, he was to be found in the office at page 75one end of the front verandah, for the business of a modern farm with its big profits called for much correspondence with the freezing company and the auctioneering firms; and the pioneer was not only the adviser of his sons who are settled on near-by farms of their own, but was regarded in the light of a shrewd counsellor by his neighbours, pakeha and Maori.