It is thought that the Maori gradually made their way south from the warmer North Island. The West Coast was a challenging place for early Polynesian settlers with the prevailing south westerly winds making canoe fishing possible for limited amounts of time every year. One species of Moa were in the area, this being the "little bush Moa" but in only low densities. The coast was also outside the zone for the growing of their staple, sweet potato or Kumara. Polynesian settlers had to forgo their traditional horticultural based existence and instead become hunter-gatherers.
Carbon dating has revealed that villages were present on the West Coast by the 13th century with artifacts showing a diet of seals, shellfish, eels, fish and birds. The forest provided ferns, cabbage trees and berries but within a few hundred years many food sources such as Moa and seal had been depleted to a level that supported only low populations. They valued greenstone or nephrite jade highly to make weapons, gifts, tools and ornaments, developing a complex sophisticated network of trails to push ever deeper into remote places to get it.
The Maori name for the south island is Te Wai (Wahi) Pounamu or "the place of pounamu" which demonstrates how important the stone was to the Maori with trade and export to other parts of the country becoming a virtual economic system by the 17th century. This trade and interaction brought other tribes and sometimes conflict to the area and began succession of intertribal wars and alliances. This changed and shaped southern Maori tribal history forever.
The West Coast has a rich and colorful European history seeped in tales of conflict and endeavor with the Maori, gold fever, remote harsh environments and great exploration. The first surveyors that tried to explore the West Coast found it an almost impossibly difficult undertaking. The rain, lack of food and nature of the terrain made life unbearably hard for these men and women.
One often quoted journal entry by perhaps the greatest explorer Thomas Brunner sums things up well "Rain continuing, dietary shortage, strength decreasing, spirits failing, prospects fearful" it must here be noted that within short time of penning this entry Brunner had killed and eaten his own dog as starvation threatened. Such was the severity of travel and exploration that without Maori guides they would have surely perished.
The mid eighteen hundreds saw the gold rush strike the West Coast and produced an influx of people and exploration of the area. Franz Josef and the surrounding area has always had a long and rich association gold with guiding with just too many tales to tell here. Among many local legends, two brothers Alec and Peter Graham are remembered for pioneering guided tours in the early 1900's of the mountains, glaciers, and sights of this incredible part of New Zealand. Today this continues with eco-tourism and adventure tours being popular in this area.