Otago Province was founded in 1853, five years after the establishment of the settlement at Dunedin. It included all the South Island south of the Waitaki River and south of a line running across to Awarua Bay on the West Coast. Some modification was made to this boundary in 1861, following a dispute with the Canterbury Provincial Council. In that year, Southland broke off and formed itself into a separate province, bounded in the east by the Mataura River and the ocean, in the west by the Waiau River and in the north by a line running from Mt Eyre across to Lake Manapouri.
After Stewart Island was bought by the central government from its Maori owners, it was added to Southland Province in 1863. The Southlanders, achieving less economic success than Otago, rejoined the northern province in 1870. The region has a rigorous winter climate and, although archaeologists have found traces of Maori habitation as early as the year 1000, there is no evidence of Maori agriculture and it is estimated that in the 1830s there were fewer than 1,000 Maori living south of the Waitaki River.
Although sealers from Australia had been active in the area from 1800, European settlement began with a whaling station at Preservation Inlet, Fiordland, in 1829, followed by at least a dozen others at different spots, and then more substantially ten years later with the village of John Jones at Waikouaiti. Otago was an organised settlement under the aegis of the Otago Association, sponsored by the Free Church of Scotland. The original Otago Block purchase from the Maori was about 160,000 ha. The tussock land of Otago and Southland proved good for sheep farming, needing little development, and there were substantial areas of land suitable for cropping. However, the early prosperity of Otago was based on lucrative earnings from gold mining in Central Otago during the 1860s. During the first 50 years of settlement in NZ, Otago was the most substantial and successful of the provinces.
Central Otago, under the shadow of the Southern Alps, has the driest and one of the sunniest (in summer) micro-climates in NZ, and is a prolific fruit-growing region.
Otago Harbour is the long inlet that runs along the northern side of the Otago Peninsula, up to the foot of Dunedin’s commercial area, but because it is shallow the deepwater port is at Port Chalmers.
Otago Peninsula runs 25 km eastwards from the city of Dunedin to Cape Saunders.
It has been claimed that the name Otago comes from the Maori word, Otakou, ‘the place of red earth’, but recent studies indicate that Otago, variously spelt Otagoo, Otargo or Otago, was the original and reasonably faithful rendering of the southern dialect Maori. ‘Otakou’, probably a northern dialect rendering, appears to have come into use about 1844, possibly introduced by surveyors from the north, but in 1848, Sir George Grey ruled: ‘In compliance with the wish of the Scotch Association for colonising the southern portion of the middle island of NZ… the site of their present settlement will, in future… be designated Otago instead of Otakou.’ A small settlement 30 km north-east from the centre of Dunedin, not far from Taiaroa Head, is called Otakou.