Prior to European arrival, Maori inhabited many parts of the district and were mainly of the Rangitane tribe who descended from the Kurahaupo Canoe. They were later joined by members of the Ngati Kahungunu from northern Hawke's Bay who were from the Takitumu Canoe. These people are proud of their heritage and many can trace their ancestry through Te Rang iwakaewa, a tribal chief who was born and lived in Southern Hawke's Bay. Marae plays a significant role in the history and culture of the area, with Makirikiri, Kaitoke, and Whitite-ra all close to Dannevirke and Papauma at Owahanga, on the coast.
From the mid-1850s the coastal areas were settled by English and Scots immigrants and many large stations emerged, some of which are still owned by descendants of the original families. As more settlers arrived, so inland areas of farmland were taken up, ships calling at Akitio, Herbertville, and Cape Turnagain providing the supplies.
Prior to the 1870s, an almost unknown track passed through the area that was to become the town of Dannevirke and provided a means of communication between Wellington and Napier via the Manawatu Gorge. It was during this era that the Government launched a mammoth Public Works Scheme and with the desire to open up the Seventy Mile Bush area, an Immigration and Public Works policy was decided upon.
The name Seventy Mile Bush District was changed to the Dannevirke Highway District in about 1876.
Organising the immigration policy became the task of B.E. Freberg, a Government Agent, who was Swedish. He enlisted the optimistic settlers from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, and eventually the ships "Hovding" and "Ballarat" departed for New Zealand.
Both these ships arrived in Napier on Sunday, September 15th, 1872, and it was from these that the nucleus of settlement in Norsewood and Dannevirke eventuated.
The former borough of Dannevirke has long provided the necessary services for the rural community. A major fire in 1917 destroyed much of the shopping area but this was rebuilt and business continued. The town quickly attracted those people needed within the community - accountants, lawyers, doctors, and the necessary stock and station agents, grocers and other retailers.
The community is serviced by some government departments and schools including a secondary school, medical services along with a wide range of support groups available.
The area has always been strong in recreational activities and apart from the natural resources that are available, there are also adequate parks and facilities of a high standard.
Dannevirke is the major town of Southern Hawke's Bay and is the seat of the Tararua District Council. It has a population of almost 6,000, of whom 19% are Maori or non-European. It is a rural service town with some light industry, with a woolen mill and engineering work being the major employees. Unemployment has tended to be lower than the national average, as are housing prices.
Dannevirke High School was founded on 21st April 1903. The secondary department of the Dannevirke South District High School opened in the Knox Sunday School Hall. The people who were the driving force behind this move were the Rev. A. Grant, Mr. J. Patterson, and Mr. C. Hall, M.P. The founding headmaster was Mr. J.M. Simmers. On opening day there were 16 pupils, and by the end of the year, that number had grown to 52. On Friday the desks were removed for Sunday School and were replaced on Monday morning. The playing areas were the adjoining streets.
Pressure and political action built up for an independent secondary school, the Education Board sent Mr. G. Hogben, an Inspector of Schools, to visit the proposed Grant Street site. By 1st January 1906, Dannevirke High School was established. Plans were drawn up for a building to accommodate 150 pupils and by the beginning of 1908, the new school was open.