William Stewart's Shipbuilding Site

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Stewart Island
Port Pegasus, Stewart Island[1].
Port Pegasus is a harbour located on the southeastern side of Stewart Island and is believed to have been the site of the first permanent European settlement on the island, though it is currently uninhabited. The site excavated is located off the main harbour and in Cook Arm of Port Pegasus.


Site History

William Stewart
Capt. William Stewart[2]

Captain William Stewart first proposed colonization of Stewart Island in 1824 and, with the financial backing of Thomas and David Asquith (english merchants), embarked in January 1826 with a party of settlers (9 men and 9 Maori women), as well as 6 months of supplies[3].

Originally intended to be a ship building site, a sealer named John Boultbee arrived at the Port to find the project abandoned and the settlers distraught for food, as Stewart had not returned with fresh supplies in over a year. They were forced to turn to any sustenance they could find in the area, mainly mussels and cockles. On a second visit, in 1828, Boultbee found them working on a second, smaller ship, though they had no nails or other standard building materials. They used wooden pegs to hold the ship together and flax for the sails and rope.

In 1829, William Cook (an English shipbuilder) found employment elsewhere and moved. Though some of the founding settlers remained there longer than him, the harbour is now uninhabited.

Upon the death of one settler, Benjamin Turner, many years later, his recollections of the experience were shared in The Daily Southern Cross newspaper.

The site was first suggested as being the location of William Stewart's shipbuilding site by Basil Howard in his book, Rakiura (1940).


To verify that this was indeed the site of the first permanent settlement on the island and, subsequently, William Stewart's shipbuilding, field surveys and excavations were carried out from 8th-10th March 1994.

The many flat areas present suggested possible habitation, as well as what appeared to be the remains of a slipway, necessary for building boats. The areas chosen to be excavated were those that were visible features. Dense regrowth over most of the site led to the decision to use a tape and a compass as measuring instruments for this project.

The evidence found, as well as the failures of Russell Beck and John Hall-Jones to find similar evidence of a slipway in a thorough search of the area, strongly supports the conclusion that this was the area of Stewart's first settlement.


Area A

The most pronounced feature of the site were the remnants of what appeared to be a stone chimney. The interior as well as 2 areas immediately surrounding the chimney were excavated. Findings led to the conclusion that this chimney was not part of a domestic dwelling, but rather a small forge.

In the interior, by the mostly intact north wall of the chimney, a whole brick, bone, pieces of corroded iron, as well as pieces of coal, were found in the initial sand layer beneath the leaf debris covering the feature. In a darker soil layer below the sand, on which the base of the wall rested, a burnt mussel shell was found.
Faunal material from bird and domestic fowl, such as chickens, were also present. The remains bear evidence of the food having been prepared, with knife marks on the bones as well as burnt marks.
The excavation of a small, flat area to the immediate east of the chimney revealed more findings: a seal bone, a yellow-eyed penguin femur, shell midden, pieces of blue on white ceramic, as well as more corroded iron and coal. However, no evidence of post holes or walls was found[4]. The pieces of ceramic seem to form a small dinner plate, oriental in style, with a picture of a bridge and a boat.

Area B

To the north of Area A, this feature is comprised of 4 large stones just visible above the forest floor. While it was ultimately unclear what the function of this site was, findings indicate a type of domestic presence nearby.

Near the corner formed by the stones to the north and west, shell midden, seal bone, bottle glass, as well as ceramics similar to the previous area were found. Beneath a layer of orange sand, 6 burnt through branches were resting side by side.
To the north of the stones, a stretch of cockle midden, containing cockle shells as well as fish, seal and bird bone, was found. A similar cockle midden was found to the west of the excavation, though it also contained 2 large paua shells and part of a black beer bottle (consistent with those made in the 19th Century).
5 nails were also found in the surrounding area, as well as a section of what might have been a barrel hoop.


On the eastern edge of the site was a long, narrow depression conjectured to be a saw pit. A test pit revealed 2 trenches present, as well as a perpendicular wooden stake on the east end and what appeared to be cut timber, though a continuous inflow of water hampered the excavation.

Slipway Piles

Agreed to be the most substantial and compelling evidence for the presence of Stewart's shipbuilding settlement were the remains of a slipway found outside of the cove, which are evident at low tide. Rows of round piles of timber (most being 8cm in diameter), as well as upright and flat pieces, are strong evidence for the previous existence of a slipway in the area, which would have been used to aid in the construction of ships.


While no conclusive evidence of dwellings were found, the excavations indicate that domestic activities were taking place near the area. Also, it is very likely that, due to the manner of construction of the possible dwellings, little evidence of walls or post holes would remain after this time. Overall, especially with the clear presence of slipway remains, it has been concluded that this area was in fact the site of Stewart's settlement.


  1. Image retrieved from http://www.ohad.info/stewart/LocationMap.jpg on February 20, 2010
  2. Image retrieved from http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/images/portraits/A020446.jpg on February 19, 2010.
  3. http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-MacHist-t1-body-d43-d1.html
  4. McGovern-Wilson, 1994


  • McGovern-Wilson, R., Bristow, P. 1994: William Stewart’s shipbuilding site, Port Pegasus, Stewart Island, archaeological survey. Report to Department of Conservation, Invercargill.