Ruatara was a Nga Puhi chief from the Bay of Islands. Marsden thought he was a nephew of Te Pahi on his father’s side and of Hongi Hika on his mother’s side. Recent studies have questioned this, and it is now suggested that his father was Te Aweawe of Ngati Rahiri and Ngati Tautahi sections of Nga Puhi, and his mother Tauramoko of Ngati Rahiri and Ngati Hineira.
Like other young Maori men at the beginning of the 19th Century, Ruatara served on a number of ships in South Pacific waters. Ruatara spent the years 1805 to 1809 on various ships, often being unfairly treated.
In 1809, on his way back to Australia after a visit to Britain, Samuel Marsden discovered Ruatara on board in a pitiful state. He had made the journey to England, but had been badly treated and had been put on board the “Ann” to be taken back to Australia. Ruatara was vomiting blood from the beatings he had received. Marsden cared for him like the good Samaritan. Ruatara then stayed with Marsden at Parramatta for most of 1809, learning a great deal about agriculture.
At the end of 1810 Ruatara wanted to return to his own people, but it was 1812 before he got there, he arrived back in the Bay of Islands to discover that he was now heir to Te Pahi’s mana. Ruatara, still in his 20's, needed to prove himself as a chief. The weapons and tools helped, but he found it harder to persuade others of the advantages. Ruatara went back to Port Jackson and learned more of the technological skills that he so much valued. When the “Active” sailed to New Zealand in late 1814, Ruatara led a party of ten Maori on board, along with the missionary party, invited to come under Ruatara's protection and led by Samuel Marsden.
They arrived at the Bay of Islands on 22 December 1814. Ruatara made the necessary preparations for the first church service on New Zealand soil, at Oihi Bay on Sunday, Christmas Day 1814. Half an acre of land was fenced; in the centre there was a pulpit and reading desk. Seats made from the bottoms of old canoes were provided for the Europeans. At 10 o’clock on the 25th, the whole village was assembled.
In March 1815 Marsden returned to Port Jackson. Before Marsden departed, Ruatara shared his enthusiastic vision for the development of his plans. These included bringing large areas of land into cultivation, and establishing a town on a European pattern, with streets and provision for a church. But he was already seriously ill when Marsden left, and died 4 days later. In April, Ruatara’s remains and those of his wife Rahu, who took her own life in grief at her husband’s death, were carried inland to Motutara, Ruatara’s tribal lands.
Ruatara is remembered on 11 May, the day before Samuel Marsden, as a sign that by his hospitality and his vision he made the way possible for Samuel Marsden. Ruatara is therefore honoured with respect as, “Te Ara mo te Rongopai”, “The Gateway for the Gospel”.