Locality 34 km north-west of Whanganui. The Waitōtara–Ōkehu block, along the coast north-west of Whanganui, was purchased from Ngā Rauru in July 1863, although efforts to reduce the size of tribal reserves had turned some of the tribe against the sale. Some became adherents of the Pai Mārire (Hauhau) faith, while others supported the Māori King movement. The township was laid out on the north bank of the Waitōtara River in 1873, and the river was bridged in 1874. The settlement was damaged by floods in 2004 and 2006.

Meaning of place name
Named after the river. It is thought that the river was given the name because of the totara stumps present in it.