The Parawhau tribe originally occupied the land and continued to live in several villages around the settlement through the 19th century. Whāngārei began as a timber-milling site in 1839, but the first Europeans fled to Auckland for a time during the 1840s when war broke out in the Bay of Islands between Māori factions and British troops. For a while the area stagnated, and then the kauri-gum trade and shipbuilding brought new settlers. Industries started to expand, including the Portland cement works (which started on Limestone Island in 1885 and in 1916 moved to Portland). In the late 1950s glass works, fertiliser works and the Marsden Point oil refinery were all under construction, the last completed in 1964. Achieving city status in 1965, Whāngārei now dominates the surrounding area commercially.

Meaning of place name
The name translates as Waiting for Reipae - whanga: waiting; rei: abbreviation of Reipae