A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
NPS Arrowhead Logo

West Coast of the Island of Hawai'i


D. Political History

Initial settlement on the island of Hawai'i probably occurred in its windward valleys by A.D. 300 to 500, with the population slowly moving to suitable, less-crowded sites on the leeward coast over the next few hundred years. (South Point [Ka Lae], however, has one of the earliest Carbon 14 dates in the islands.) Ancient land districts on the island of Hawai'i consisted of Puna, Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Kona, and Ka'u, which were traditionally autonomous chiefdoms. [14]

By the 1400s, dual seats of power existed on the windward and leeward coasts. The "Kona" chiefs governed Kohala, Kona, and Ka'u, while the "I" chiefs controlled Hamakua, Hilo, and Puna. [15] The first chief to unite the island of Hawai'i was 'Umi-a-Liloa, whose father had been "supreme" ruler of the island with his court located in Waipi'o Valley, Hamakua. 'Umi subsequently moved the seat of power from the windward to the leeward side of the island at Kona. All this probably took place sometime during the early 1400s to the early 1600s.

'Umi reportedly established the principle of division of labor among his people, designating specialists in various crafts as well as in professions such as government and land administration, religion, and industry. Possibly he instituted this system in response to the increasing population and a need to increase work efficiency and resource utilization. The economic and social problems inherent in swift population growth continued, however, and kept the political situation

unsettled long after 'Umi's death. Tradition implies that the period from 1500 to the mid-1700s consisted of continual attempts to wrest power from 'Umi's descendants. These cycles of conquest and re-conquest finally ended with Kamehameha's unification of the Hawaiian Islands in the early Western contact period. [16] The earlier chiefdoms evolved into the six districts of Kamehameha's kingdom. [17] Despite the further subdivision of Hilo, Kohala, and Kona into northern and southern portions, the original district boundaries of Hawai'i Island exist today, probably due to their natural separation by certain physical barriers. [18]

E. Settlement Patterns

A variety of ethnographic materials exist for West Hawai'i, primarily because it was the ancestral seat of a powerful line of hereditary chiefs, including Kamehameha, and because many Europeans who left behind journals and logs investigated the Kona and Kohala districts in the late 1700s and the 1800s as they paid their respects to the ruling power in the islands.

Sea captain George Dixon, for instance, master of the Queen Charlotte, described the country next to the sea in West Hawai'i as crowded with villages protected from the scorching heat by the spreading branches of coco palm and mulberry trees. He noted cracks and crevices along the coast filled with humus and sown with vegetables and other plants. As did many other observers, he mentioned the large lava tubes that formed caves along the coast, many of which were used for habitation or for refuge. [19]

Factors such as terrain and climate determined settlement patterns on the west coast of Hawai'i. As Dixon noted, most of the population chose to live in small villages on non-agricultural land near the shore or clustered around bays where the air was warm and dry. Fish and marine resources were nearby and plentiful. These coastal dwellers also cultivated the moist uplands, which they reached by trails several miles long. [20] The seaward slope became a mixed agricultural zone, with breadfruit planted on the lower slopes and large sweet potato and dry land taro plantations established in the higher elevations that received more rain. [21] With the demise of the breadfruit plantations, small fields of crops were planted in those areas and enclosed with low stone walls concealed by sugarcane. Plantains and bananas were sometimes planted in the lower reaches of the rain forest. [22] Upland forests contained a small number of people, in temporary villages, who hunted birds, harvested timber and bark, and logged sandalwood. [23] Fish and other marine resources from the coast, plus crops and wild plants harvested from the higher slopes, supplied all the food, shelter, and clothing needs of people on the west coast of Hawai'i. [24]

map showing districts and main towns
Illustration 22. Hawai'i Island, showing ancient and modern districts and main towns. Figure 38 from Handy and Handy, Native Planters in Old Hawaii, p. 521.
map showing distribution of population
Illustration 23. Map of Hawai'i Island showing distribution of population in 1853. Figure 12 from Coulter, Population and Utilization of Land and Sea, p. 28.

F. Subsistence Patterns

Intensive agricultural activity comprised an important aspect of life on the western side of Hawai'i Island; the Kona and Kohala field systems were in use before European contact. The Kona field system was quite large, extending from Kailua to south of Honaunau. The Kohala field system stretched along the west flanks of Kohala Mountain. Both are "patterned networks of elongated rectangles lying as a band parallel to the coastline." [25] Earth and rock ridges built to enclose the fields cause the patterning effect. The fields behind Kona consisted of four agricultural zones:

sweet potatoes and paper mulberry planted just above sea level grew well but not abundantly; breadfruit trees, sweet potatoes, and paper mulberry did well in the area above that, while sweet potatoes and dryland taro were cultivated in the next higher zone; plantains and bananas grew on the heights. The rectangular fields characterize the two central zones. The raised borders of the fields supported sugarcane and ti. The Kohala field system was probably about the same, though we have few descriptions, but without the breadfruit trees. Studies of the Kohala area have disclosed a complex system of cultural features, including dwelling and salt manufacturing sites along the coast, and agricultural features comprising rock cairns possibly used for growing specialized crops such as gourds. In addition, rocky, asymmetrical garden areas possibly housed taller plants such as bananas, while exclosures of stacked rock of various shapes kept animals from crops and prevented wind damage. [26]

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001