A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Site Histories, Resource Descriptions, and Management Recommendations


C. Development of Honaunau Ahupua'a

As described earlier in this study, the sheltered, temperate Kona Coast of Hawai'i became an ideal settlement area for the early Polynesian peoples who migrated to the Hawaiian Islands. The calm waters of Honaunau Bay provided abundant fish and other marine resources, while its gentle upland slopes offered conditions conducive to the growth of abundant crops of taro, bananas, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, and later, breadfruit. Also available were stands of hardwood trees for constructing residences and religious structures and for manufacturing canoes. Much of Honaunau Bay's attraction lay in its sheltered sandy beaches where canoes could easily land. A number of brackish springs, actually tide pools in which fresh water from rain and natural seepage accumulated on the surface of the salt water, provided a dependable water supply. It is not surprising the cove quickly became a favorite residence of Hawaiian royalty.

The refuge was an important part of Honaunau, the traditional seat of the chiefdom of Kona. The ruling chief and his court occupied the area at the head of Honaunau Bay and along the shore to the south. Lesser chiefs and commoners serving the court and priests resided on the north shore of the bay, toward the mountains, and possibly at Keokea and Ki'ilae villages to the south. All residences were basically one-room, wooden framework, thatched-roof structures. The chief's complex would have consisted of several houses.

The ancient village of Honaunau was the ancestral home of the Kamehameha dynasty, serving in ancient times as a major Hawaiian religious and cultural center. [3] In 1823 William Ellis noted that "Honaunau . . . was formerly a place of considerable importance, having been the frequent residence of the kings of Hawaii, for several successive generations." [4] When King Keawe-i kekahi-ali'i-o-ka-moku of Kona, Kamehameha's great-grandfather, died about 1650, his bones were placed in a temple constructed on a platform next to the refuge. His mana, inherited from his ancestral gods, and that of his descendants became the power protecting the refuge at Honaunau. The structure in which his remains reposed, the Hale-o-Keawe, became a royal mausoleum, holding the bones of several more of Kamehameha's ancestors and thereby endowing the area with extreme sacredness and the refuge with powerful guardian spirits.

Although the canoe traffic of ancient times moved easily in and out of the small harbor of Honaunau Bay, the water was not deep enough to accommodate the European and American trading ships that began arriving in Hawai'i late in the eighteenth century. For that reason Kamehameha and other ali'i anxious to initiate social and economic interaction with foreigners moved to other harbors, such as Kailua and Honolulu. [5] This was the beginning of the decline in Honaunau's importance, which increased with the abolition of the kapu system in 1819, at which time the benefits of absolution and forgiveness provided by places of refuge became unnecessary. Honaunau over the years declined in population as it changed in character from a royal residence of kings, a religious and political center, and a refuge site to just another seacoast village that gradually lost inhabitants to the upland sections in the 1840s as happened in other places.

In the Great Mahele, the ahupua'a of Honaunau went to Miriam Kekau'onohi, a granddaughter of Kamehameha. She took as her second husband Levi Ha'alelea, a descendant of the Kona chiefs, who inherited Honaunau when she died. After his death, the administrator of his estate sold the land at auction in 1866 to W. C. Jones, agent for Charles Kana'ina, the father of King Lunalilo. Because Jones never paid for the land, Charles R. Bishop bought it in 1867 as a present for his wife, Bernice Pauahi. Six years after her death, Bishop deeded Honaunau to the Trustees of the Bishop Estate who leased the portion occupied by the refuge to S.M. Damon. In 1921 the county of Hawai'i leased the pu'uhonua and the adjoining picnic area from the Bishop Estate for use as a county park. In 1959 the federal government obtained 165 acres, including the ancient refuge, from the Trustees for the establishment of a national park. Part of the land was from the ahupua'a of Honaunau and part from Keokea. Kamehameha Ill had granted the ahupua'a of Keokea to Kekuanaoa in 1848; his daughter, Ruth Ke'elikolani, acquired it upon his death in 1868. At her death in 1883, the land went to her cousin Bernice P. Bishop. [6]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001