For 900 years they lived and thrived on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Archeological evidence of their lives and connection with the `aina, or land, is everywhere, from their house sites to their irrigated taro fields to their stone walls. Historical accounts from the early to mid-1800s speak of populations of 1,000 to 2,700 people living on the peninsula, in the valleys, and in the villages.
Whereas the history of the Hansen’s disease isolation settlement on the peninsula is a mere 130+ years old, Hawaiian people occupied the valleys and flat lands of Kalaupapa for generation after generation. There are several stories and legends connected with this land, telling of events occurring before European contact.
There are three ahupua`a on the peninsula itself; a fourth is included within the national park boundary. The natural environment and resources found within the ahupua`a of Kalaupapa, Makanalua, Kalawao and Waikolu were rich enough to support human habitation for hundreds of years.
For Hawaiians involved with agriculture, there were three types of land available for growing crops. Ko Kaha Kai was land along the shoreline. Kula lands were on the lands above the shoreline. Kahawai lands were in the valleys, where fresh water could also be obtained. At Kalaupapa the kula lands were important for growing `uala, or sweet potatoes.
It is not known how or when sweet potatoes arrived in Hawai`i from South America, but after European contact, early visitors to Kalaupapa remarked on the numerous potato patches and stone windrows. In 1854 French botanist Jules Remy visited the village of Kalaupapa and remarked:
Kalaupapa sweet potatoes were exported not just throughout the Hawaiian Islands but to California as well. During the gold rush years of 1849-1851 ships came directly from San Francisco to Kalaupapa to load sweet potatoes to feed the booming mining population. The potato exports lasted until Kalaupapa Peninsula’s history changed forever in 1866.
If Kalaupapa Peninsula and its neighboring valleys once supported a sizeable population, the number of people living there when the isolation settlement was established at Kalawao was much smaller. As throughout the rest of Hawai`i, a series of epidemics in the mid- to late 1800s decimated the Hawaiian population. By 1853 about 140 people lived in the village of Kalaupapa, In 1866 when the first leprosy patients were left at Kalawao, the remaining original inhabitants were subsequently moved with the sale of their lands to the Board of Health.
By 1900 non-patient Hawaiians were gone from the entire peninsula. Nine hundred years of connection with the `aina was broken.