A History of Hawaiʻi in Ten Objects

The history of Hawaiʻi is one of unparalled richness. From the creation of these volcanic islands to the present day, Hawaiʻi is one of the most treasured places on Earth. These 10 objects from the park's museum collection help paint a picture of the history of Hawaiʻi. These are not just objects, but stories that link us to a vivid and fascinating past.
Herbarium sheet of olonā nettle.
NPS Photo, [8509]

1. Olonā (Touchardia latifolia)

Olonā (Touchardia latifolia) is one of many plants found only in Hawaiʻi. It occupies the wet forests and valleys of Hawaiʻi, and is within the nettle family (Urticaceae). The leaves are oval shaped, and are often very large. It produces small orange fruits near the top of the plant.

Olonā has one of the strongest plant fibers in the world. The very strong fibers, called laticifers, made olonā highly desirable to early Hawaiians. The olonā bark was scraped and twisted together by rolling it on the thigh with an open palm. The cordage was used for fishing nets, a base for feather capes, for nets to carry containers, weapons, and much more.

White Scraper made from a turtle rib.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 78]


This olonā scraper, or uhi kahi olonā kau honu, made from the external plate of a honu (turtle) shell. One end of this scraper was beveled, and a hole was placed on the opposite end. This type of scraper was shaped to fit a long, narrow board known as lāʻau kahi olonā. The bark that was carefully stripped into bundles was spread out in running water for days to soften. The long strips of bark were removed from the water and the remaining pulpy matter was scraped from them. The prepared fiber was carefully dried and rolled into cordage of various sizes.

Taxidermy of a black bird with yellow feathered wings.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 1285]


This taxidermied bird is the Hawaiian ʻōʻō bird (Moho nobilis), one of many extinct birds endemic to Hawaiʻi. This specimen was collected in the mid-1890s by a Volcano House visitor (today, collecting anything from the park is prohibited). The last recorded sighting of this bird was in 1934 on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species – the authoritative list on a species’ risk of extinction – states the Hawaiian ʻōʻō extinction was probably caused by habitat destruction and disease.

Over 115 species of endemic birds existed in Hawai‘i before humans arrived. More than 50 of these birds were honeycreepers that filled the forests from mountain to sea. Today, only 17 species of the 50+ honeycreepers remain, with many of them close to extinction.

The greatest risk of extinction to these native Hawaiian birds today is mosquito-borne diseases, avian malaria and pox. Increased temperatures and climate change are threatening cooler conditions in high-elevation native forests that previously limited mosquito abundance.

To find out how you can help visit the Birds, Not Mosquitoes organization.
Feathers attached to yellow colored cotton cord.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 1284]


This feather lei (garland) was made solely of the yellow tail and underwing feathers of the Hawaiian ʻōʻō bird (Moho nobilis). The ʻōʻō is highly regarded by Native Hawaiians, and the exquisite feather work was reserved for aliʻi (royalty, chiefs, and chiefesses).

The skilled bird catchers were often called kia manu, after the tool used to catch birds in the forest canopy. The kia manu pole was hung in the canopy branches with a sticky paste, and then lowered to retrieve the stuck bird. It is described that the yellow feathers would be plucked, and the bird would be released.

Seismograph from the early 1900s. Seismograph drum inside wooden box.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 9844]

5. Dr. Thomas A. Jaggar Seismograph

Did you know that Kīlauea volcano is home to the first American volcano observatory? The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) was founded in a vault below the modern-day Volcano House hotel by Dr. Thomas Jaggar in 1912. In 1902, Jaggar visited the island of Martinique in the Caribbean where just a few days prior a huge volcanic eruption from Mt. Pelee had destroyed the town of St. Pierre. Later he wrote the following about his experience:

"It was hard to distinguish where the streets had been. Everything was buried under fallen walls of cobblestone and pink plaster and tiles, including 20,000 bodies....As I look back on the Martinique experience I know what a crucial point in my life it was....I realized that the killing of thousands of persons by subterranean machinery totally unknown to geologists...was worthy of a life work."

Dr. Jaggar became the head of MIT’s Geology Department in 1906 and traveled to the scenes of earthquakes and eruptions all over the world. This seismograph was used to detect and record earthquakes from when he directed the observatory until 1940. Today volcanologist use digital seismographs to record and interpret earthquakes. However, Dr. Jaggar had this analog seismograph to record earthquakes and then had to interpret the paper seismogram himself.
Button-shaped droplets of hardened lava ejected from a volcanic eruption in the form of ash.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 154]


Kīlauea is an explosive volcano and has had numerous explosive eruptions in the past 1,200 years. The Keanakākoʻi Ash deposit is the most widespread of these deposits and is in an area closely surrounding Kaluapele, the summit caldera of Kīlauea. Several eruptions contributed to the Keanakākoʻi formation starting about A.D. 1500. The last major eruption related to this deposit was in 1790.

Geologists believe that the Keanakākoʻi deposits were generated by deep explosions between 500 and 700 meters below the ground surface. The floor of Halemaʻumaʻu crater at this time was so deep it was below the water table. This allowed ground water to seep in and form a lake. When magma erupted into the lake there was a violent explosion of steam and gas. This resulted in the fragmentation of magma into tiny ash particles and drove fastmoving, very hot ash-laden steam clouds out of the crater.

During the eruption, high dust clouds and particles mixing in the upper atmosphere produced rain. As the raindrops fell through the dust, these accretionary lapilli were produced. These small, hardened, rounded balls of ash are still evident today.
A human footprint preserved in mud.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 180]


These footprints were captured in various layers of volcanic ash during explosive eruptions from Kīlauea volcano in the late 1700s.

At this time, Kamehameha the First did not rule all the islands or even the island of Hawai‘i. Chief Keōuakū‘ahu‘ula, his cousin, ruled Ka‘ū, Puna, and part of Hāmākua districts. He heard that Kamehameha was close to claiming Hāmākua district so he gathered his warriors to drive them away. They fought in Hilo, neither winning, and Keōuakū‘ahu‘ula retreated back to Ka‘ū via a trail through Kīlauea. Here they rested several nights. They left offerings to Pelehonuamea, a deity associated with volcanic activity, because of an increase in earthquakes. They departed the summit in three groups. After the first group left, the phreatic explosion occurred, creating a pyroclastic surge—a huge column of ash thrown high into air that falls in on its own weight at very hot temperatures and hurricane-force winds. It is believed that the second group of warriors was caught in the surge and was suffocated in the super-heated winds and gas.

There is evidence that the footprints are not just the warriors, but of Hawaiian travelers and families. Native Hawaiians used this area of the desert repeatedly, and evidence of their use is spread across the landscape even during this volcanic event referred to as Keoneheleleʻi – The Falling Sands. Archeologists have identified over 246 cultural features in this area that do not include the footprint impressions. They include habitation sites, volcanic material collection sites for making tools, and markers that were used to identify areas of importance such as trails. Clearly, the trails were the primary features that bound this part of the desert with the caldera at Kīlauea and village sites in Kaʻū and Hilo. The main route and trail system through the desert is a worn path across the flat, smooth, pāhoehoe flow. The ash layers could have taken up to a week to dry after the explosion, so we have no way of knowing whether or not a certain footprint is from a warrior or traveler. We may, however, see the evidence of these travelers, mothers, fathers, and children revealed as we walk this trail.
Necklace made of human hair and ivory
NPS Photo, [HAVO 122]


These garlands were comprised of numerous strands of human hair plaited with olonā (Touchardia latifolia) fiber, and a hook pendant made of ivory. The whale teeth were collected from carcasses that would wash ashore at specific places in the islands. These places were considered wahi pana, or a landmark of special interest or historical significance because of the mana (power) they carried.

The lei niho palaoa was an important symbol of rank for the aliʻi (royal class). Hawaiian society was stratified according to rank, and chiefs of the highest rank could trace their genealogy to primordial darkness preceding all life, or pō. Chiefs conceived from the union of high-ranking siblings were deemed to be direct descendants of akua (gods). Chiefs wore the lei niho palaoa to assert their divine right to rule, and the responsibility that they carried.

The materials incorporated into this object point to the great mana (power) and kapu (elements of sacred restrictions) that it holds.

"K" and "R" insignia brand, possibly of stainless steel.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 10631]

9. Kahuku Ranch Branding Iron

Located on the volatile shoulders of Mauna Loa, the Kahuku Ranch was once one of the biggest cattle ranches in Hawaiʻi, producing beef and hides for more than 150 years. In 1848, land was redistributed under King Kamehameha III, transforming land use from a feudal system to a private property-based system. The Māhele (to divide or portion) of 1848 allowed private ownership of land, and also permitted non-Hawaiians to own land. By 1861, the ahupuaʻa of Kahuku was awarded as a land grant to the first of its 12 owners, Charles Coffin Harris.

George W.C. Jones, with his partners Charles and Jules Richardson, and Judge George Anson Byron Kaina, became the third owners of Kahuku Ranch in 1871. By all accounts the Ranch was beautiful, well-managed, and welcoming to travelers, from the well-known (Princess Kaʻiulani, Charles Bishop, and others) to itinerant preachers.

The "K" and "R" insignia brand is a reminder of the history of ranching in Hawaiʻi. Hawaiians learned to round up wild cattle, plant pastures and create paddocks, and became skilled paniolo (cowboys). The apparent tranquility of ranch life, however, became a challenge between large Mauna Loa eruptions, no surface water, the need to create pastureland, and markets far removed from this remote Kaʻū ranch. But, the people of Kaʻū were known for their determination, hard work, and perseverance. There are many families in Kaʻū today who trace their ancestry to these talented paniolo at Kahuku Ranch.

The rest, as they say, is history!

One framed oil painting on canvas depicting a panoramic scene of the Volcano House ca. 1894-1920.
NPS Photo, [HAVO 16020]

10. Volcano House Oil Painting ca. 1894-1920

Volcano House Hotel was the first western-style building built at the summit of Kīlauea, and its earliest incarnations are recorded as far back as the 1840s when Benjamin Pitman constructed a four walled thatched shelter “in the native style.”

Written accounts by visitors to the “lake of fire” at Halemaʻumaʻu brought world travelers to the summit of Kīlauea. With no accommodations available to them, they arrived by horseback carrying shelter, food, and bedding. George Jones, before his tenure as owner of Kahuku Ranch, saw the need for lodging for these visitors. He, the brothers Richardson from Kapāpala, and Judge Kaina from Hilo, built the Volcano House in 1866. It was a crude inn with a thatched roof of pili grass, three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room with a large fireplace where travelers would gather and talk about the wonders they had just seen.

Around the time of this painting in 1891, the popularity of Volcano House hotel was booming. The hotel had traded hands again, this time to Lorrin A. Thurston, a Honolulu businessman and controversial historic figure. Thurston formed the “Volcano House Company” in partnership the three steamship companies that operated in Hawaiʻi at the time. In 1891, this partnership increased capacity of the hotel with a two-story Victorian-style addition to the Kaʻū side of the building. Even with the addition, space in the hotel was barely enough for demand. At times, the lodge was so crowded that the billiard table in the parlor would be used as a bed. Events and people surrounding Volcano House were instrumental in the creation of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and provided unprecedented access to one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Without Volcano House, the Kīlauea experience would be much different than it is today.

Last updated: October 6, 2021