Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani was a direct descendent of Kamehameha I, the leader who united the Hawaiian islands and founded the kingdom of Hawai‘i. She was an advocate for Hawaiian culture who was best known for defending the town of Hilo during the 1880–1881 eruption of the Mauna Loa Volcano that is part of the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park.
Keʻelikōlani was born in Pohukaina, Oahu in 1826. Her mother, Chiefess Pauhi, married her third husband, Mataio Kekūanāoʻa, only three months before she died while giving birth to Princess Ruth. Both Kekūanāoʻa and the Chiefess’s second husband, High Chief Kahalaiʻa Luanuʻu, claimed Keʻelikōlani as a daughter.1 She was publicly recognized as keiki po‘olua, a “two heads” child, or someone who would inherit the mana (spiritual energy) of both fathers.2 This early controversy surrounding her paternity presented enduring challenges as she navigated the U.S. legal system to secure a vast land inheritance.3 When she was sixteen, the princess married Leleiohoku with whom she had two children. After Leleiohoku’s death, Keʻelikōlani married Isaac Young Davis, grandson of the haole (white) advisor to Kamehameha I. Together they had a son, whom she gave to her cousin Bernice Pauahi Bishop to raise in the Hawaiian tradition of hānai.
Ke‘elikōlani maintained distinctive Hawaiian beliefs and practices during a period of ongoing tensions between self-proclaimed traditionalists and Christian Hawaiian chiefs. Educated by missionaries in English, she insisted on conducting business in the ‘Ōlelo language. Inheriting palaces from her father, she preferred to live in a traditional grass house (hale pili) in Kailua.4 Her rejection of Christianity and the Anglo-American culture made her revered by her countrymen and women, and they turned to her for intervention when the volcano Mauna Loa began erupting in 1880.5 Six months later in a second wave of eruptions, Mauna Loa’s rift zones released three steady streams of lava flowing toward the town of Hilo, as well as the bases of Mauna Kea and the district of Ka’ū. Though the lava flows toward Ka’ū District and Mauna Kea ceased, the lava heading toward the town of Hilo steadily advanced for months. In August 1881 Queen Liliʻuokalani and Princess Ke‘elikōlani arrived in Hilo. At the foot of the lava flow, Keʻelikōlani chanted (oli) and made offerings (ho‘okupu) to Pele, the volcano goddess. The lava flow soon ceased and, according to some reports, Keʻelikōlani then camped overnight just beyond the lava’s reach.6
She died in May 1883 after a brief illness. At the time of her death she was proclaimed to be the highest ranking descendent of Kamehameha I. She laid claim to 353,000 acres of Kamehameha land, all of which she bequeathed to Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who established the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate to set aside land for the preservation of Hawaiian culture and the advancement of Native Hawaiian people. In her will, Pauahi Bishop dedicated the estate to the development of the Kamehameha Schools for Hawaiian Children.
1 - Rubellite Kawena Johnson, “Ruth Keʻelikōlani Po’Ula Child,” in “Biography Hawai‘i: Five Lives, A Series of Public Remembrances,” Center for Biographical Research at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, 2017, 4.
2 - Kamehameha Schools, “Honoring Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani on the Day of Her Birth,” news release, February 9, 2017, https://www.pressreleasepoint.com/honoring-princess-ruth-keelikolani-day-her-birth.
3 - John Berger, “Getting to Know Ruth,” Star Bulletin, May 30, 2004, http://archives.starbulletin.com/2004/05/30/features/index.html.
4 - Samuel P. King and Randall W. Roth, Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement & Political Manipulation at America's Largest Charitable Trust (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006), 26.
5 - Michael Tsai, “The Princess Diaries,” Honolulu Advertiser, June 7, 2004, http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2004/Jun/07/il/il01a.html.
6 - Kalena Silva, “Princess Ruth,” in “Biography Hawai‘i,” 3.
Acknowledgements:This project was made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation.
This project was conducted in Partnership with the University of California Davis History Department through the Californian Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, CA# P20AC00946