National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

National Register of Historic Places Program:
Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park, Hawai’i County, Hawai’i

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.


[photo]‘Āle‘ale‘a Heiau
NPS Photograph, courtesy of the Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park

Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park is located twenty miles south of Kailua, Kona, at Honaunau, Hawai’i County (the island of Hawai’i). Extending along the lava flats of the Kona Coast, Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park is home to some of the most significant traditional Hawaiian sites in the Hawaiian archipelago. Encompassing approximately 420 acres of land that extends through three ahupua'a (traditional Hawaiian units of land); the national park contains many other important sites which reflect over 400 years of Hawaiian history. Such sites include the historic 1871 Trail, a 1-mile segment of a trail that traverses the park coastline, as well as the remains of an abandoned farming and fishing village known as Ki'ilae Village.

Today, it is a tourist destination, but in the days of  the Hawaiian kings and chiefs, it was a destination for those who broke the sacred laws, the Kapu, and until the early 19th century the only chance of survival such law-breakers had was to reach the Pu'uhonua, a sacred place of refuge.The Pu'uhonua protected the Kapu breaker, civilians during the times of war and the defeated warriors.  No harm could come to those who reached the boundaries of the place of refuge. At Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park, the ancient archeological structures and features associated with the ancient Polynesian practices of asylum are preserved and protected. A safe haven for vanquished warriors involved in the  battles between chiefs struggling for power over the land and a sanctuary for non-combatants—the older men, women and children who were inadvertently involved in the political struggles-the place retained its native Hawaiian cultural features and history while many other cultural centers were destroyed.

Hula dancers and cultural practioners infront of the Hale o Keawe.
NPS Photograph, courtesy of National Park of American Samoa

The archeological remains document various aspects of ancient Hawaiian culture which gave rise to a sophisticated and elaborate socio-political-religious system long before Captain James Cook visited these islands in 1778-79. The Royal Grounds adjacent to the Pu'uhonua were a favored residence of Hawaiian chiefs. Hale-o-Keawe acted as the royal mausoleum and held the remains of 23 chiefs.  The mana (spiritual power) of the remains bestowed sanctity upon this sacred area. This temple was constructed in honor of Keawe'ikekahiali'i o kamoku, the great-grandfather of Hawaiian King Kamehameha I (1758?- 1819), known as Kamehameha the Great, who conquered and unified the Hawaiian Islands.

Ancient sea-faring Polynesians began settling in the Hawaiian Islands in the 3rd century A.D. The archeological structures and features located within the Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park represent a time span of over 700 years.  From the archeological evidence, it is suggested that in pre-European contact times Honaunau and its vicinity experienced a population increase and developed into the cultural and religious center of the Kona district and perhaps the whole island of Hawai’i. Political and social events caused a decline in the one-time cultural capital, so that by the time Captain Cook arrived in the scene, the center of power had shifted four miles up the coast to Kealakekua Bay.

[photo]Chief's House Site
NPS Photograph, courtesy of National Park of American Samoa

When first seen by Europeans, the district was composed of scattered coastal settlements of thatched houses with two nodes large enough to be called villages: Honaunau at the north end and Ki’ilae at the south.  At Honaunau was the Pu’uhonua, the Palace of Refuge, termed the “City of Refuge’ by Rev. William Ellis in 1823.  Beyond the boundaries of the “Palace Grounds,” around the head of Honaunau Bay, lived the chiefly retainers and the commoners. South of the Palace of Refuge were scattered settlements along the coasts and inland under the cliffs of Keanaee. The village of Ki’ilae at the south boundary of the park was undoubtedly occupied in pre-European contact times and survived into the modern period; the last known resident of Ki’ilae left the village around 1926.

The district contains three of the ancient land divisions These land divisions are (from north to south) Honaunau, Keokea, and Ki’ilae ahupua’s.  The village site, temples, walls and trails are in ruins, Some of the following archeological and historical structures and features (of which there are more than 300) found in  Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park, are of interest:

The Royal Grounds: Centered around the small embayment known as Keone'ele Cove, contains sites that range from pre-contact (prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778) to historic times and that are traditionally connected with the Pu'uhonua.

871 Trail looking north toward the Pu'uhonua, Keanae'e Cliffs to the right.
NPS Photograph, courtesy of National Park of American Samoa

Hale-O-Keawe: The Hale-O-Keawe was erected around 1690 to serve as a temple mausoleum for the ruling chiefs of Kona. It served as the major temple for the “Place of Refuge” until 1819, when the religious laws were abandoned. The temple fell into disuse and was later destroyed, but not before it was seen and sketched by Rev. William Ellis in 1823, four years after its abandonment. The limits of the original stone platform were re-established in 1967 and the temple house with its associated images was completely restored.

Pu'uhonua o Hōnaunau or the Great Wall: One of the most prominent features of the park is the Pu'uhonua or place of refuge which is enclosed by the Great Wall, a massive 965 foot long masonry wall, standing 12 feet high and 18 feet wide. It was reconstructed around 1902, and in 1963-64, after 61 years of neglect it was completely stabilized. The wall is constructed of unmodified chunks of lava without mortar and is reported to have been originally constructed around 1550.  

Alealea Helau: The Alealea temple site, probably constructed around 1400 A.D., was excavated and stabilized in 1963.

Ancient Heiau:  The ancient temple site, sometimes called the “old Heiau” is the most important archeological structure at the City of Refuge. Believed to have been constructed around 1400 A.D., it has suffered from sea erosion.

Chief’s House Site: Excavated in 1968, the Chief’s house complex is composed of several contiguous platforms that were the men and women’s eating and sleeping houses, as well as the cooking house. This is located about 100 meters southwest of pu'uhonua.

[photo]Masons from the three West Hawai‘i National Parks work together to stabilize the Great Wall in 2010
NPS Photograph, courtesy of the Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park

Keanaee Heaiu: The temple site, located between the Keanaee cliffs and ocean ½ mile southeast of the visitor center, is in the center of a village complex, and measures 60 by 90 feet and averages about eight feet in height, It has some of the best stone work and is classed as an agricultural temple.

Honaunau Holua: This site, located about 100 meters southeast of the Visitor center on the 1871 Trail, was thought to have been used for sledding, a game played only by the alii (ruling chiefs). The dangerous but thrilling sport of hōlua consisted of racing down a steeply sloped course using a narrow toboggan-like sled known as a papahōlua.

The Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park, originally named City of Refuge National Historical Park, was created in 1955.  The names, and later the spelling, were changed to The Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park to honor the native Hawaiian culture and heritage.  Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Audio tours, cultural events, and traditional Hawaiian craft skills can be found at the park.

Excerpted from
1 .Edmund J. Ladd, Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park, Hawai’i  SHPO, June 7, 1974 and
2. History & Culture, Pu’uhonua O Hónaunau National Historical Park,