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Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
Kawaihae, Hawaii
An aerial photograph of the Puukahola Heiau showing its location on a hilltop and the various structures inside the walls of the heiau An aerial view of Pu'ukahola Heiau
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is located on the Island of Hawai'i on the northwestern Kohala Coast. It was here that Kamehameha the Great, who unified the Hawaiian Islands, lived and made decisions that changed the course of Hawaiian history. The Park preserves historic structures and sites associated with Kamehameha and the Hawaiian people. A walk through the Park vividly brings to life the legends, history, and culture of ancient Hawaii.

Born around 1758, when the appearance of a white-tailed star caused Hawaiian prophets to predict the coming of a great leader, Kamehameha was the son of ali'i (chiefs). In 1782, he inherited the district of Waipi'o valley on the northern part of the Island of Hawai'i and was given guardianship of his family's war god, Kuka'ilimoku. With the power he gained, Kamehameha hoped to unite the warring Hawaiian Islands and bring them under his rule.

In the late 1700's, many Hawaiians believed that Kamehameha's destiny was to unite and rule over all the Hawaiian Islands. By 1790, Kamehameha had invaded and conquered Maui, Lana'i, and Moloka'i but had difficulty claiming and conquering his home Island of Hawai'i because of the opposition of his cousin and main rival, Keoua Kuahu'ula. For guidance, Kamehameha sent his aunt to the prophet Kapoukahi. The prophet said that Kamehameha would unite and rule the islands if he built a large luakini heiau (sacrificial place of worship) to Kuka'ilimoki on top of Pu'ukohola (Whale Hill) on the northwestern coast of the island.

Kamehameha immediately organized the construction of the heiau, which still stands today at the Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site. The task was so large that Kamehameha called in thousands of men to build the structure. Kapoukahi prescribed the use of special water-worn lava rocks to construct the heiau, one of the many rigid guidelines that needed to be followed to please the god, Kuka'ilimoki. To accomplish this task and to obtain the proper materials, laborers formed a human chain 30 miles long to the seaside valley of Pololu to move the necessary rocks to Pu'ukohola.

A view across the water of the three heaiu at the Park taken from Pelekane View of Pu'ukahola Heiau on the hilltop, Mailekini
Heiau on the slope, and the possible location
of Hale o Kapuni in the water
Photograph by Gillfoto, Wikimedia, 2012

By the summer of 1791, the heiau, standing 224 feet by 100 feet with 16 to 20 foot high walls was complete. Kamehameha invited his rival cousin, Keoua Kuahu'ula, to the dedication ceremony. At the ceremony, a fight took place that left Keoua and many of his companions dead. The body of Keoua was carried to the top of Pu'ukohola Heiau and offered as the principal sacrifice to Kuka'ilimoki. This event ended all opposition to Kamehameha on his home Island of Hawai'i.

By 1810, Kamehameha had successfully united the Hawaiian Islands. He succeeded through military conquests, by following the advice of his trusted military advisors John Young (British) and Issac Davis (Welsh), by using new technologies, negotiating treaties, and adhering to his deeply rooted spiritual beliefs. The Pu'ukohola Heiau stands as a testament to this Hawaiian leader and this important period in Hawaiian history.

Mailekini Heiau, also located in the park, predates Pu'ukohola Heiau. Its original purpose is uncertain, but during Kamehameha's reign it served as a fort. Around 1812, John Young advised Kamehameha to mount cannons on Mailekini Heiau to help protect the area. In addition, another heiau, Hale o Kapuni, is thought to be submerged just offshore below Mailekini Heiau. Local lore relates that this particular heiau was dedicated to the shark gods and in the early morning hours visitors may see black-tip sharks in the waters near where Hale o Kapuni is believed to be located.

The remains of John Young's home, possibly the first Western-style structure built in Hawaii, are slightly northwest of Pu'ukohola Heiau. It was here where John Young met with political and trade representatives from around the world on behalf of Kamehameha. The home was constructed using a combination of Western and Hawaiian techniques and is believed to have been the very first Western-style house in the Hawaiian Islands. The outside of the house was covered with a bright white plaster, thought to have been made of crushed coral, poi, and hair. Ships used John Young's house, shining brightly in the sun, as a way-marker when sailing to Kawaihae Bay.

View of the ruins of the John Young House consisting of the partial lava rock walls of one side of the house The remains of John Young's house
Courtesy of the National Park Service

A portion of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail passes through the park. This coastal trail encircled the Island of Hawai'i, connecting the coastal villages and providing trade routes from the coast to villages farther inland. It also enabled Kamehameha to move his warriors rapidly around the island and aided in the conquest of Hawaii.

In 1819, King Kamehameha passed away and his son Liholiho succeeded him as King Kamehameha II. To prepare himself to take his father's place, Liholiho went to Pelekane (The Royal Courtyard) located a short walking distance from Pu'ukohola Heiau. After he returned to the royal capital at Kamakahonu, 35 miles south of Pu'ukohola Heiau, Liholiho ended kapu, a restrictive system of political, religious, and social laws that had been used for centuries to maintain class distinctions, social and political order, and to keep power concentrated among the ali'i. The ending of kapu and the breaking down of Hawaiian religious practices forever changed the purpose of Pu'ukohola Heiau leading to the abandoning of the heiau shortly thereafter.

Today, visitors at Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site can experience the sights, sounds, history, and mana (spiritual power) of Pu'ukohola Heiau, Mailekini Heiau, Pelekane, John Young's House, and other sites associated with the Hawaiian people and their history.

Plan your visit

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located on Kawaihae Road in Kawaihae, HI. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The Park is open daily year-round from 8:15am to 4:45pm (including Federal holidays). Please note, the Park entrance gate closes at 4:45pm and all vehicles need to be out of the parking lot by 5:00pm. For more information, visit the National Park Service Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site website or call 808-882-7218.

Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site is featured in the National Park Service Discover Our Shared Heritage Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary.

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