A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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West Coast of the Island of Hawai'i


H. Kohala District

1. Pre-European Contact Period

The Kohala District comprises the northernmost land area of the island of Hawai'i. It is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that it was the birthplace and ancestral chiefdom of Kamehameha, born about 1753 near Mo'okini temple at Kokoiki, 'Upolu Point. Mo'okini Heiau is one of the most famous and best preserved temples in Hawai'i, traditionally reported to have been built by the Polynesian priest Pa'ao. The areas of Kawaihae and Waimea were the site of continual battles between the armies of the six kingdoms of the island to enlarge their domains. In addition, fleets from Maui that had fought in Kona, returning home, would land at various places along the Kohala coast to wreak havoc, often cutting down the coconut trees at Kawaihae as a show of defiance to the island chiefs. The ancient temple of Mailekini at Kawaihae was a prize held by the South Kohala chief. [50]

2. European Contact Period

The largest coastal town is Kawaihae, which lies on a broad, shallow bay. It has always served as the district's primary seaport — the most convenient point of embarkation for inhabitants of the northern part of the island and of debarkation for mail and visitors to this district, as well as the place from which to ship surplus goods from the hinterland to market. In ancient times it was a good-sized fishing village. The land surrounding it is semi-arid and barren and struck many early visitors as somewhat unattractive. George Washington Bates, visiting Hawai'i in 1853, noted:

The village of Kawaihae was the poorest and most cheerless I have ever seen. Everything around and in it wore an aspect of such stern desolation, that I could not but wonder that any human being, or even a wild goat, should find a place of abode there. [51]

Despite its unimpressive appearance to most outsiders, Kawaihae's importance in ancient Hawaiian history is indisputable. It is the site of Pu'ukohola Heiau, the most significant historical structure associated with Kamehameha I's rise to power. Upon its altar Kamehameha sacrificed his rival Keoua and some of his followers to ensure his unchallenged rule over the island. The area also served as a periodic residence of Hawaiian royalty over the years. In 1793 Captain George Vancouver, on his way to Kealakekua Bay to deliver the first cattle to Hawai'i, stopped in Kawaihae Bay to release the weakest pair of animals, which he was certain would not last the journey farther down the coast. Ten years later Captain Richard J. Cleveland stopped here with the first horses to be delivered to the king, causing "incessant exclamations of astonishment." [52] The town also had four famous salt ponds, which will be described in more detail later. The missionary brig Thaddeus anchored offshore of Kawaihae in 1820, its occupants learning to their astonishment of the overthrow of the kapu system and gaining their first look at their new home. [53]

3. Historical Descriptions

Bates described what is now the North Kohala District as

very fertile and extensive, and the soil rich, and it is well refreshed by fertilizing showers. If ancient landmarks are any evidence of past population, then the district of Kohala has been densely peopled. The entire region . . . is covered with these landmarks. Countless footpaths, wide enough for pedestrians in single file, but nearly overgrown with grass; sites of villages, of various extent and in every location, and the small, elevated lines of demarkation . . . which showed the limits of landed property, were scattered over all the entire district. [54]

Reinforcing this historical view are the remarks of Archibald Menzies, surgeon and naturalist on the Vancouver expeditions, who noted in 1793:

From the north-west point of the island, the country stretches back for a considerable distance with a very gradual ascent, and is destitute of trees or bushes of any kind. But it bears every appearance of industrious cultivation by the number of small fields into which it is laid out, and if we might judge by the vast number of houses we saw along the shore, it is by far the most populous part we had yet seen of the island. [55]

4. Settlement Patterns and Subsistence Activities

     a) South Kohala

Francis Ching suggests several factors that might account for the sparse population and limited subsistence activity noted along the coast of South Kohala and North Kona, between Kawaihae and Kailua, by those few visitors who recorded their observations. Kamehameha's frequent wars, epidemics, and the eruption of Hualalai in 1801 might have drastically altered an earlier, more complex, aboriginal lifestyle along the west coast and been responsible for the limited occupation and subsistence activity observed in the early Western contact period by visitors such as Menzies and Ellis. [56]

Although Rosendahl points out that the few historical accounts available do not make much mention of any vegetation other than coconut palms along the desolate South Kohala coast, Handy states that sweet potatoes would undoubtedly have been grown there. He also suggests that wet taro might have been cultivated along some of the intermittent watercourses extending down from the mountains through the desolate terrain between Kawaihae and Puako. [57] Lorenzo Lyons described Puako as

a village on the shore, very like Kawaihae, but larger. It has a small harbor in wh. [which] native vessels anchor. Coconut groves give it a verdant aspect. No food grows in the place. The people make salt and catch fish. These they exchange for vegetables grown elsewhere. [58]

Few historical references specifically addressing present South Kohala exist. As mentioned previously, during both the prehistoric and historic periods, travelers tended to travel by water through this area rather than hiking over the rough, broken volcanic coastlands. [59] The nature of aboriginal settlement in South Kohala was similar to that in North Kona, consisting of scattered coastal settlements whose inhabitants exploited marine resources and pursued fishing, gathering, salt production, and limited agricultural activities. Perhaps they had some success growing sweet potatoes and taro in the nearby sandy soil, along seasonal streams, and on the fertile alluvial deposits around the mouths of intermittent streams in the inland area between Kawaihae and Pauoa Bay. The major occupational area was the uplands, with scattered settlements located in the foothills of the Kohala Mountains at the northern edge of the Waimea Plain. Extensive cultivation of sweet potatoes and dryland taro took place on the slopes below Waimea and wetland irrigated taro grew along streams emanating from the Kohala foothills. There was little or no cultivation or habitation in the drier portion of the Waimea Plain close to the slopes of Mauna Kea. [60]

map of South Kohala District
Illustration 24. Map of South Kohala District showing Kawaihae area. From Belt, Collins and Associates, Kohala Coast Resort Region.

     b) North Kohala

Along the shore from Kawaihae Bay to the north point of Hawai'i, the topography remains fairly regular, lacking the deep canon-like valleys and steep vertical cliffs characteristic of the windward side of the island. In several places along the coast are lava streams that flowed in ancient times from craters higher up the slopes. The North Kohala coast, stretching from Kawaihae around to the Waipio Valley, was populated, even densely so in the northeast section where there were perennial streams. But because of its isolation, travelers probably rarely visited the northern part of Hawai'i. [61] Missionary Lorenzo Lyons reported to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1835 that

The Western shore [of Kohala is hot and barren. The people live on fish and on food cultivated in the interior. Water is brackish. Good water is only to be had five or six miles distant. . . . On the North and East the country is very well peopled and beautiful, with streams, verdure, awful majesty. [62]

Frenchman Charles de Varigny, landing briefly at Kawaihae Bay in the nineteenth century, looked over the area and then

After a two-hour rest, we returned to the seashore and embarked once more, following a northward route in order to round Honoipu Point. The coastal areas of the Kohala district which we were now ranging are rich in fishing grounds. At this quite early hour in the morning, the sea was covered with small native canoes, shaped from hollowed logs and 'balanced by a cross-beam, or outrigger, and nearly all equipped with triangular sails. [63]

Kawaihae was unique among Kohala coast settlements because of the extent of European and American influences resulting from its position as an important harbor and focus of Hawaiian political and social history. In terms of appearance and livelihood, however, Clark and Kirch surmise that most other settlements on the leeward Kohala coast were probably similar in many respects. Inhabitants were fishermen, dependent on the sea for resources rather than on the dry, barren, treeless coastal area. Major settlements on the Kohala coast north of Kawaihae were Owawalua, Hihiu, Mahukona, Koaie, and Kipi. South of Kawaihae, the primary towns were Puako, Kalahuipua'a, and Anaehoomalu. [64]

Occupants of the Waipio Valley lived by taro cultivation, the surplus of which was taken to Kawaihae. [65] According to Menzies, during a walk from Kawaihae to Waimea he met several people carrying surplus produce from upland plantations down to the coast to market "for the consumption was now great, not only by the ship, but by the concourse of people which curiosity brought into the vicinity of the bay [Kawaihae]." [66]

     c) Interior

The rugged dome of Kohala Mountain — the oldest of the island's volcanoes, now long dormant — constitutes the central area of the Kohala District. The high plateau between Kohala Mountain and the northern slopes of Mauna Kea is known as Waimea. It not only possesses one of the finest mountain climates in the islands, but also provides good grazing for cattle. The forested areas of Mauna Kea and other inland parts of the island offered a safe and pleasant haven and luxuriant pastureland for hundreds of wild cattle descended from the pair Captain Vancouver left at Kawaihae in 1793. By the early 1820s, cattle pens near Waimea held wild bullocks that were lassoed or trapped, shot, then salted, and taken to Kawaihae for shipment or trade. The availability of this salted meat made Kawaihae a favorite provision stop for whaling ships. The Reverend William Ellis noted that the first cattle brought by Vancouver were

at his request, tabued for ten years, during which time they resorted to the mountains, and became so wild and ferocious that the natives are afraid to go near them. Although there are immense herds of them, they do not attempt to tame any; and the only advantage they derive is, by employing persons, principally foreigners, to shoot them, salt the meat in the mountains, and bring it down to the shore, for the purpose of provisioning the native vessels. But this is attended with great labour and expense. They first carry all the salt to the mountains. When they have killed the animals, the flesh is cut off their bones, salted immediately, and afterward put into small barrels, which are brought on men's shoulders ten or fifteen miles to the seashore. [67]

Sheep also thrived in the rich fields of Waimea. Settlement on the higher elevations of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, however, was precluded by the cold temperatures. [68]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001