Story of Kaua‘i

ka mo‘olelo o kaua‘i – The Story of Kaua‘i
The Kaua‘i History Map
The Kaua‘i History Map, map illustration by Christine Faye, text by Evelyn Cook, graphic design by Chris Cook.

Television survivor shows are wimpy. Contestants go home to hot showers, cozy beds and 24/7 takeout.

The real thing—birth of an island, migration of species that become unique due to the isolation of the land mass, people who arrive in tiny sailing canoes and meet and match every challenge, continuing waves of migrating people, warriors, battles, blood, sacrifice, plunder, kings and queens—now THAT’S a story!

It’s a story that’s neatly tucked into the volumes, videos and files of letters, maps, deeds, drawings and photos at the Kaua‘i Historical Society, where you can take a step back in time for a taste of the real thing.

Two Hawaiian men prepare pig and laulau for a lu‘au, 1912
Two Hawaiian men prepare pig and laulau for a lu‘au, 1912. Photo by Ray Jerome Baker, courtesy of Mutual Publishing.

Ancient Kaua‘i
Imagine setting out in a double-hulled outrigger sailing canoe from the Marquesas Islands, over 2,000 miles away, and coming upon the emerald spires of Na Pali— it means the cliffs—piercing the azure and cerulean skies.

That’s what early Polynesians who settled Kaua‘i did. On at least one part of the island, they left behind evidence of their existence dating from as early as 200 A.D. to 600 A.D. And by about 1300 A.D., these people lived along Na Pali Coast.

In hanging valleys and near shorelines along Na Pali Coast, they grew their staple crop—kalo, or taro—along with sweet potato, breadfruit and other plants that they brought with them in their voyaging canoes and used for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. They managed resources wisely, practiced masterful irrigation techniques that returned water to rivers, and fished, planted and harvested in season.

When they arrived, early people found what modern-day botanists estimate were 1,300 or so native flowering plant species growing in these islands. Today, many of those plants are endangered, threatened and rare.

Perhaps the ancients saw the only two native mammals found in all of Hawai‘i—the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, or ‘ope‘ape‘a, and the endangered Monk seal, ‘ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua.

Fish hooks and octopus lure illustration
Fish hooks and octopus lure illustration from “Hawai‘i: A Pictorial History” Compiled and Designed by Joseph Feher, Accompanying Text by Edward Joesting, Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication No. 58, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1969.

The green sea turtle, or honu, now threatened, swam in abundance. Birds and fish were plentiful.

“At least 1,000 creatures that once enlivened Hawai‘i’s landscape have vanished since Polynesian voyagers—and later European explorers—first set foot here…”
—Elizabeth Royte
“Hawaii’s Lost World,” National Geographic

Though new faces are on the land, the bones, or iwi, of the ancients lie buried in caves and in sandy shorelines. Information about these Polynesians, who became the Hawaiians of today, continues to unfold as excavations reveal new findings.

On the South Shore of Kaua‘i, for example, evidence unearthed within the past decade shows that early fishermen established temporary fishing camps there as early as 200 to 600 A.D. They built heiau, or temples, to their gods, likely praying for abundance.

Remnants of their tools remain to help paint a picture. These early fishermen knew the best spot to find octopus and how to use a device made with a cowry shell to lure them. They knew how to fashion fish hooks from bone and cutting tools from chips of basalt flakes—which leads to an integral part of the story of Kaua‘i—the land itself.

Volcanic eruption that created the Hawaiian islands
Kaua‘i like the other Hawaiian islands owes its origin to the fury of volcanic eruption. Photo by DigitalStock.

Birth of an Island
Over 5 million years ago, Kaua‘i took its place as part of an island chain. Magma spewing from a hot spot beneath the floating Pacific Tectonic Plate formed Kaua‘i as it did the other islands in the chain.

The plate, bearing Kaua‘i, moved on, as the destiny of these islands is to remain in motion, advancing in a northwesterly direction at the rate of about 3.5 inches per year while slowly eroding and declining. The tops of most of these islands no longer exist above sea level; many have subsided under the Aleutian Chain in Alaska.

First came the plants. Over millions of years, every 10,000 to 100,000 years or so, a new plant arrived, until a total of about 270 colonizing species bloomed in these islands. They arrived without the aid of people, on wings and in the bellies of birds, or they rafted here on vegetation. These 270 or so colonists evolved over millennia to become significantly different so that by the time the first Polynesians arrived, they saw those 1,300 or so flowering plants mentioned earlier.

Native plants at Kalalau Overlook
Native plants at Kalalau Overlook. Photo by Anne E. O’Malley.

The people adapted to life in their new land, where they thrived. Hundreds of years later, in succeeding migrations, the strong, fearsome Tahitians arrived and overpowered them, establishing the Tahitian religion and culture as the basis for Hawaiian society.

Hawaiians built heiau, or temples, to worship their pantheon. Among the most famous in all Hawai‘i are heiau they built in an arc starting at the Wailua River on the East Side, ascending to the top of the highest region of Kaua‘i, Wai‘ale‘ale, and down to the West Side.

They considered the entire Wailua region sacred. Royals from other islands came to Wailua to give birth to their progeny at Holoholoku, sacred birthplace of the chiefs. So special was this birthing place that it gave rise to a saying.

Hanau ke ali‘i I loko o
Holoholoku, he ali‘i nui
hanau ke kanaka I loko o
Holoholoku, he ali‘i no
hanau ke ali‘i mawaho a‘e o
Holoholoku ‘a’ohe ali‘i
he kanaka ia
The child of a chief born in
Holoholoku is a high chief;
the child of a commoner born
in Holoholoku is a chief;
the child of a chief born outside
of the borders of Holoholoku
is a commoner.
Captain James Cook made first western contact with Hawaiians at Waimea, Kaua‘i in 1778
Captain James Cook made first western contact with Hawaiians at Waimea, Kaua‘i in 1778. Illustration

Western Contact
For hundreds of years, until 1778, people of Kaua‘i lived on the land without further outside influence. But when Captain James Cook landed his ships Resolution and Discovery at Waimea Bay on the west coast of Kaua‘i during that fateful year, he opened the door to the influx of westerners—missionaries, businessmen, laborers and succeeding cultures that gradually diminished the numbers of full-blooded Hawaiians.

With all these foreigners came ideas, materials and foods different to those of the native Hawaiians. With them, they also brought diseases against which the Hawaiians had no immunity and which decimated the native Hawaiian population.

A time of great change lay upon the land. Ancient kapu, or taboos, crumbled. War no longer seemed a viable option for settling larger differences.

King Kaumuali‘i, the last king of Kaua‘i
Detail of King Kaumuali‘i, the last king of Kaua‘i, from a portrait by Laka Morton, courtesy of Kaua‘i Museum.

King Kaumuali‘i, the last king of Kaua‘i, lived during this tumultuous time.

From the moment of his birth in the sacred Wailua region ca. 1780, King Kaumuali‘i lived a remarkable life. In what many call a wise move, he avoided the slaughter of his people in battle by ceding his kingdom to King Kamehameha the Great—the ruler of all Hawai‘i—who conquered all the main islands except Kaua‘i.

In return for his bloodless surrender and vowed allegiance to Kamehameha, and, upon Kamehameha’s death, to his successor and son, Liholiho, King Kaumuali‘i kept his rank and titles.

Kaumuali‘i was no stranger to battle. He’d had his first taste of it as a warrior when, at age 14, following the death of his father, he fought to rule his kingdom. Though Kaumuali‘i was defeated then, within two years, his enemy was dead and Kaumuali‘i assumed his rightful kingship.

At age 44, Kaumuali‘i died, but not before being kidnapped and taken to O‘ahu by Liholiho, wed to one of Kamehameha’s widows—the powerful Ka‘ahumanu—and, say some, powerfully influenced by Christianity.

Waimea Foreign Church
Waimea Foreign Church. KHS archive photo.

Missionary Era
Missionaries sailed out of New England to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity, the first boatload of them arriving in 1820 in the Hawaiian Islands. They endured their own survival journeys—188 days sailing around Cape Horn and South America.

The first missionaries to arrive in the Hawaiian islands included Mr. Samuel Whitney and his wife, Mercy Partridge Whitney, who with Mr. Samuel Ruggles and his wife, Nancy Wells Ruggles, established the mission station at Waimea, Kaua‘i in 1820. Waimea was the capital city, located at the mouth of the Waimea River. Later companies of missionaries established missions in 1834 in Koloa on the South Shore and Wai‘oli on the North Shore.

Portraits of missionaries Samuel and Mercy Partridge Whitney, 1819
Portraits of Samuel and Mercy Partridge Whitney, 1819, by Samuel F.B. Morse, N.Y., inventor of the telegraph and Morse code. Samuel Whitney was a teacher and mechanic educated at Yale College, Connecticut. He and his wife, Mercy Partridge Whitney, sailed in the first company of missionaries to Hawai‘i. From original portraits hung in Kaua‘i Museum.

As a rule, missionaries brought strict changes, enforcing kapu, or restrictions. No more nudity. Women must wear Mother Hubbards, long, loose-fitting gowns that evolved to the mu‘umu‘u chosen as daily wear by many women in Hawai‘i until this day. No more hula—a dance with sacred roots that also entertained.

Paradoxically, while they set about deconstructing a culture, missionaries were also the ones to begin to record it, creating a written language from an oral tradition. This they used to translate the Bible into Hawaiian.

Children of the missionaries, the new kama‘aina, or children of the land, set about establishing themselves in differing professions. Many became land and sugar plantation owners.

Plantation Era
Polynesians brought sugar cane, or ko, with them in their sailing canoes. It was a plant whose leaves they used for thatching, and to wrap fish bait.

Cutting sugar cane by hand at Makaweli Plantation, Kaua‘i, ca. 1910
Cutting sugar cane by hand at Makaweli Plantation, Kaua‘i, ca. 1910. KHS archive photo by Ray Jerome Baker.

They also used ko as a sweetener in herbal preparations and chewed on it to clean their teeth. Some reported that mashing its young vines with those of another plant—koali ‘awa vine—and adding salt was effective in reattaching severed portions of the body.

In their wildest dreams, the Hawaiians would never have developed the plan that put the town of Koloa, Kaua‘i on the map, brought riches to Caucasians, opened the door to waves of immigrant laborers and set the new order of the land for the century to come. Hawaiians were subsistence/sustainable agroforesters. The newcomers—children of the missionaries and other immigrants, true to their western leanings— embraced the industrial revolution and were into agrobusiness before it became a buzzword.

Koloa Plantation, started in 1835
Koloa Plantation, started in 1835, closed its operations in 1996. This was its third site. Photo by Anne E. O’Malley.

The first successful commercial milling of sugar in all of Hawai‘i began in 1835 in Koloa Town on the South Shore. It was to change the face of Kaua‘i forever, launching an entire economy, lifestyle and practice of monocropping that lasted for over a century.

Because of a dwindling native population, sugar plantation owners contracted immigrant labor elsewhere. First came the Chinese, then the Japanese, Koreans, Spanish, Germans, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese, Norwegians, and Filipinos, each bringing their own overlay of culture.

Many of these immigrants settled here, purchased land and became entrepreneurs. As a result, ethnic foods, arts, languages and traditional celebrations are all part of the rich history of Kaua‘i.

From hula to kachi-kachi dancing, from the Japanese O-Bon festival to the Taro Festival, King Kamehameha Day, Tahiti Fete and more, Kaua‘i enjoys a proud multicultural heritage.

Queen Lili‘uokalani was the last reigning monarch of Hawai‘i
Queen Lili‘uokalani was the last reigning monarch of Hawai‘i. KHS archive photo.

Monarchy to Statehood and Beyond
A number of Caucasian businessmen, seeking to protect their economic interests and backed by U.S. troops, illegally overthrew Hawai‘i’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, in 1893. In 1900, Hawai‘i became a Territory of the United States, and Hawai‘i was allowed a delegate to the U.S. Congress.

Hawai‘i is the only state within the U.S. that had a monarchy—and had a royal serve in the U.S. Congress. That royal was Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole, a Kaua‘i native who was the grandson of the last king of Kaua‘i, King Kaumuali‘i. He was born in a grass hut near a beach in the area now known as Po‘ipu along Kaua‘i’s South Shore.

Prince Kuhio witnessed the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani, was found guilty of treason and was made a political prisoner for a year. Later, he became Hawai‘i’s delegate from the Territory to the U.S. Congress, serving for 19 consecutive years.

Sugar put Kaua‘i on the map economically and was still a going concern during Prince Kuhio’s lifetime, but Kaua‘i also developed a pineapple industry on two sides of the island. Kaua‘i Fruit and Land Co. operated between 1906 and 1965 in Lawa‘i, building the now-defunct Lawa‘i Cannery.

Hawaiian Canneries Co., Ltd. opened in Kapa‘a on the site where Pono Kai Resort now stands. The cannery closed in 1962.

As the sugar and pineapple industries first rose and then declined, tourism emerged as the new industry driving Kaua‘i’s economy. From 668 visitors to Kaua‘i in 1927, the numbers rose to the point where new hotels began to spring up as quickly as sugar cane. Well before the new Millennium, tourism was solidly in place throughout the state as the number one source of revenue.

The Lihu‘e Hotel opened in 1890 on Nawiliwili Road
The Lihu‘e Hotel opened in 1890 on Nawiliwili Road. KHS archive photo.

Many people throughout Hawai‘i believed that statehood would further protect their interests. In March 1959, Hawai‘i became the 50th State, with 10,000 people gathering at Burns Field on the west side of Kaua‘i to celebrate with a bonfire.

The force of nature has always played an important role in the story of Kaua‘i. Mother Nature gives and takes. In 1959, Hurricane Dot damaged crops and buildings.

In 1982, Hurricane ‘Iwa struck and 10 years later, Hurricane ‘Iniki. The President declared Kaua‘i a disaster area after Hurricane ‘Iniki, and where once the buildings had roofs, all that could be seen were blue tarpaulins stretched across house tops.

As both the past and the future of Kaua‘i continue to unfold—due to surfacing information and inevitability, respectively, the Kaua‘i Historical Society remains a constant. In its role of caretaking information, documents, videos and photographs that tell the many stories of Kaua‘i, the Society is meeting its challenge—bringing history to life.