The Last Hawaiian thatched house on Lāna‘i at Pālāwai (Dole Collection, 1912)

Lāna‘i history

Glimpses Into An Island History

The history of Lāna‘i is rich and diverse and provides many lessons in  attempts, both successful and not successful, in living sustainably. 

Archaeological  evidence indicates that Hawaiians have lived on the island of Lāna‘i for the past 800 to 1,000 years. According to ancient Hawaiian tradition, the island of Lāna‘i was not habitable to humans in the earliest of times, as it served as home to Pahulu (the god of  nightmares) and his ghostly subjects. But then Kaululā‘au, a young Maui chief was banished to Lāna‘i because of many mischievous misdeeds and  left to survive or die by his wits. In short order the young chief tricked and killed Pahulu and his followers, reformed his ways, and  returned to Maui to inform his people that they may safely settle on the  island. The Kaululā‘au genealogy is believed to date back to around 1400 A.D.


Early Lāna‘i settlers soon learned to live “within their means” and the culture, beliefs, and practices of these ancient Hawaiians mirrored the natural environment around them. Their material culture reflected the resources found naturally on and around the island, and their material goods were made from available resources: stone, wood, bone, fibers/plants, shells and feathers.  Knowledge was handed down by word of mouth in traditional times and often animated through mele (chants) and hula (dances).


Today, remnants of ancient Hawaiian villages, ceremonial features, dry-land agricultural fields, fishponds, and a wide range of cultural sites dot the shoreline of Lāna‘i at places like Honopū, Keone, Kaumālapa‘u, Kaunolū, Māmaki, Kapalaoa, Kapiha‘ā, Hulopo‘e, Mānele, Kamaiki, Naha, Kahemanō, Lōpā, Kahalepalaoa, Kahe‘a, Keomoku, Ka‘a, Hauola, Maunalei (including a wet land taro field system in the valley), Kahōkūnui, Kaiolohia, Awalua, Polihua and Ka‘ena. 

In the uplands, vestiges of significant traditional settlements can be seen at Ka‘ā, Kō‘ele, Kihamāniania, Kamoku uka, Kalulu uka, Kaunolū uka, Keālia Aupuni and Keālia Kapu, and Pālāwai. 

Similarly, Puhi-o-Ka‘ala, Hālulu, Pu‘u Pehe, Kalaehī, Pōhaku Ō, Ke-ahi-a-Kawelo, Kānepu‘u, Ka‘ena iki, Nānāhoa, and Ha‘alele Pa‘akai are places that commemorate many important traditions, beliefs and practices of the ancient residents of Lāna‘i.

Through the early 1800s foreign influences grew and the native population declined. By the middle 1800s, large parcels of land fell under western ownership.  While native subsistence practices continued, ranching interests expanded – generally under the direction of western land owners – beginning in 1850 and spanned the next hundred years.

Maunalei, Keomoku And The Kahalepalaoa Vicinity

Portion of Kingdom Survey Map of 1877.

Portion of Kingdom Survey Map of 1877, Depicting the Coastline of the Keomoku Vicinity with Historic Settlement and Features. (Hawaii State Archives).

In ancient times, the windward coast of the island of Lāna‘i was home to many native residents. In Maunalei Valley was found the only perennial stream on the island, home to a system of lo‘i kalo (taro pond field terraces), which supplied all the important taro of the Hawaiian diet. Sheltered coves, fronted by a barrier reef, provided the residents with access to important fisheries, and allowed for the development of loko i‘a (fishponds), in which various species of fish were cultivated, and available to native tenants, even when the ocean was too rough for the canoes to venture out to sea.

Rains borne upon the trade-winds also provided water for cultivated crops. And many claims for kuleana (personal land parcels) were made by native tenants for lands in this region, when the first fee-simple ownership of land was granted to Hawaiians by the King in 1848.

By the 1870s, Walter M. Gibson, had secured fee-simple interest in most of the lands of this region, with the exception of the native kuleana lands. Gibson's business efforts focused on ranching, and most of the native families came to be employed by him, in various capacities, such as cowboys, fence and water-men, and as captains or boat-hands for shipping operations between Lāna‘i and Lahaina. Until the late 1890s, nearly all of the residents on the island were Hawaiian, with a few Caucasian managers and landowners.

Map of the Maunalei Sugar Company  Plantation & Keomoku Village.

Map of the Maunalei Sugar Company Plantation and Keomoku Village as the plantation existed in ca. 1904. (Sketched by the late Reverend Daniel Kaopuiki, Sr.; Courtesy of Kupuna M. Lei Kaopuiki Kanipae)

In 1899, W.M. Gibson's daughter, Talula, and his son-in-law, Fredrick Hayselden, entered into a partnership, and formed the Maunalei Sugar Company. They developed larger communities along the coast, imported Japanese laborers, cleared the lands, developed a narrow gauge railroad between Keomoku Village and Kahalepalaoa, and planted sugar cane, irrigated by water from Maunalei Valley. Within three years, the venture failed, and the plantation was closed.

Kahalepalaoa History


June 29, 1985


News of the Marine Option Program
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Halepalaoa Lanai DAP
[Courtesy of Hal Richman, UH Sea Grant Program]

Everyone knows that the fourth annual Maui Transecting Workshop [MTW] was a success; you may not know that it was enough of a hit to inspire a sequel. Shortly after the MTW students returned home from the first-hand brush with marine surveying and research, the Marine Option Program got to work on a contract to perform an actual survey at Halepalaoa Landing on the island of Lanai.

The transecting was to be performed at the request of a newly formed company known as lanai Group, Inc. The fledgling corporation pans to reconstruct the old pier and turn the 8-acre site into a park and destination for snorkeling expeditions.

The company is headed by Mark Batchelor, owner of seasails; he already controls a number of Kaanapali beach front concessions, charter fishing vessels and catamarans which sail on cruises and snorkeling tours. Together with Andy owner of Café Cabana, a restaurant in Lahaina, and a gentleman from the mainland who will provide the financial backing, he has extensive plans and blueprints to turn the barren swath of beachfront property into a haven for divers and snorkelers.

After Annie Orcutt and Bob Laube completed a pre-survey, the first MOP group went over on June 9th, motoring across the calm channel separating the island from Maui. The stretch of water is known as “Lake Lahaina,” and is often dotted with sail surfers; on some days it was glassy all the way to Maui, seven and a half miles. The group consisted of Annie Orcutt, Mark Mitsuyasu, Scott Levesque, Kent Takahashi, Rex Miyashiro and Bob Laube from Hilo. Though not yet developed, their target proved to be a beautiful stretch of white sand beach dotted with palm trees, and the team stayed in a large modern house enjoying the hospitality of the site’s two caretakers.

From the 9th to the 15th the group divided up into three buddy teams, spent six to eight hours in the water. In some places the water was shallow enough to permit transecting with snorkel gear, and they used modified Brock methods, photo quadrate (along the grids ungainly in the shallow water) and transecting line to yield a complete survey of the site.

Kahalepalaoa, Club Lanai 1986

The results of the survey, required by DAR, are a “before” picture, as the area’s new owners have rather extensive plans. The site, known to locals as Ka Halepalaoa (interestingly, different from the official name and meaning “house of curved whale bone) used to belong to the Mauna Lei Sugar Company. They abandoned it in the early 1900’s, and that was the last time the region was dredged.

The site consists of a 200-metre reef flat, barely a metre deep and cut through by a channel leading to the remains of the old pier. Intended as the site of a new 90 metre long pier, the area has filled as much as 4 metres of silt. This made the transecting even more difficult; a stray flipper could kick up an obscuring cloud of fine sediment.

In addition, coral has been growing unchecked in the region for decades, resulting in an obstacle to navigation somewhat more formidable than the easily dredged sand. The solution would wreak vast changes on the ocean floor, and since the area was planned as a destination for snorkeling tours its owners wanted to know just what the impact of their operation would be on the marine community.

Having heard of the terrific job that MOP did with MTW, and working through Maui SGES agent Ed Bartholomew, they contract with us to do the work.

Their surveys showed a thriving community, including unusual coral forms that had arisen as adaptation to the heavy silt. The site on Lanai is a little cut off from the outside world—Mark had to bring supplies on a 31’ Bertram. The supplies included fresh (continued on page 4)

Tanks of air (there was no compressor on the property) and drinking water, as the water supply, though fine for washing, was too brackish to be drunk. After a long day in the water, the team still had time to do a little exploring.

Just two miles up the road is Keamoku [Keomoku] Village, an abandoned plantation town. The only thing remaining is the old church, a sturdy bread oven and several beached whaling skiffs. The boats now rest some 170 metres inland; they were abandoned on the beach, but runoff has built the land out the far since they were left there and now they lie, lonely, serene and mysteriously out of place, in the middle of a shadowy kiawe forest.

Closer to home the team found the remains of an old railroad, rusting into the ground, a reminder that this area had once hummed with life, before the boom went bust, the water source turned brackish and the company left. Perhaps the Lanai Group, Inc., can bring a new boom, new life; tourists and nature lovers instead of heavy industry, come to enjoy the ocean and beach instead of use and abandon it.

On the 15th the MOPers said goodbye to the caretakers: Bob LeGoff, and Terry [Kahaleanu], whose family had owned the property 12 years ago. They returned to their homes, though for Annie it was only a brief rest.

A few days later she went back to watch the blasting.

The plan was to clear the channel of the wild growth that blocked it, while doing as little harm as possible to the surrounding area; the demolitions team had to use pin point accuracy to assure success. The first blast, a relatively small charge of only 200 pounds, sent a tower of water 65 metres—200 feet—into the sky.

Annie watched from the shore as each successive blast threw the ocean higher and higher. There were five blasts in all, about two hours’ work. As each detonation tore up great masses of silt form the channel’s floor she could see the dark plume coil lazily around the central space, drift across the flat and finally head across the beach, caught in the group of the cross shore current.

The blasts did as advertised, clearing the channel of debris; in the middle, where the charges were placed, there was only fine sand left. Further away the shock wave had cleaved off great masses of coral, huge boulders sliced away as neatly as if by some giant chisel. Damage to the rest of the reef, apparently was quite small; though the reef is thickly populated by sharks, none were found dead, and the white tip who inhabited the area may have been scared away before the blasting began. In fact, only a few dead fish were seen to wash up in the aftermath of the engineering.

A more thorough survey will be conducted later, but for now the reef is allowed to rest, recovering. Above the coral and slowly circling forms of the sharks, beneath the shadow of the collapsed sugar cane plantation, a dream is taking form. [page 4]

Historic sites of hawai'i: the history of Lāna‘i - part 1

In  late 2015 and mid 2016 the State of Hawai‘i Department of Education  engaged in development of a film series to help inform students across the state about the history of Lāna‘i. 

 Funded by
Hawai‘i Educational Networking Consortium

Narrator – Puakea Nogelmeirer

Joy Chong Stannard
Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl

Joy Chong Stannard

Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl

Sara Miyazono
Barry Nakasone

Narration recording
Edgar Ambrosio


Chants and Music Performed by
Mikala Enfield
Kepā Maly
Onaona Maly
Lāna‘i Elementary School Students

Executive Producer
Barry Nakasone


A production of Video Production & Distribution OCISS The Hawai‘i State Department of Education Copyright, 2017