borderbig island imagesKamehameha Statue, Hilo

Hawaii’s Big Island History

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It all began on the Big Island. The youngest island in the archipelago, Hawaii’s Big Island was believed to be the first island Polynesian voyagers from the Marquesas Islands set foot on 1,500 years ago at Ka Lae (South Point). You can explore early Hawaiian culture today at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. This last place of refuge for kapu (taboo) breakers on the Kona Coast, is a 180-acre, completely restored compound offering an authentic look at Native Hawaiian temple ruins, royal grounds, fish ponds, sacred burial spots and petroglyphs from before western contact.

In 1778, Captain Cook arrived on Kauai, opening the door to an influx of westerners. Only a year later on Hawaii’s Big Island, warriors at Kealakekua Bay killed Cook after a contentious chain of events. Today, a monument stands in this marine life preserve in honor of Captain Cook.

During this time of discovery, Hawaii’s Big Island was divided into separate chiefdoms and war between factions was common. In 1790-1791, Kamehameha built the Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site in North Kohala as a tribute to the war god Kukailimoku to help in his efforts to unite the Hawaiian Islands. This was the last major religious heiau (religious temple) built by early Hawaiians and the largest restored heiau in Hawaii. Soon after completion, the Kohala-born Kamehameha conquered the Big Island and went on to unify the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Hawaii’s Big Island was also the home to King Kamehameha’s court until it moved to Oahu in 1804. In 1812, Kamehameha the Great returned to his beloved Big Island where he died in 1819. You can see the original King Kamehameha I statue in Kapaau, not far from where Hawaii’s greatest king was born. 

In 1820, the first missionaries arrived in Kailua-Kona. Mokuaikaua Church on Alii Drive in Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona) still stands and is in use today. Other westerners followed, introducing cattle to the island. Sugar plantations also bloomed on the Hilo side in the 20th century.

Today, Hawaii’s Big Island remains a vital touchstone for Hawaiian culture. Throughout its modernization, one ancient Hawaiian god is believed to be alive and well here. Pele, the volcano goddess, has settled in Kilauea Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park after moving south along the island chain. She continues to display her power today, keeping Kilauea in a constant state of eruption since 1983.

Featured Sites and Attractions

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Hawaii's Big Island

Learn about early Hawaiian history at this National Historic Park, historic place of refuge and former royal grounds.

Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaii's Big Island

Part of the National Park System, this historic site is home to one of the largest and last heiau (temple) built in Hawaii.

Kamehameha Statue, Kapaau, Hawaii's Big Island

The original King Kamehameha Statue can be found in Kapaau, near his birthplace in North Kohala.

Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona), Hawaii's Big Island

Historic Kailua Village is a lively seaside town in the heart of Kona home to shopping, dining and important historic sites.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii's Big Island

133,500-hectare park spanning the summit of Maunaloa to the sea and home to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes.