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'A cultural resource of the highest possible order'
Study doubles number of known archaeological sites in Waimea
By Derek Ferrar -"Ka Wai Ola " OHA newspaper

Extent of Waimea Valley

In 2003, after the City and County of Honolulu awarded a lease to the National Audubon Society to operate an environmental visitor center at Waimea Valley, OHA's Board of Trustees awarded a $500,000 grant to the center, in part to fund an updated cultural and archaeological survey of the valley's many sites.

Audubon contracted the well-known firm Archaeological Consultants of the Pacific (ACP) to conduct the assessment, which included compiling information from a wide variety of historical sources, as well as conducting oral history interviews.

"For the first time, we gathered all the information that is known about Waimea, from widespread, difficult to obtain sources" says ACP Principle Investigator Joseph Kennedy. "What we did was a modest contribution , building on what others had done and putting the information together. Wev'e made progress, but there's still a long, long way to go."

When Kennedy released his report in May, the study identified 78 known surface sites of interest (see map) - more than double the number found by the most comprehensive previous review, which was conducted by Bishop Museum in 1974.

Waimea's Hale o Lono Heiau site

Even more important, Kennedy says, is the discovery that some 80 percent of the valley has never even been examined for archaeological sites because access is so difficult in the steep terrain. In addition, he says, it is likely that many of Waimea's historical sites lie buried underground, given the valley's history of flooding and erosion from the cliffs. "There is more that remains unknown in Waimea than we can imagine," he says.

The assessment also calls for a number of measures for the preservation, protection and interpretation of Waimea's sites, including

  • Development of a preservation plan that would divide the valley's sites into categories of significance carrying specific preservation and maintenance protocols.
  • Development of a burial treatment plan for burial sites now known, along with any that may be discovered in the future, and restriction of public access to areas containing burials.
  • A thorough survey and updated mapping of the valley's sites.
  • An archeological review of interpretive materials used at publicly accessible sites.
  • Future excavation and dating of appropriate sites.
  • Integration of public education and participation programs into study of appropriate sites.

"In sum," reads the report, "Waimea Valley is a cultural resource of the highest possible order ... There is no place quite like Waimea Valley on the island of Oahu, and very few places in the entire archipelago can equal it in terms of its religious associations, its preservation, or its potential for answering many questions about traditional Hawaii. It is deserving of the utmost care and protection, and this can be achieved only through recognition and careful planning."

'Valley of the Priests'
Highlights of Waimea Valley's extraordinary history
By Joseph Kennedy -"Ka Wai Ola " OHA newspaper

A map of known archaeological sites in Waimea Valley.
Map adaptation by Joe LeMonnier, based on original by Joseph Kennedy

Editor's note: This article combines portions of the Waimea Valley Cultural and Archaeological Assessment report with excerpts from an article written by the study's Principle Investigator, Joseph Kennedy, for the October 2005 issue of Natural History magazine.

The ahupuaa of Waimea, known for its picturesque bluffs, its permanently flowing river and its deep bay, provided many resources for its inhabitants and was the setting for many important episodes of Oahu's history. Perhaps most important, however, are its priestly associations, which marked Waimea as a sacred place for more than 700 years of Native Hawaiian history.

Waimea, "The Valley of the Priests," gained its title around 1090, when the ruler of Oahu, Kamapuaa (who would later be elevated in legend to demigod status as the familiar pig deity) awarded the land to the high priest Lono-a-wohi. From that time until Western contact and the overturn of the indigenous Hawaiian religion, the land belonged to the kahuna nui (high priests) of the Paao line.

The shaded area below represents the 80 percent of the valley that has never been surveyed for archaeological sites. 
Map: Archaeological Consultants of the Pacific.

Among the religious structures the priests erected in and around the valley are two large heiau, or temples: Puu o Mahuka, Oahu's largest heiau, situated on a cliff overlooking the valley; and Kupopolo, which stands near the beach on the Waialua side of the river. Many cultural features can be found throughout the valley, reminding onlookers of Waimea's lively past. Fishing shrines dot the coastal edges of the valley entrance, and the steep cliffs that form the valley walls contain many burial caves. House lots and agricultural terraces are found along the valley floor.

The oldest existing image of Waimea Valley, painted by William Ellis,
a crewman aboard the
HMS Discovery when the ship anchored off
the valley in 1779.
Image: Bishop Museum.

Just a few tidbits of ancient lore about the valley survive, recorded during the early contact period. One tale is set in the bay at the mouth of the river. It seems a man named Kaneaukai transformed himself into a stone the size of a human head and a log the size of a body. Local fishermen pulled his two parts from the sea and reunited them within a shrine, ensuring ever afterward that fish would be locally plentiful. The stone and the log are long gone, but the shrine, made of rocks and recently reconstructed, still stands on the shoreline.


During the reign of Kahahana, who became ruler of Oahu in 1773, Waimea's presiding priest was Kaopulupulu. Many legends and stories recount the life of this famous prophet.

In one legend, Kahahana asked his priest to determine whether the gods approved of him, and whether the island of Kauai would surrender if he invaded its shores. Kaopulupulu requested that a temple be built where he could "speak to the great chief Kekaulike (of Kauai) through the thoughts of the great akua Mahuka."

At first, Heiau Kupopolo was built on the beach of Waimea Bay; however, when Kaopulupulu used it, he received no answer from Kauai. It was thought the temple was in the wrong location. Because the kahuna believed that "thoughts are little gods, or kupua, that travel in space, above the earth … they fly freely as soaring birds," he called on the people to build a second temple high upon the cliffs. This was to become Heiau Puu o Mahuka. From the temple, Kaopulupulu sent out thought waves, and the answer quickly returned - Kauai wished for peace.

This legend explains the construction of the two main heiau of Waimea, and radiocarbon dating of the sites has, so far, not contradicted this timeframe. In some versions of the story, it is said that the Menehune people built each of the heiau in a single night with stones "passed hand-to-hand, all the way from Paumalu."

Point of contact

Soon after Captain Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay in 1779, his ships, the H.M.S. Discovery and the H.M.S. Resolution - now under the overall command of Captain Charles Clerke - anchored off Waimea Bay in order to restock their water supply from the river. This event marked the first known contact with white foreigners on the island of Oahu.

Cook's lieutenant, James King, who now captained the Resolution, commented that the setting "…was as beautiful as any Island we have seen, and appear'd very well Cultivated and Popular." Clerke wrote in his journal: "On landing I was reciev'd with every token of respect and friendship by a great number of the Natives who were collected upon the occasion; they every one of them prostrated themselves around me which is the first mark of respect at these Isles."

The Englishmen had Hawaiian women on board, brought from the Hawaii island. At Waimea the women danced a hula, which the sailors found quite lascivious. From the deck of the Discovery, William Ellis, the ship's surgeon's second mate, painted an idyllic watercolor of the valley - a reproduction of which appears above.

The Daedalus killings

Westerners' next visit to Waimea, 13 years later, proved to be a far less idyllic encounter. Richard Hergest, a former midshipman on the Resolution, was in command of his own vessel, the supply ship Daedalus. Recalling the warm reception and sweet water he had earlier received, Hergest anchored in the bay in May of 1792. In spite of warnings from two Hawaiians on board that "evil people" resided in the valley and that there were no chiefs present, Hergest set off with the astronomer William Gooch and two sailors.

After reaching shore, the sailors busied themselves with the water casks, while Gooch and Hergest wandered inland. Suddenly, men armed with spears, daggers and rocks came running down from the valley's left flank. The men were not ordinary villagers, but the fearsome-looking warriors called pahupu, each of whom had one side of his body tattooed black from head to toe.

One sailor escaped to the boat, but the other was killed. The one that escaped saw Hergest and Gooch surrounded by Hawaiians and realized it was hopeless to rescue them.

Many explanations for the natives' hostility toward the men of the Daedalus have surfaced over time. Regardless of the motivation, the Hawaiians on board the Daedalus warned the sailors that the area was dangerous. Captain Hergest did not heed his warning, and quickly became another part of Waimea's history.

Original Hawaii missionary Hiram Bingham's illustration of himself preaching at Waimea in 1826,
when Hewahewa ruled the valley. Queen Kaahumanu is seated at Bingham's left.


After Kamehameha I conquered Oahu in 1795, he recognized the importance of Waimea Valley and awarded it to his top spiritual adviser, Hewahewa, the last high priest of the Paao line destined to serve as kahuna nui.

Kamehameha died in 1819 at Kailua-Kona, with Hewahewa at his side. Powerful foreign influences were now propelling Hawaii into an era of rapid change. With Kamehameha's death, the traditional kapu system of laws or rules had begun to crumble.

During the rule of Kamehameha II (Liholiho), Hewahewa and Kaahumanu, Liholiho's ruling partner, denounced the Hawaiian gods and convinced the king to order all heiau and idols destroyed. In 1822, Hewahewa himself helped burn more than 100 of these idols.

Hewahewa eventually came to live at Waimea around 1826 and ruled as its chief. He reportedly had three houses on the Waialua side, one for sleeping, one for food and one for the men to prepare their food and prayers - a hale mua.

A Christian convert, Hewahewa died in 1837 and was buried in Waimea, where his grave can still be seen near the visitor center.

Hawaiian exodus

After Hewahewa's death, rights to the valley eventually passed to his granddaughter Paalua. Following the Mahele land division in 1848, the islands' newly formed Land Commission offered to give her outright ownership of roughly half of Waimea Valley, on condition that she relinquish any claim to the rest. She and her husband managed to hold on to a portion of the valley until 1884, but in the process fell heavily into debt, and the descendant of the last kahuna nui in Waimea had to mortgage and lease the land. Soon after she died in 1886, the property was foreclosed.

Waimea Valley, c. 1880s Image: Bishop Museum

Over the next 20 years the valley changed hands at public auction several times, and by the turn of the 20th century it was in the control of the Castle & Cook pineapple and sugar company.

Between 1894 and 1898, a series of floods hit the valley, causing vast destruction and forcing the majority of the Native Hawaiians living in Waimea to give up their land and leave. In 1903, historian Thomas Thrum described the effects of the floods: "The tremendous freshets [floodwaters] ... terminated the agricultural enterprise of its people by washing out to sea the growing taro from its terraced banks; the fruit and coffee trees planted along its slopes, and filling up the taro patches and the bed of its stream with debris, rocks and boulders several feet deep, houses and other property were swept away and three lives lost in the effort to rescue personal effects from the madrushing torrent."

In the early part of the 20th century, Waimea was used for ranching and farming. Along with immigrants of other extractions, a community of Japanese farmers moved into the valley and lived at a settlement called Fujita Camp. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military moved in, building artillery positions and other installations around the valley.

Waimea as theme park

In the 1960s and 1970s, commercialism further obscured the valley's sacred past. The Waimea Falls Ranch and Stables offered 75-cent stagecoach rides, complete with actors who rode alongside playing cowboys and Indians. A restaurant and gift shop appeared, guided tours were offered in open-air trolleys, and visitors could attend a cliff-diving show or see a hula dance. At one time, almost 2,000 people visited the park each day, but the archaeological richness of Waimea Valley went largely unnoticed.

A 150-acre arboretum and botanical garden was established with native and endangered Hawaiian plants, as well as exotic plants from many other areas around the world. The arboretum has now become an important repository for threatened plant life from many tropical regions.

Waimea Falls remains a popular swimming
spot for visitors and residents alike.

Eventually, however, the park fell on hard times, and in 1996 New York theme-park developer Christian Wolffer purchased the valley by assuming the previous owner's $12-million mortgage. Under Wolffer, the valley was transformed into an "adventure park," with ATV trails and high admission prices, but the operation continued to struggle financially. Eventually, Wolffer tried to sell the valley as a private residence, then placed it into bankruptcy.

In 2002, the City and County of Honolulu moved to acquire the property through condemnation, and awarded a lease to the National Audubon Society, which currently manages the park as an ecological and cultural visitor center.

Meanwhile, the court case over the condemnation of the valley slowly ground forward, and was scheduled for a trial this winter. In November, however, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann proposed a settlement in the case that would have returned the majority of the valley to Wolffer. That proposal was defeated by the Honolulu City Council after a public outcry against it.

Then, in December, a new deal was announced under which the valley would be purchased from Wolffer for $14 million by a partnership including the city, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the U.S. Army and the Audubon Society, with title to the property to be assumed by OHA for eventual transfer to a future Native Hawaiian governing entity. As of this writing, negotiations over the final details of the settlement continue.

Waimea Valley's past has taken many turns as its inhabitants have come and gone, and its landscape has been used, exploited, and modified. Despite the many changes, Waimea is still respected today as a sacred and powerful valley and recognized as a place filled with history. A priest no longer presides over the area, yet the power of its past leaders remains in the spirit of the valley. It seems only fitting that ownership of this "Valley of the Priests" should now return to Hawaiian hands after more than a century of control by others.

Copyright:  OHA 2007
© Photo courtesy of Kamehameha High School 2007