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History of Hawaii’s Big Island

Waimea.com on the history of the Big Island.  Join us on a snorkel or manta ray tour for a memory-making sea experience.

Hawaii’s Big Island, like the name implies, is the state’s biggest island. And it is actually still growing, to date, because of its active volcanoes. The volcanic island has, so far, a land area of 4,028 square miles, which makes it larger than when all the state’s other islands are combined.

Legend has it that the Big Island was first discovered by Hawai’iloa. Hawai’iloa was a Polynesian navigator, who eventually lent his name to the state. Other stories have it that the Big Island and the rest of Hawaii was once the realm of Hawaiki. This is supposedly where people go in their afterlife as this was the gods’ realm.

In reality, the Big Island was discovered by explorers from the Polynesian region of the Marquesas Islands. These early settlers came into the island at around one thousand five hundred (1,500) years ago. Western culture was only introduced through Western explorers and missionaries who came into the Big Island in the 1700s and 1800s. Sugar and cattle were also introduced into the island through these travelers.

As observable in present day Big Island, much of the Western influences have mixed in with ancient Hawaiian cultures. The result is an engaging modern island, visited for its tropical ambiance, easy-going lifestyle, and lush mountains and seas. Big Island falls under the County of Hawaii, with the governing seat at the town of Hilo. As of 2008, the population of the island is a little over two hundred thousand.

The big and growing island

The name Big Island is actually a nickname that stuck. This is primarily because the island is the biggest in Hawaii, and it’s still growing. At the same time, the Big Island is also the youngest among the state’s other islands. It is only a little more than five hundred thousand (500,000) years old.

Perhaps the continued growth of the Big Island owes to it being the legendary home of the goddess of the volcano, Pele. And why not? The Big Island is famous for the Kilauea volcano, one of the volcanoes responsible for the island’s continued growth. This is said to be Pele’s current home, after hopping from one Hawaii volcano to another. Hence, today, the Kilauea volcano is the most active in the regions and is currently spewing the most lava.

The Big Island is actually on five shield volcanoes that overlap one another. The oldest is the Kohala volcano, which is already an extinct volcano. Two other dormant volcanoes came after one another; that is, Mauna Kea and Hualalai. The Hualalai, however, is still being monitored for activity.

The two active volcanoes in the Big Island are Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Kilauea is quite an active volcano. On the other hand, Mauna Loa is one of the biggest volcanoes in the whole world, extending into the Pacific Ocean, and is also still active. These two exhibit continuous lava flow, further adding to the landmass of the Big Island.

From 1983 to 2002, the Big Island grew by five hundred and forty three (543) acres. This was because of the Kilauea volcano’s consistent lava flow. However, while the volcano has added hectares to the island’s landmass, it has also destroyed as well. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the volcano has destroyed three towns. These are the towns of Kapoho, Kalapana, and Kaimu. In fact, the Queen’s bath, a popular fresh water pool in the Kalapana town, had been overrun by lava three years before the entire town was destroyed.

The connection of the activities of the Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes is still being studied. Current observations show that they alternate in terms of hyperactivity. Each volcano is said to take a decade of activity before resting, allowing the other to take over. However, there are contrary historical events, when the two volcanoes erupted at the same time. While much of the Big island’s tourism and agricultural industries are built around these two volcanoes, the risks posed by these majestic wonders are still very much a reality.

Of course, there are perks to being on five giant volcanoes. The rich geological surrounds and history of the Big Island have given it such ecological diversity, making it the biggest playground in the whole of Hawaii. In the island, you can find everything; from snowy mountains and thick rain forests to black sand beaches and desert plains. This has made the Big Island one of the primary destinations in the state, as well as the rest of the United States.

A run through history

The Big Island is the youngest among the islands of Hawaii. It is only half a million years old. The Big Island is said to have been first discovered by travelers from the Marquesas Islands of the Polynesian region. This was only about one thousand five hundred (1,500) years ago.

Westerners began coming into the island when Captain Cook landed in 1778. After a year, the captain was killed at Kealakekua Bay by tribal warriors. Regardless, he opened the door for other travelers to set foot and settle in the island.

At around this time, the Big Island had several political divisions (or chiefdoms). These chiefdoms were constantly at war, until they were united in 1791. The unification of the Big Island tribes was due to the efforts of Kamehameha, who hailed from Kohala. He ruled the Big Island as king until 1804. After that year, he moved to Oahu, only to return to the island in 1812, seven years before he died. Kamehameha is credited as the greatest king to rule Hawaii.

Western religions first came into the Big Island in 1820. This was through the efforts of the first missionaries in the island. They landed in Kailua-Kona, where they first began their missionary work.

This was followed by other Western travelers. Some of the early voyagers introduced cattle and sugar into the local agriculture. This was the roots of Parker Ranch, perhaps one of the oldest and definitely one of the largest cattle ranches in the Big Island. Sugar plantations also found a home, later on blooming into one of the prime industries of Hilo.

To date, the Big Island is at the forefront of Hawaiian industry and culture. The island’s rich culture and history is now the backdrop of a very active tourism industry. At the same time, much of the island’s ancient practices are kept alive because of the modern traveler’s interest in them.

Historical must see’s when on the Big Island

Given the rich history of the Big Island, there are some historical sites that travelers shouldn’t miss when visiting. These are:

1. Kealakekua Bay: This infamous bay is said to be the spot where European voyager, Captain James Cook, was killed in a battle against Hawaiian natives. This was during the 1700s. Aside from the historical significance of the place, it also boasts of lush marine life, perfect for snorkeling and diving. There are several dive centers in the surrounding areas that can rent out gears and offer dive guide services.

2. King Kamehameha I State Monument and Statue: Kamehameha is said to be Hawaii’s greatest king. A state monument and statue was erected in his honor in the town of Kapaau. This was the original monument put up for him. However, over the years, this monument was thought to be lost at sea. This has since been rediscovered and then restored. The other more popular Kamehameha monument is on the island of Oahu. This one is close to the Iolani Palace and also experiences sizable visitor traffic.

3. Mokuaikaua Church: The church has been around since 1820, and is at Kailua-Kona. This is the state’s first Christian Church. Aside from the historical significance of this site, the architecture of the church is also noteworthy to see.

4. Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park: The park functioned as a refuge for those who broke local taboos. It is a one hundred eighty (180) acre land on the Kona Coast, and comes complete with necessary infrastructures and self-sustaining amenities. Since becoming a national historic park, its ancient temples, petroglyphs, sacred burial grounds, and other features have been restored.

5. Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site: This site was built by King Kamehameha as one of the ways to unify the different chiefdoms of the island. Constructed from 1790 to 1791 in North Kohala, the site functioned as the ancient Hawaiians’ last religious temple (or heiau).

The Big Island’s rich history has made it what it is today. Being the biggest and most diverse of the state’s island, many travelers linger in the Big Island to enjoy all that it has to offer. There are several monuments, architectural wonders, and historical sites to check out. These provide a unique feel of the island. Likewise, the natural richness of the Big Island is incomparable. With five volcanoes on its land, the island is a big fiery and changing element that’s worth several visits. It is no wonder that it is one of the more popular global destinations.