Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site

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Quick Overview

This is the audio-only described version of the park's 18 inch by 18 inch, two-sided brochure. The front feature of the brochure includes the Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site title and National Park Service arrowhead logo within a black band. Below the title banner is a print of a painting that spans 18 inches across and 6 inches tall. The painting, created by Hawaii's well known artist Herb Kane, is a depiction of Pu'ukohola Heiau in it's prime use. 

Below the image is explanatory reading on Pu'ukohola Heiau. Wrapped within the text are four images. They include a 4-inch long drawing of the heiau. A topographical map of the 8 major Hawaiian Islands. Next to the map stands man adorned in chiefly attire comprised of a cape, helmet, and loin cloth all made of thousands of woven bird feathers. With two hands he grips a large, long wooden spear.

The backside of the brochure features additional text, illustrations, photographs, information and a map of the park.

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TEXT and IMAGE: the Temple on the Hill of the Whale

Painting description: This painting highlights the heiau, or temple, and the surrounding landscape. The background features blue skies with a moon rising on the upper right below a snow-capped mountain. The painting glows with a dawning or twilight light, like the morning sun peeking out to greet the night moon. The temple sits on a brown barren hill.  The rugged and rough terrain is evidence of a dry and thirsty land. The temple dominants the hillside. It is a tall open-aired, 3-walled rock structure with three tiered levels. 

During an early morning ceremony,  65 men on the lower terrace and 56 men on the second terrace sit in a row side by side across each terrace platform, which spans the entire open-west side of the heiau and are like two large steps.  Seven men stand on the third, top terrace or platform which is like an open, flat roof covering the entire heiau.  A kahuna, (priest) wearing white tapa cloth presides over the ceremony. He stands on the third main terrace at the south end of the temple, facing the men on the lower terraces. Both of his hands are raised.

One large thatched house is located on the north (left) on the main terrace along with two other small thatched houses located 50 steps south of the large thatched house.  Between the large and small thatched houses is a tall statue (12 feet high) of the war-god ku.  Close to the 16-foot rock wall at the south of the temple are eight wooden statues about 10 feet in height set in a row from east to west.  Behind the statues is a large, 15-foot altar covered in white tapa cloth.  At the far north below the temple are four men facing the temple holding long spears. 

Source: Herb K. Kane

Text: The stone heiau at Pu‘ukoholä is one of the last major sacred structures built in Hawai‘i before outside influences altered traditional life permanently. Constructed in 1790–91 by Kameha­meha I, this heiau, or temple, played a crucial role in the ruler’s ascendancy. By 1790, Kamehameha, whom many believed destined to rule all of the Hawaiian islands, had invaded and conquered Maui, Läna‘i, and Moloka‘i. Yet he was not able to lay full claim to his home island of Hawai‘i because of opposition from his chief rival and cousin, Keöua Küahu‘ula. While on Moloka‘i, Kamehameha learned that Keöua was invading his territory. Kamehameha sent his aunt to seek direction from the prophet Käpoükahi, who told her that Kamehameha would conquer all the islands if he built a large heiau dedicated to his family war god Kükä‘ilimoku (Kü) atop Pu‘ukoholä—Whale Hill—at Kawaihae.

Kamehameha set to work immediately. According to the pro­phecy, the builders had to follow rigid guidelines in order to please Kü the war god. To ensure perfection, the prophet Kä­poükahi served as the royal architect. Thousands of men camped out on the hills for nearly a year to work on the massive structure. Because the heiau had to be constructed of water-worn lava rocks, it is believed that rocks came from the seaside valley of Pololü. Workers formed a human chain at least 20 miles long and transported the rocks hand to hand to the top of Pu‘ukoholä. Kamehameha himself labored with the others. When news of the war temple reached the rival chiefs, they decided they must attack while Kamehameha and his war­­riors were occupied. At the least, the rivals would interfere with the ritually specified construction process, and Kü would be displeased. At best, the invasion would eli­mi­nate Kamehameha and the threat he posed to his rivals. The chiefs of Maui, Läna‘i, and Moloka‘i reconquered their islands and, joined by the chiefs of Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, sailed to attack Kamehameha. Kamehameha counterattacked, routed the invaders, and resumed work.

In the summer of 1791 the heiau was finished. Kamehameha invited his cousin Keöua Küahu‘ula to the dedication ceremonies. Perhaps awed by the power of the heiau and its god, perhaps resigned to the ascendancy of his cousin, Keöua Küahu‘ula came willingly to what would be his doom. When he arrived there was a scuffle and, whether Kamehameha intended it or not, Keöua and almost all of his companions were slain. The body of Keöua was carried to the heiau and offered as the principal sacrifice to Kü.

The death of Keöua Küahu‘ula ended all opposition on the island of Hawai‘i, and the prophecy began to come true. By 1810, through conquest and treaties, Kamehameha the Great, builder of Pu‘ukoholä Heiau, was the revered king of all the Hawaiian Islands.

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TEXT and ILLUSTRATION: Pu‘ukoholä Heiau As It May Have Looked

Text: Pu‘ukoholä Heiau measures 224 by 100 feet with 16- to 20-foot-high walls on the landward side and on the ends. Three long, narrow terraced steps cross the side that faces the sea, opening the interior to view from canoes floating offshore and, presumably, intimidating any attackers. At the time the temple was in use, there were thatched houses and an altar for the ruling chief and his priests. Wooden images of Hawaiian gods stood on the platform and terraces. After Kameha­meha I died in 1819, his son abolished the religious traditions of the past. Most temples, in­cluding Pu‘ukoholä Heiau, were abandoned. Only the heiaus that served as a mausoleums were maintained.

Illustration description:  Like the color painting, artist and historian Herb K. Kane created this black and white line drawing of the heiau or temple. From above, the view is of the entire top tier and the buildings and structures on this level. The second and third levels, like wide stairs, are also depicted. 

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Painting of King Kamehameha

King Kamehameha is a tanned, 7-foot-tall man in his mid-30s. He stands with straight posture, like a soldier with a firm muscular build, and holds a 10-foot jagged-tip spear. He wears a feathered  red, yellow and white cape. The cape measures 5 to 6 feet in height and about 4 feet in width.  His headdress is a crescent shape and about 2-3 feet in height. Shaped like a C, it curves downwards from the front to the back of his head. It is red, except for the top curved section that faces upwards, which is yellow.  

He wears a feathered malo, which is a loincloth worn in ceremonies. The malo is red with a yellow outline and includes a sash that goes around his mid torso and across his left shoulder. A rectangular flap of the same color and material extends from the bottom of the sash, where his belly button may be, to about mid thigh. 

Around his neck is a whale tooth pendant shaped like a tongue or hook with thick threads of black human hair braided to hold the pendant. It is symbolic of ”one who speaks with authority.” 

He has line tattoos around his right bicep and upper right thigh. The bicep design is potentially representative of the mountains and water. The thigh design looks like layers of triangles alternating like pin wheels and is potentially incomplete at the bottom row. 

He wears open-toed sandals of woven twine that wrap around his ankles, the soles of which could protect his feet from walking on sharp jagged lava rocks.

Source: Herb K. Kane

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This illustration is of a wood carving of the Hawaiian War God Kü. Kü looks fierce with his mouth wide open. He has jagged teeth, big eyes, and his chest popped out with broad shoulders straight as a log. His knees are bent like he is ready to pounce. He wears a long braided headgear that looks like a Native American headdress. Kü is carved in the Kona style from ‘öhi‘, a lehua wood located in higher elevations.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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TEXT: the Island Kingdom of Kamehameha

Map Description: The 8 major Hawaiian Islands from oldest to youngest and west to east are depicted. Starting from the farmost western island, they are Ni‘ihau, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, Maui, Kaho‘olawe and Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i is the largest island in the chain. A red dot on the north point of the island of Hawai'i represents where Pu‘ukohola Heiau NHS is located.

Text: From childhood, Kamehameha seemed destined for greatness. With the appearance of a bright, white-tailed star (possibly Halley’s Comet) in 1758 Hawaiian seers predicted the emergence of a great leader. Kameha­meha, “The Lonely One,” was born around that time in the Kohala district on the northwestern tip of the island of Hawai‘i.

Son of a high chief and a princess, Kame­ha­meha began training as a child to join the ranks of nä ali‘i koa, the chiefly warriors. By young adulthood he was tall and muscular—every bit the powerful warrior his family had expected. In 1782 at the death of his uncle, Kalan­i‘o­pu‘u, who ruled the island of Hawai‘i, Kameha­meha inherited land on the northern part of the island and was given custody of his family’s war god, Kükä‘ilimoku. As he gained power, he intended to one day rule all of the Hawaiian Islands.

Uni­fi­cation, in his view, would bring peace to the continually war­ring chiefdoms throughout the islands. His rival for control of his home island was his cousin Keöua Küahu­‘ula, with whom he battled indecisively in the 1780s. In 1790 Kame­ha­meha successfully invaded Maui, Läna‘i, and Moloka‘i with the aid of John Young and Isaac Davis, stranded British sailors who be­came his close advisors. The next year he re­turned to Hawai‘i and defended his lands against the chiefs of O‘ahu and Kaua‘i in a naval battle off the coast near the Waipi‘o Valley. The island of Hawai‘i finally came under his full control when his cousin Keöua was slain on the beach below Pu‘uko­holä Heiau.

In 1794 Kamehameha reconquered Maui, Läna‘i, and Moloka‘i. Victory in a bloody battle on O‘ahu ended opposition there in 1795. Fifteen years later, peaceful negotiations finally brought him Kaua‘i. By 1810 Kame­hameha had established his island kingdom.

Kamehameha appointed governors to administer each island. He ruled according to Hawaiian tradition but outlawed some of the more severe practices such as human sacrifices. With John Young as his trading agent, he parlayed the sandalwood trade into great wealth for himself and his people. Kameha­meha remained king of the islands until his death in 1819. The Hawaiian monarchy he founded lasted until 1893.

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TEXT and ILLUSTRATION: the Chiefly Warriors of Hawai'i

Text: Hawaiian chiefs attained ruling status by heredity but were often required to defend their territory by force. During his rise to power, Kamehameha I had four main battle chiefs from his home island in addition to his foreign advisors John Young and Isaac Davis. These chiefs led armies composed of nä ali‘i koa and nä koa.

Nä ali‘i koa were a highly trained, organized, and disciplined force with centuries of tradition behind them. These elite warriors were sons of varying degrees of ali‘i (chiefs) and were trained by personal tutors to increase their battle skills and proficiency. Kamehameha himself was trained from age seven or eight, not surprising for a child of such promise—and whose family deity was the war god Kükä‘ilimoku (left).

Because of their high status, nä ali‘i koa did not train with the maka‘äinana (commoners), who were taken away from the land and their tasks only in time of war to serve in the ranks of nä koa. Orga­nized military training was a luxury afforded to a select few, and for most young men, duty meant tending to farming, fishing, and other daily needs. At the call of the kälaimoku (a rank equivalent to prime minister), nä koa rose from all classes and from all regions of the islands except from the kauwä, society’s outcast class. Kauwä could not mingle even with commoners; they were sacrificed in the heiau when no lawbreakers or war prisoners were available.

Illustration description: In this image, the war god Kü is depicted in the form of a reddish-brown, feathered deity. Only his neck, head and a "C" or crescent-shaped crown are shown.  Kü's almond shaped eyes are inlaid with white pearl and he has a fierce wide open mouth lined with dog teeth.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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TEXT: the Warriors and Their Weapons of War

Like high chiefs, warriors usually had body tattoos. Patterns signified the wearer‘s family ties, loyalty to a particular chief, and ‘aumakua (family guardian spirit). Warriors usually wore headgear indicating military rank and social status, along with providing protection.

As part of their training, to maintain constant readiness for attack or defense, nä ali‘i koa routinely fought mock en­gage­­ments called kaua kio. An impressive showing in one of these fights would bring a youth to the attention of his superiors and even to the chiefs.

In 1793 Kamehameha himself put on a dem­­onstration where he dodged six spears hurled toward him.

Though blunted spears were usually used in these mock encounters, even the most accomplished warriors were sometimes killed.

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TEXT and ILLUSTRATION: Double-Hulled Canoe

Text: This double-hulled canoe, with an English swivel gun mounted at the bow, was a formidable war vessel. These crafts were based on traditional Polynesian designs dating back several centuries. The boat’s two hulls were individually constructed of wood, then connected with crossbeams. The heaviest and strongest crossbeam supported the full weight of the mast and sail. Sails were made of woven pandanus leaves. This vessel could carry up to 35 warriors.

Illustration description: From the front to the back, two canoe hulls are attached together by a series of upward-curved wooden beams that are similar in shape to two by four pieces of wood. A crossbeam that spans the entire length of the canoe rests on top and in the middle of the two by fours. The tall and slender mast that supports the sail is in the center of the crossbeam. Four natural strong cordage ropes attached to the right and left sides of the top of the canoe wall are tautly connected to the upper part of the mast.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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TEXT: Pähoa

Pähoa (dagger) made from hardwood, nearly 17 inches long.

Illustration description:  Made of a native Hawaiian hardwood, this dagger is smoothed to a sharpened tip, like a spear point. A coconut fiber rope is threaded through the handle. A warrior could place this rope around his wrist when holding the dagger.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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Text: Ma‘a (sling) made from braided fiber with a spindle-shaped stone.

Illustration description:  This stone is approximately 3 inches in circumference and sits between a knotted loop or cup. The cup is created by 2 conjoined pieces of coarse coconut fiber, weaved into a thin rope which is about 24 inches long on each side of the loop that holds the stone.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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TEXT: Wooden pähoa with sharks‘ teeth bound to its edges.

Illustration description: This smooth, wood-grained weapon is shaped like a shore ore.  It is approximately 18 inches in length. Six of the eighteen inches make up the handle. The tip of the handle is sharpened to a point and used as a dagger.  The remaining 12 inches are the oblong shape of a paddle used for slashing during hand-to-hand combat. Tiger shark teeth are attached with course thread around the perimeter of the paddle section.  

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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TEXT: Niho ‘oki (curved wooden knife) with single shark‘s-tooth blade.

Illustration description: This knife is shaped similarly to the lower section of a golf club, including a small portion of the narrow stick and  the club shape itself. It is smooth and curved to fit perfectly in the palm of a hand. At the top of the weapon's more narrow handle is a natural grass fiber braided to create a holder for one's wrist.  At the wider club-end of the knife a single shark's tooth is mounted, making up the tip. 

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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TEXT and IMAGE: Ku‘ia

The warrior wields a wooden ku‘ia (fighting quarter staff), about six feet long with points on either end.

Illustration description: This Hawaiian warrior is dressed for battle and holds a fighting stick.  He wears a while Hawaiian style lion cloth, or malo.  On top of  his head is a decorative crescent-shaped helmet made of black feathers on the main head rest and red feathers on the crown. Rows of triangles make up a tattoo across the right side of his chest and upper arm and his left upper thigh. The fighting stick he holds has a barbed point on the top end and a flush point on the bottom end.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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Illustration caption: The warrior‘s club, or newa, has a carved stone head lashed to its wooden base with fiber cord.

Illustration description: This warrior is dressed in traditional Hawaiian fighting attire, which consists of a malo, or Hawaiian style lion cloth, and a decorative helmet. Half of his front torso is tattooed with a checkerboard pattern and a bold line around his right bicep. In his right hand he holds a neva, which is about 3 feet long and made of wood.  A carved smooth rock is mounted at the top of the club.

Source: NPS / Karen Barnes

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General Information

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TEXT: Getting to the Park

The park is on the island of Hawai‘i, one mile south of Kawaihae off HI 270. The island is served by Kona and Hilo International Airports. Waimea-Kohala Airport, 12 miles east of the park, has commuter flights.

Map: Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site Map shows the entire park and its boundaries. It includes roads, paved and unpaved trails, the visitor center, state lands and waters within the site and road bridges. The map is oriented with North at the top.  HI 270 parallels the park's eastern boundary, sometimes running either within or right on the border of the park. 

The park encompasses approximately 60 acres of federal lands and about 22 acres of State of Hawaii owned land (north of the park).  The park is surrounded by the State Harbors Division to the north, Queen Liliuokalani Trust to the east, State and County lands to the South, and Department of Land and Natural Resources to the west.  The park extends into the Pacific Ocean to include Hale o Kapuni Heiau, which is the site of a submerged temple.  The visitor center is located in the bottom southside of the park, 100 yards from Spencer County Beach Park.  

A trail starts at the visitor center and makes an oblong loop going north toward Pu'ukohola Heiau and Mailekin Heiau and the Stone Leaning Post overlook. The Pelekane Beach (royal courtyard) is slightly further north from the trail at this location. At the overlook, the trail turns back south. It parallels the pacific ocean and is known as the Ala Kahakai National Historic coastal trail. The trail continues around and back to the visitor center.

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TEXT: for a Safe Visit

Federal laws protect all natural and cultural features in the park. The temples are fragile and are sacred to native Hawaiians. They are closed to the public; you can view them from below.

  • Stay on designated trails. Carry ample drinking water; wear proper clothing, footwear, hat, and sunscreen; do not attempt hikes if you are not in good physical condition.
  • This region is prone to grass fires; smoking is prohibited. 
  • Camp­ing, picnicking, and swimming are not allowed within the park. They are permitted at nearby Samuel M. Spencer Park.
  • Use caution entering and exiting the park road and visiting the John Young’s Home­stead site. 
  • For a full list of regulations, including firearms information, go to the park website.

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OVERVIEW: Accessibility

We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information, ask at the visitor center or visit our website.

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TEXT: a Walking Tour of the Park

The visitor center and the park road gate are open daily. Note: These hours change. Check with the park. A self-guiding walking tour (allow about one hour) begins at the visitor center.

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TEXT and IMAGE: the Cultural Festival

TEXT: At the cultural festival held at the park each August, native Hawaiians and other Polynesian peoples celebrate their centuries-old tradition through ceremonies, demonstrating ancient crafts, and wearing traditional dress.

Photo description: A Hawaiian royal procession of 9 men walk in a row on the downward slope of a large rock platform. The rock platform sits upon 4 feet of rugged rocky terrain, with its smooth stone-structured wall rising another 12 feet. The men are dressed in traditional clothing. The two men leading the procession hold 10 foot tall poles, each adorned with a large balloon-shaped ball made of bright yellow loose bird feathers. They are followed by 2 other warrior men, each carrying a 10 foot spear. Behind them is a man wearing a long feather red cape and feather crescent helmet. He is followed by 4 more warriors carrying spears.

Source: NPS

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TEXT and IMAGE: the Stone Leaning Post

Text: The Stone Leaning Post, or kikiako‘i, was used by Chief Alapa‘i Küpalu­palu Manö. It stood at least six feet high and was originally closer to the ocean. It was accidentally broken in 1937.

Photo description: Three large rectangular stones, which made up the original single large stone post, are in the forefront of this image on a raised bed of small pebbles surrounded by a small rock wall.  The base of the post is upright and in the center of the raised bed. The two other pieces are on their sides close by. In the background are milo trees and the sandy beach of Pelekane.

Source: Joyce Keala / Hawai'i Pacific Parks Association

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TEXT and IMAGE: Milo Tree

Milo (Thespesia populnea), a coastal tree in the hibiscus family, was traditionally used for carving bowls, plates, and paddles.

Photo description: A close-up of a single flower with yellow petals that overlap one another. The center of the flower is brown with a yellow stamen.  In the background are rounded green-shaped pods about 2 inches in diameter.

Source: NPS / Greg Cunningham

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TEXT and IMAGE: the Stones of Pu‘ukoholä Heiau

Text: The rocks used to build Pu‘ukoholä Heiau are volcanic debris rounded by the abrasive force of water. No mortar was used. Walls slant inward and spaces are filled with smaller pebbles. Built by Kame­ha­meha I in 1790–91. Today it is the setting for cultural vents.

Photo description: This aerial view of Pu'ukohola Heiau features the overall rock structure of Pu'ukohola Heiau.  The heiau is located in the middle of the photo and is 224 feet long by 100 feet wide.  Walls extend back north to the east (back of heiau) and to the south.  Two tiers of the heiau extend from the north to the south in front of the heiau range and are 4 to 6 feet wide in certain areas.  The third tier is the main platform and includes slightly raised platforms on the north and south ends. The temple sits on a dried grass hill and the Kohala mountain in the background.  The overhead sky is clear with white clouds that span across the edge of the Kohala Mountain.

Source: Big Island Aerials

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TEXT: Mailekini Heiau

On the hillside between Pu‘ukoholä Heiau and the sea are the ruins of Mailekini Heiau, possibly a war or agricultural temple used by the ancestors of Kamehameha. This older temple was nearly as big as Pu‘ukoholä Heiau but not so finely crafted. During the rule of Kamehameha I, John Young helped the king convert this temple into a fort.

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TEXT and IMAGE: Sharks and Hale o Kapuni Heiau

Text: Dedicated to the shark gods, this heiau lies submerged just offshore. The temple was last seen in the 1950s, when the rock platform was visible during low tides. The Stone Leaning Post overlooks the site of the shark temple.

Photo text and description: Manö (sharks) are believed to be ‘aum­a­­kua (ancestral deities). Black-tipped reef sharks frequent park waters year-round. This photo is of a black tip reef shark in front of a black background swimming to the right. It is a silvery color with one large fin in the middle of its back, two fins directly underneath and a tail fin. It has a long flat and wide nose that extends well beyond its mouth and eyes. 

Source: Waikiki Aquarium

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TEXT: Pelekane

On the coast below Pu‘ukoholä and Mailekini is the site of the royal courtyard at Kawaihae. After his father died, Kame­ha­meha II returned here to prepare for his role as king.

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TEXT: Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail

This trail was established in 2000 for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of traditional native Hawaiian culture and natural resources. A small section of this 175-mile trail corridor runs through the park.

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TEXT and ILLUSTRATION: Site of John Young’s Homestead

Text: John Young was a British sailor stranded on Hawai‘i in 1790. He became a trusted military adviser to Kamehameha I. Young served as governor of Hawai‘i Island after Kamehameha designated him an ali‘i nui (high chief), giving him the name ‘Olohana. Young married Ka‘oana‘eha, the niece of Kamehameha. His granddaughter was Queen Emma, wife of Kamehameha IV. Today Young’s homestead site has the remains of the oldest known European-style house in Hawaii.

Illustration text: Artist‘s conception of John Young‘s homestead. The three foreground structures show native Hawaiian styles: terraces, paving, platforms, and mounds of dry-laid masonry. Those in the rear show Western styling: walls of stone set in mud mortar. Today only a few walls and foundations remain.

Illustration description: The homestead is made up of 6 thatched houses.  In the front right of the sketch is a small house. The sides of the house are surrounded by a partial wide rock wall. A man stands on the platform of the rock wall and is not much shorter than the steep roof of the house. He holds a spear. Directly behind the small house is another larger house built with a wooden fence along part of the outside perimeter of the homestead.  The house has a thatched steep roof, but has only columns and no walls enclosing the structure.  Across from this house on the other side of the homestead's perimeter is another thatched house of a similar size.  This house is built on a rock platform with a wooden fence surrounding part of the house's walls on the inside of the homestead and a lower rock wall on that side of the homestead's perimeter. Behind and to the side of this house is a larger house built with a thatched roof and walls made of rocks. It has a small window in what could be a second story.  To the right of this house and in the back of the homestead is the house site of John Young. It has a thatched roof and walls made of rocks.  The front entrance of the house is covered with a thatched open lanai in which the entrance door is located.  The entrance faces west towards the ocean.  Between this house and the two-story house, two men stand in the background.  On the other side of the house a horse is tied to a pole.  Six feet from John Young's House Site is a a potion of another thatched house.

Source: Herb K. Kane

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