What I want people to know about the Land Records of Hawai'i

"What I want people to know about the Land Records of Hawai'i", Victoria S. Creed, Ph.D

Waihona 'Aina Corp.

King Kamehameha V, Judiciary History Center

August 18, 2005


Waihona 'Aina was formed and incorporated in 1995 by Paige Barber, Hal Hammatt, Alexander Mawyer, Muriel Seto and myself. Four years ago Kepa Maly took over Paige Barber's position. It has taken approximately 10 years to get all the Land Commission claims recorded and onto our web site. The information page on our site documents describes how we did this and how we have dealt with the inconsistencies in the records (of which there are many, such as the numbering systems). We have since added 3 more databases, two of which are still in progress. Over the years we have changed four times to more robust databases, all their supporting programs and changed webhosting companies as many times. I mention this because it is part of the growth and preservation of these documents as electronic data.  

Researching Hawaiian History

Where would you look for a literary source? Perhaps you should also look in the land records. Where would you look for a land record? You might also look in the literature, including the oral traditions. Hawaiian history is written on the land, in names commemorating gods and heroes. This mnemonic device is still useful today. We cannot limit research to any specific set of records, if the information is to be truly useful.

Last year, while verifying the Hiiakaikapoliopele manuscript at Bishop Museum for Alu Like, I noted the legend was run in "Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika" newspaper (1862) by M.J. Kapihenui of Kailua, O'ahu. On inquiring from the Museum if other information was available for this Kapihenui, I was told nothing more was known of him. A history of the Hi'iaka manuscript by John Charlot did not mention Kapihenui's background either The manuscript had come to Bishop Museum through The Hawaiian Mechanic's Benefit Union, which dissolved in 1893 . The list of members of the Hawaiian Mechanic's Benefit Union is available at the State Archives. (One name on the list was an ancestor of one of my neighbors.) But no Kapihenui. This led me to look through all my databases, and Eureka! In Land Commission Claim 3156 to Meheula, a Kapihenui testifies on behalf of Meheula for the 'ili of Kanahau in Kailua. Now, for those who might not know, Kanahau 'ili is the site of a destroyed Hi'iaka heiau. On checking the Archives for the Kailua 1861-1862 census, the date of the newspaper series, I was lucky again.   A Kapihenui paid his 1859 to 1870 poll taxes. There are no more listings there for him. So, I went to the Archive's index looking for, perhaps, a death date. Instead, I found a document from Wm. Is. Kapihenui at Kailua, O'ahu, dated Jan. 11, 1858 (Translated by E.H. Hart) which is to John Cummins. It states that Cummins' 12 cattle have been over-running Kanaha [sic Kanahau] and that Wm. Is. Kapihenui will take them to the pound, unless they are retrieved and paid for. I've no idea why Kapihenui did not claim the land earlier, but I do know that by the time of the newspaper series, the Kapihenui family possessed that land. I posit that even much earlier, it is likely that the family was the keeper of one of the versions of this Pele-Hi'iaka legend along with the heiau, and that the land connections tie the family to the publication of the legend.

Mähele Database

There are 14,456 Land Commission records (30,000+ documents) shown on our records as the Mähele database. The originals were produced within an incredibly short time-span (1846 to 1854) across the island chain. This is a snap-shot or an incredibly significant time period. These documents provide a unique recording of a land/cultural change of the Hawaiian kingdom's land holdings unlike any other in the world. Political and social reasoning, wide-spread disease, and increasing numbers of citizen's deaths kept some from claiming their worked lands. The government disallowed other lands people had traditionally used for growing olonä and koa trees, and transferred them or kept them for the government. Some residents eschewed the Land Commission process altogether and bought their land outright as grants. Nevertheless, the majority of land in the Hawaiian Islands is described in these records with some detail.  

In a paper given for the 2000 Hawaiian Maritime History Conference (see website), I stressed the major point I wanted to show: the land records for certain persons, Hawaiians and foreign navigators and captains alike, are not necessarily found in the records under their names. In fact, more often than not, the history of certain persons was found in other records. A departure for foreign lands that takes on legendary proportions, is that of the high chief Boki. We find repeatedly, from perhaps 50 claimants, who claimed their land from "the time Boki left" the Hawaiian Islands (1829) with two ships, the Kamehameha and the Becket on his trip   to the New Hebrides to get sandalwood. A half-dozen claims are by family members whose kin went off with Boki and never returned. The most comprehensive accounting in Land Commission claims of a captain's voyages is that of William Sumner. We find an account of his voyages, however, not in his own claim, but in testimony given for the property of Chiefess Kekauonohi, upon whose claim Sumner's house rests, some say (On Greer's Honolulu map see Sumner, 155 directly across Palace Walk from Kekauonohi, No. 191). Sumner reminds the Land Commissioners of his complete devotion for all those years to the King and chiefs under whom he sailed.

The Boundary Commission Records Database

The Boundary Commission records follow Land Commission records (completed by Waihona 'Aina in 2002). The Boundary Commission records, by contrast, provide legal inquiry into those Mähele awards that had not been surveyed and where boundaries were not known or given at the time the award was issued. The Big Island has the most complete inquiry recorded for its lands by Commissioner Rufus Lyman. He wanted to know boundaries and the stories associated with them and would not let attorneys or others interrupt his kama'äina witnesses. Today, we are beginning to see in these documents the recordation of customary law in the Pacific and Hawai'i, and look for future determinations via work on this project. Peripherally, a good example of an amazing lack of understanding of Hawaiian customary law can be found in the 107-page record for the ahupua'a of Waikapu on Maui. Following are some examples:

Commissioner: The word 'Kapoli' has no direct reference to the Springs?

Mr. Hewitt: It has possibly, and some of our kamaainas will testify to that. The testimony will be that Kapoli means a depression, and it was often used in connection with a woman's breast, and Kapoli Spring was used as a place that had a special water - as the place which sustained life. (page 385).

In the testimony of the witness Kamaka Kailianu, there are number of instances of customary law: the first, that a person could live in two places all his life, as this gentlemen did, half of the year in Kula and the other half in Waikapu at Maalaea (p. 417). The second was that the stones in the spring harbored the navals of children born in the ahupua'a. By placing them there insured that those children would not desert their parents (p. 421). A third customary law might be that Kapoli Spring didn't have an exact size (as the court wished and finally determined), despite the witness, Mr. Kailianu, because the size of the spring depended on the season: in spring it was larger but in summer and fall it was smaller (p. 421).

Boundary Commission records, especially those of the Island of Hawai'i, have the most examples of all the Mähele-linked land records of customary law in Hawaii.

The Royal Patents

The Royal Patents are the final step in the Land Commission award process (see RP database at Jon Chinen's book They Cried for Help gives numerous instances of people filing complaints of various kinds without government response to most of them. Many lost their lands as a result. As I started transcribing the Royal Patents I was astounded to learn that until t oday we are still in the process of completing what the Board of the Land Commission began in 1848. In over 150 years the process is still incomplete!  

Through the year 2002, 8,738 of these Patents had been issued on   8,574 Land Commission Awards. Of these, 208 are non-entries ("No patent issued"), 105 or more are duplicates and cancelled, and about 1500 of them are only portions of original Land Commission Awards. I am not ready to accurately calculate how many more patents could be executed, although it might be in the neighborhood of another thousand, Or, at the other end of the spectrum, if the government is shown to have taken over many of the non-awarded parcels, then there may be very few left to finalize.

Distribution of Patents Over Time

In the eight years after enactment of   "land reform" in King Kamehameha III's reign, an average of 222.75 patents were made per year). During the 8 ½ years of Kamehameha IV's reign. an average of 432 a year were processed. Kamehameha V processed, in 9 years, an average of 30 a year. In King Lunalilo's reign, 783 patents were executed during his one year in office. In King Kal?kaua's 17-year reign. 1077 patents (average 63 a year) were executed. In Queen Liliu'okalani's brief reign of two years, 271 were processed, as well as others in the name of Kal?kaua when he was traveling abroad (an average of 135 a year). Here is a preliminary analysis table of the entire time period.

Table RPs (Preliminary Analysis)

Signer Regnum No. of years No. of RPs
King Kamehameha III 1825-1854 (1847-1854) 8 1782
King Alexander Liholiho, Kamehameha IV (Jan. 11) 1855-1863 (Nov.30) 8.5 3792 (112 N/A) 3680
King Lot, Kamehameha V   (Nov) 1863-1872 (Dec. 11) 9 282 (12 N/A) 270
King W.C. Lunalilo (Jan. 2) 1873-1874 (Feb. 3) 1 783
King David Kal?kaua (Feb) 1874-1891 (Jan. 20) 17 1077
Queen Liliu'okalani (Mar) 1891-1893 (July) 2 271
President Sanford B. Dole (July) 1893-1899 30 104
Governor Sanford B. Dole 1900-1903 (July) 3 64
Governor W. Carter (Sept) 1903-1907 4 31
Governor E. Mott-Smith. Act. Gov. 1907-1908 1 4
Governor W.F. Frear (Feb) 1908-1913 (Sept) 6 111
Governor L. Pinkham (Feb) 1914-1917 4 15
Governor C.J. McCarthy (Jan) 1918-1921 (Mar) 4 23
Governor W.R. Farrington (July) 1921-1927 (Oct) 6 19
R.C. Brown, Act. Gov. (Nov) 1927-1928 (Mar) 1 38
Governor W.R. Farrington (Apr) 1928-1929 (Jun) 1 44
Governor L. Judd (Aug) 1929-1934 6 30
C. Hite, Act. Gov 1934 1 2
Governor J.B. Poindexter 1934-1941 7 44
C. Hite & E.K. Kai, Act. Governors 1942 1 4
Governor I.M. Stainback 1943-1953 10 25
Governor S. King 1853-1957 4 15
Governor W.F. Quinn 1858-1962 5 23
1963 None
BLNR 1964-2000 36 yrs 120

It appears to me that while Kal?kaua was practically being held hostage to his foreign advisers, more than 188 records were expunged from the record. Many of these numbers show up with new numbers but with the old numbers crossed off and still in place. Some of these expunged numbers which re-appear under later numbers are sugar lands, like the present court case for Hilea Ka'u. But others are not sugar lands. Some of these records probably never got rewritten and there is no way to know how the ones that do appear were changed. I'm guessing someone deliberately tampered with the original records. Another indication of probable tampering is that consecutive numbers are illogically put into differing volumes. Part of this may be due to the length of time required to get a survey and process a patent, but the practice of recording in several volumes during the same time period appears to me to be very suspect.

Land Grants

The Land Grants are lands belonging to the King, following the Mahele, were used to acquire money for the Kingdom. These became known as government lands. It is confusing that these documents, too. are called Royal Patents. Today they are often incorrectly identified with the Mahele-linked Patents. Begun in 1846, we know that recording them continues today, as well. Waihona 'Aina, however, only has copies of those up through 1922, thus far. There are many different kinds of land (grant) patents: lands sold at auction, lands issued on cash freehold agreement, on special homestead agreement, on compromise and equitable settlement, on land exchange, on Right of Preference Lease, and on simple cash purchase. Some of the sales of these lands are announced in the newspapers of the time and can be seen on the site. A woman called me and then faxed me all her "papers" wanting to know what she had. It turned out to be a land grant for a hui in Waialua District, O'ahu, (perhaps Mokuleia). with a map from the State Archives dated some 20 years later than the grant. Usefully, the map showed the grant land of former taro patches then being leased for rice growing. We are aware of both inquiries and law suits concerning perceived improprieties in certain land transfers. but are not experts in these processes. We do follow the subject with interest, however.


Waihona 'Aina is not a title search company. In fact, only the Archives and Bureau of Conveyances can provide certified copies of these documents. We do provide internet databases of all documents transcribed, whether in English or Hawaiian, to help people locate the documents needed and where they may be obtained. In addition, we allow people to search for words, names, and a host of other information. But even with the 60,000 records we now have, they are only a very small portion of those available in the public record. A title researcher recently told me she found it useful to purchase Waihona 'Aina documents because they were easier to read than the originals. And that is often true. A large portion of the older documents in any of these sets of land information are hand-written: some are beautiful and some are impossible. I confess that I can only transcribe one or two at a time of those records which are very hard to read. I can do a dozen or more of those in beautiful handwriting. Some land title companies and land title specialists occasionally give free lectures on the subject. There are also genealogical societies which may help others to research family histories. Waihona 'Aina is happy to be able to provide easy access to many of these records. Mahalo.

Charlot, John, "Pele and Hi'iaka: The Hawaiian-Language Newspaper Series," Anthropos 93,1998:55-75.

Achiu, Jason, e-mail 3/31/2005, Hawaii State Archives.

Palapala Inoa o ka Poe ku i ka Auhau o [1859-1870], ma ka Apana o Koolaupoko Mokupuni o Oahu; in 1859 (page 71, line 19), 1860 (p. 15 line 15), 1861 (p. 14 line 8), 1862 (p. 54 line 1), 1863 (p. 103 line 20), 1864 (p. 15 line 12 Kapihanui listed as "Ko Meheula Kuleana), 1865 (no listing), 1866 (p. 21 line 18), 1870 (p. 15 line 12) Kapihenui 3 ½ acres.

Benton, Richard, Te Matapunenga : A Compendium of References to Concepts and Institutions of Maori Customary Law, 2003 in progress

Chinen, Jon J., The Great Mahele: Hawaii's Land division of 1848 ," U.H. Press, 1958, p. 9.

Chinen, Jon J., They Cried for Help, Xlibris, 2004.

Waihona 'Aina Corp. purchased copies of all executed patents of this series, which are located at the Land Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources

7 Records of Kal?kaua are interspersed thought other monarchy records and therefore the exact number is still unknown.

Mahele and Land Commission Enactment 1846