Hawaii Historical Background and Case Study in Family History Research

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Pacific Island Guide  >  Hawaii Historical Background and Case Study

Hawaiian King David Kalākua, 1836-1891
The Hawaiian Islands are in the North Pacific Ocean. Hawaii is the 50th state of the United States of America. The capital city of Hawaii is Honolulu. 

The biggest industry of Hawaii is tourism. Almost 7 million people visited in 2000. Important exports are sugar, pineapple, macadamia nuts and coffee. Popular tourist sites include Waikiki Beach, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Polynesian Cultural Center and the USS Arizona Monument at Pearl Harbor.

The inhabited islands are: Hawaii, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai, Niihau.

Historical Background

1527 Unverified contact with Spanish sailors in the time of Kealiiokaloa.
1528 Unverified discovery of Hawaiian Islands by Juan de Gaylan.
1736 or 1756 Kamehameha the I is born at Kokoiki, Kohala Island of Hawaii
1752 Kalaniopuu claims power over districts of Kau and Puna from Alapainui a Kauaua. Alapainui a Kauaua, King of Hawaii, dies at Kikiakoi, Kawaihae, Kohala, Hawaii. His heir was Keaweopala. Kalaniopuu kills Keaweopala at Puako, Kohala, to become king of Hawaii.
1774 Hewahewa is born in Kohala, Island of Hawaii. He becomes the Kahuna nui, or high priest.
1775 Kaahumanu becomes the wife to Kamehameha I. She was his favorite wife, and had over 20 marriages. Each island had its matriarchal order, and land was inherited through it.
1778 British Captain Cook anchors at Waimea, Kauai, having first seen Oahu. The Hawaiian population is estimated at about 300,000 to 500,000. Caucasian blood and diseases are introduced.
1779 Hawaiians celebrating the Makahiki, believe Cook to be the god Lono. Hawaiians find out Cook is not Lono and kill him at Kealakekua Bay, Kona, Hawaii.
1785 Trading ship lands while en route to China. Possible Chinese blood introduced as crew jump ship.
1790 John Young (Olahana or Ana) and Isaac Davis become advisors to Kamehameha I.
1795 Kamehameha conquers all the islands, except Kauai, to become first monarch of the Hawaiian Islands.
1797 Birth of Liholiho, (Kamehameha II. Son of Kamehameha I and Keopuolani).
1819 European and American merchants and sea captains begin arriving in Hawaii.
1814 Birth of Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III).
1819Death of King Kamahemeha I. Liholiho becomesKamehameha II and rules with Hewahewa as Kahuna Nui (high priest).   They burn the heiau and idols and abolish the kapu system.
1820 Joseph Smith’s first vision. Hewahewa prophesies God will soon land yonder,” pointing northeast
1822 The Hawaiian language is written. The first protestant missionaries arrive in Hawaii. Whalers and seamen arrive in Hawaii.
1823 The Queen mother, Keopuolani, on her deathbed, requests baptism. She buried in a Christian way.
1824 King Kamehameha II dies of measles in England. Kamehameha III becomes king.Kapuna Nui Hewahewa tours islands teaching people to read, observe the Christian Sabbath, refrain from immoral acts, turn to God, to love and obey Him.
1829Some Hawaiians are baptized into the Catholic church.
1831 Lahianaluna seminary is founded on Maui, with a printing press. Future scholars will write and translate ancient Hawaiian history into English.
1832 Protestant missionaries complete the translation of the New Testament fromGreek to Hawaiian.
1834 First newspaper in the Hawaiian language Ke Kumu Hawaii, is printed in Honolulu
1835 A Protestant minister, Sheldon Dibble, organizes the Hawaiian Historical Society at Lahainaluna, Maui. Its mission is to gather and preserve all ancient Hawaiian tradition, genealogies, and legends.
1836 The first English language newspaper,Sandwich Islands Gazette, is published in Honolulu.
1838 Birth of Lydia Kamakaeha Liliuokalani. Birth of Joseph F. Smith.
1839 Protestant missionaries translate the Old Testament from Hebrew to Hawaiian. Common schools inHawaii numbered 1,000. Pupils numbered 52,000, approximately Two fifths of the population.
1840 Over 42,000 Hawaiians have converted to Christianity. Constitution is formed.
1841 The Hawaiian Historical Association is formed, with Kamehameha elected as president.
1842 The United States recognizes Hawaii as an independent kingdom.
1844 LDS Missionaries intending to sail toHawaii arrive at Tubuai instead, 300 miles south of Tahiti. Joseph and Hyrum Smith are martyred.
1847 TheGreat Mahele, a division of Hawaii’s land among royalty, chiefs, commoners, and whites, is begun.
1850 Brigham Young sends George Q. Cannon and nine other LDS missionaries to Honolulu. Businessmen begin to arrive in Hawaii.
1851 First LDS convert baptism in Hawaii.Nalilmanui offers her home to George Cannon and missionaries. George Q. Cannon receives revelation at Lahaina, Maui, that the Hawaiians are the seed of Abraham, through the posterity of Lehi.
1852 Jonathan and Kitty Napela are baptized and Jonathan helps George Q. Cannon translate the Book of Mormon from English into Hawaiian. First LDS branch organized at Pulehu, Maui. Total LDS membership in Hawaii is 841: 196 from Maui, 71 from Oahu, 43 from Molokai. Arrival of  Chinese immigrants to Hawaii.
1853 Elder Uaua raises his wife from the dead through the priesthood. Membership at April conference in Hawaii totals 1,131. A smallpox epidemic kill 5,000 to 6,000 Hawaiians, 400 of them LDS members.
1854 King Kamehameha dies. Alexander Liholiho becomesKamehameha IV.
1855 Printing of the Book of Mormon in Hawaiian begun. Joseph F. Smith, age 16, is appointed to preside on the island ofMaui with Elders Sixtus E. Smith and Simpson Molen as assistants.
1857 Joseph F. Smith is nursed back to health by Ma Naoheakamamalu Manuhii. He blesses her that she will “live to see the day when a temple will be built in Hawaii.”
1858 The Utah war brings LDS missionaries home in December.Hawaiian Elders Kelehune, and Solomon Umi are left in charge.
1861 Death of King Kamehameha IV. Lot Kamehameha becomes Kamehameha V.
1862 Lorenzo Snow is drowned in Lahaina harbor,Maui, and is resuscitated. He goes to Palawai.  Walter Murry Gibson is excommunicated for simony and apostasy. William W. Cluff prays.Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball appear to him and show him the boundaries of the ahupuaa of Lai. They tell him that this will be the central place of the Church in Hawaii and a temple will be built here.
1865 Laie is chosen as the new gathering place for the Saints by Francis Hammond and George Nebeker. Total LDS membership in Hawaii is 500, with 22 missionaries. Arrival of South Sea Islander immigrants in Hawaii. 1868 Arrival of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii.
1870 LDS membership in Hawaii is 1,611. Worldwide membership is 90,130.
1872 King Kamehameha V dies. Native Hawaiian population has declined from 300,000 in 1778 to 50,000.
1873William C. Lunalilio is elected as the first Hawaiian Monarch.
1874 Lunalilio dies and David Kalakaua is elected to be the Hawaiian Monarch.
1875 Arrival of Portuguese immigrants in Hawaii. LDS membership in Hawaii is 4,092.
1881 Arrival of Norwegian andGerman immigrants in Hawaii.
1883 Coronation of King Kalakaua andQueen Kapiolani.
1885 Joseph F. Smith tells Hawaiians not to leave Hawaii, but to be patient and love the Lord.
1888 George Q. Cannon is first counselor and Jos. F. Smith 2nd counselor to new LDS Church President John Taylor.
1889Wilford Woodruff becomes LDS Church President, with G. Q. Cannon 1st and Joseph F. Smith 2nd counselors. The colony ofIosepa is established by Hawaiian Saints in Skull Valley Utah.
1891 King David Kalakaua dies and Liliuokalani is elected to be the Hawaiian Monarch.
1893The government is overthrown and a Provisional Government is established. The Salt lake Temple is dedicated. The Genealogical Society of Utah is established.
1898 Hawaii is annexed to the United States. George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith become 1st and 2nd Counselors to new LDS PresidentLorenzo Snow.
1900 Arrival of Okinawan andPuerto Rican immigrants in Hawaii. LDS membership in Hawaii is 6,978, with 22 missionaries. Total Church membership is 283,765.
1901 Death of George Q. Cannon. Hawaiian territorial government formally established. Arrival of Negro immigrants to Hawaii.
1903  Arrival of Korean immigrants to Hawaii.
1906 Queen Liliuokalani is baptized into the LDS Church by Elder Abraham Fernandez. Arrival of Filipino immigrants to Hawaii.
1907 Arrival of Spanish immigrants to Hawaii.
1909 Arrival of Russian immigrants to Hawaii.
1915 Joseph F. Smith arrives in Honoloulu and sees Manuhii again. He dedicates the temple site in Laie. LDS membership in Hawaii is 9,443 with 46 missionaries.
1917 Queen Liliuokalani dies at age 79.
1918 President Joseph F. Smith dies in Salt Lake of the Flu epidemic at age 80.
Hawaii temple dedicated by President Heber J. Grant, with William M. Waddoups as temple president.
1920 Vicarious baptisms are performed in the Hawaiian temple for the ancestors of Kamehameha. These genealogies are printed in Abraham Fornander’s Polynesian History and Ethnology.
1921 Elder David O. McKay visitsLaie Elementary school and sees the vision of a university in Hawaii.
1927 Robert Plunkett and Clinton Kanahele are the first Hawaiins to serve in a temple presidency and to receive the sealing power.

2008 Membship of the LDS Church on the Hawaiian Islands was 67,106.


There are many overlapping ethnic and cultural backgrounds in Hawaiian Islands:

Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Okinawan, and other Polynesian islanders mixed with the Hawaiians. The Solomon Islanders mixed in with the Fijians. Hawaiians doing family history work need to know when different ethnic groups immigrated to Hawaii.

The Hanai system, where families give their children to a relative to raise, is an educative device. Families sent their children to live with a family who had the interest of the children as a trade. A good fisherman would be sent to a fishing family, etc.

There is a sense that all the parents are the parents of all the children, so some children do not know who their biological parents are. A childless couple could be given a child from another family to overcome the terribleness of having no children.

There is no special word for “mother” or “father” in Hawaiian. All men and women of the parental generation are called Makuu kane (men) or Makua wahine (women), which is a respectful name given to all men and women in our mother’s generation.

The generation of our grandparents is the “ku ku” or “tu tu”generation. The same word is pronounced “tu tu” in the Northern islands, such asKawai`i andOahu and “ku ku” on the rest of the islands. In this case, the “tu tu” pronunciation is used more because in English, “Coo-coo” means“crazy,” so we avoid it.

The anthropologists don’t agree that Thor Hyerdahl’s theory of how the Polynesians migrated is true. Nevertheless, the Hawaiians believe they are related to the American Indians, and that the American Indians are related to the Hebrews. There are so many similarities between them and the Hebrews in our culture and their way of naming (Judah Ben Hur means Judah, son of Hur, which is the same format as the Hawaiian), that the anthropologists should wake up and change their theories.

The Raratongan language is almost exactly the same as Hawaiian. The glottal stop is replaced by a “t”, but the rest is the same. This shows a firm connection betweenRarotonga and Hawaii. It is also very close to Tahitian.

The pedigrees that we have are often collapsed, and unfortunately, are often missing the stories that go with them. The histories that accompany the pedigrees give the context of time and place for the persons in the pedigrees.

The famous Hawaiian ancestors were endowed in the Hawaiian temple Jan 20, 1920(Wakea and Papa). Records thatwere done in the Hawaiian temple pinpoint all of these ancient ancestors. It is not necessary to do these ordinances again.


Hawaiian chants can go back as far as 90 generations. No names were duplicated in the chants. The names were picturesque as well as unique, and they were in a special rhythm. In 1842, some people began to keep written Hawaiian language records, and many of these genealogies were recorded.

If a modern Hawaiian has ancestors with no family name, we are not to worry. No Hawaiian ancestor had a family name until 1852, when King Kameahmeah was told by the U.S. Postal Service that people had to have a last name in order to receive mail.

Most Hawaiians took our father’s name as a surname, but not all. Hawaiians like to do things the way we want to, and not the way someone tells us to. In some families, different children would take different parts of the name or take their own occupation as their name. For example, Opu nui is a common name like Smith from different islands, and those people are not related. If we have a long name likeKeli`ikulahala, we might cut it down to Keli`i.

Hawaiian names cannot be directly translated. “Make ke hao can mean eyes look”but it can also mean “hearts Desire.”There is an image for each name. Queen Lilio o Kalani was really named Kamaka eha,which means “sore Eyes.” The people in the palace had Pink Eye at the time she was born. You would find her on childhood documents by this name. Later, when she was made queen, they thought her name was not fitting enough, so they changed it to Soreness of heaven. (Lilio o kalani).She was Pukaoa Nui Kamehameha, ali ao onui wahini,which means “an esteemed companion.”

Napela marriedKitty Richardson.The king named the baby something that meantpleasant to look upon. Ke haulani hemakana onaona maikalani, which means something like a “Sweet mist.”''
There is a softness in the vowels and the inflections of the language. It is a very courteous language. The way they speak Hawaiian now is not soft like it used to be. The old people are not pleased with the harsh things the young people are saying in Hawaiian when they learn it in school. It does not carry the culture properly.

Example map of island "Moku" or districts.

In Hawaiian research, the name of the island is critical. Modern county names sometimes include more than one island, so the island name is lost if you just write the name of the county. Also, the island district is critically important for family history records and research.

Each island was divided up into pie-shaped districts (Hawaiian name: Moku) with a chief officer over the district. It would be triangle-shaped, with the apex in the mountains and the base on the beach. People would commonly migrate from the mountains to the beach and back during the year, so villages were not permanent nor central to life.

The way to write place names is:

Town or village, District, Island, Island Group, Country
Waikalua Road, Kaneohe, Oahu, Hawaii, U.S.A.

Case History: Nani Olsen Kelly’s Story

I am Nani Olsen Kelly. The name Nani is short for Haunani, and my other name is Lovelee. I was raised by my grandmother.

My father (Henry Olaf Olsen) was part Norwegian. He was born in Makena, Maui, Hawaii in 1915. His grandfather (Christian Olsen, Sr.) was Norwegian and his grandmother (Sophie Weber) was from Germany. I did the temple work for them in 1972. My father died a few years ago, and my mother was sealed to him, and I was sealed to both of them. My grandfather, Jeremiah Burns, raised my dad. He was born in 1856. He joined the LDS Church and did the work for his wife’s family. His dad, Michael Burns, came from England. His dad died in 1870. See Step 5  for a pedigree chart and 2 family group records.

Grandfather Burns married a pure Hawaiian woman. I have started working on the wife of the Burns line. Her name was Kahele. She had only one name listed. I went onto the Internet at Ancestry.com and found a Kahele Uwekoolani. It had all of her brothers and sisters listed. I printed it out. It goes back to 1750. It got to a chiefly line (ali`i). It was in the books at theBishop Museum. It went back to the ancestor Kauauanui Amahi. His father was named Mahi. The a means of, which means the son of someone. Mahi’s name was Mahi `a Loli. Loli was his father.

How Nani did her research

Around 1850, people were told by the government to take a surname. Before that, there is no surname line to follow. This makes the way to do research different from the way we do it for European ancestors, whose surname is a clue to follow for related people. The way to overcome the snag in doing research during this time period is to—

1. Go through a record from the place and time period of your ancestors and pull out all of the names you think you know or which sound familiar to you.

The place is important. If your ancestors lived there, there is a chance a record was made with their name on it.

2. Go to the Internet and search each name individually.

That is how I got the information for my grandmother’s mother, Makakehau.

The ruling people of Hawaii (the ali`i) were actually from Tahiti. They tried to keep the ali`i lines pure to acquire land and keep power. They could memorize their genealogy back 13 or more generations. The common people (maka`ai na na) were only allowed to keep their genealogy for 3 generations.

My mother’s cousin does a lot of genealogy. Her name is Edith McKenzie. She put out a couple of books. She gave me a list of names she had gotten a long time ago. I went on the Internet and pulled them together. I learned that all of my Hawaiian ancestors lived in the same place.

There would be five or six Moki’s (districts) on an island. It is a pie-shaped district, with the apex in the mountains and spreading out to the seashore. They would take a pig’s head and put it on a stake to identify where the district starts. Because of this, the name Moki means pigs head.

Kahalu`u is the ahupaua`a (place) where my grandmother’s family lived. An ahupaua`a is a smaller division within the district. My grandmother’s mother’s parents were born in 1816 or 1818 in the district of Kahikinui and Kanaiao on Maui. The children in her family were listed separately on the record I found, but they all were listed with the same parents.

What to do when you have little information

1. Go out and pull in a whole bunch of information and then try to connect the people into families by using places and dates.
Pekelo petero.png

I make diagrams on graph paper with the names. I make them again and again as I get more information. I don’t mind re-doing them because you remember the names you have written down and recall what looks familiar.

My mother was Eliza Fetheran. Her mother was Hattie Opealu Papa. Grandmas’s dad was Pekelo, which means Peter. On the record, I found a name Patero, which also means Peter, so it could be the same person. Actually, his father’s name was also Pekelo. Pekelo Papa was his father’s name.

List of films Nani found
Congregationalist ministers would make a note of the persons they thought would make good members of their church. This would cover about ten percent of the population. So a lot of people were missed by these listings. But you may be lucky like me and find an ancestor’s name.

2. For most people, there will be one point where it is possible one of your lines may be ali`i (royal or noble people).

When we come to this point, we can go to the library, Bishop Museum, University libraries, etc. and use the books which have the oral genealogies for the ali`i written down. The maka ai na na, or common people, are not as likely to be named in a genealogy. They were not allowed to keep their genealogies beyond 3 or 4 generations. This was one way the ali`i kept in control.

3. Look in the Family History Library Catalog.

My mother’s father, George Edward. B. Featheran, Jr. is from the Gilbert Islands, the island of Kiribati. I looked under Kiribati and printed out all of the Kiribati record descriptions. I also did that for Hawaii. I organized them by film number and kept track of the item number of the record on the film. I checked off the films I looked at and noted information I found.

I can order the films, or use them at the Library when I have time.
Nani notes.png

4. Get background information and make a time line.

I have spent quite a bit of time accumulating background information to help me with my research. I make a time line down the left margin of the paper and try to put names of people by the years when they lived. I draw lines to show possible relationships between people. I go over it again and again. I do a different time chart as I learn more from the things I search. Certain names pop up. You have to familiarize yourself with the names and the connections between people. You don’t suddenly put everything onto a Family Group Record.
Pekelo timeline.png

5. Use more resources to get more information.

Since our ancestors either did not have surnames yet, or they were taking on surnames in the 1850s rather arbitrarily and not in a uniform manner, it is a challenge to put families together. We can take any marriage record with a place recorded on it. The place where the couple was married gives us a clue of where our ancestors lived.

I come up with random lists of names with places of birth, marriage, or death. The government of Hawaii asked the Protestant pastors to send in their mission books to the government. The Churches wanted to get people married in the Christian way. Older couples got married, so you can’t estimate birth dates of the children from the Protestant marriage records.

The Churches were required to send marriage records to the territorial government. These records were indexed. They are in the archives under DOE. They are indexed by father, mother and child. In 1850,a law was made to report the birth of children. Keoni Ana was John Young, who was secretary to Kamehameha. He signed documents in the 1850's.

Tax records go geographically. They establish the land a family owned. A new person paying the taxes on the land is the possible heir

6. Try to find photos of your ancestors.

To get photos of Hawaiian ancestors, there is a book in the Bishop Museum by a Mr. Sullivan. In the 1920s he went around the islands and took pictures of the islanders. I believe it is called The Sullivan Photographic Collection.

Other ways to get photographs are to see if the LDS Church Historical Dept. has photos or journals of missionaries who served in the Hawaiian Islands in the early days of the Church. Also, of course, ask your relatives. I have an aunt who is 88. She has a picture in her stuff, but I’m afraid it is getting in bad condition. The climate destroys paper. It would be good to scan the pictures into a computer to preserve them.

7. Print out a copy of the microfilm page where you found information and write the film number in the margin of the printouts.

I do this so I can remember which film it was taken from. Be sure to print out what you get. Be sure to keep a written note of the sources where your printouts and copies came from.

8. Look on the Internet.

Ancestry World Tree Viewer has a family line that goes back all the way. I just had to type in one name to get to it. Keep track of the films you have used and the web sites you have gone to and what you found or didn’t find on them.

9. Organize what you have found.

You have to start with a mess of stuff to organize. Then you can organize it. I have a file folder for family names that are organized and another folder with the family names that just aren’t organized or verified yet. It is stuff I am working on.

The binders with my family group records are color coded. The blue sheets are my father’s father’s line. The pink ones are my father’s mother’s line. The green sheets are my mother’s father’s line. The yellow sheets are my mother’s mother’s line.

DAD'S DAD ─ Blue
My DAD── │
DAD'S MOM ─ Pink
ME── │
MOM'S DAD ─ Green
My MOM── │
MOM'S MOM ─ Yellow

10. Fast, pray, and trust.

I also fast and pray for help with the work I am doing, because it requires some inspiration to get things to fit together properly.