History of Maui

United States > US City Index > Maui > History

In the Beginning
Approximately five million years ago, an undersea eruption created two volcanic mountains, Mauna Kahalawai and Haleakala. Mauna Kahalawai, now an extinct volcano, became the rugged West Maui Mountains. Majestic 10,023-foot Haleakala, meaning "house of the sun," last erupted in 1790 and is now considered a dormant volcano. Centuries of lava flows and erosion created an isthmus between the two mountains. This vale composed of rich volcanic soil gave Maui the nickname "Valley Isle."

According to ancient legend, the Hawai'ian islands were created by Maui, the "god of a thousand tricks," who pulled the islands from the ocean with his magic fishhook. This mythical demigod also lassoed the sun god "La" from atop Haleakala, releasing it only after it promised to move slowly through the sky, thus providing abundant daylight and warmth for the islands.

Maui County, now four islands, was originally one land mass called "Maui-Nui." During the polar ice age, the glaciers thawed and the oceans swelled to separate the mountain peaks into the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kaho'olawe.

The First Settlers
According to legend, Hawai'i-loa and eight navigating seafarers from the Marquesa islands, 2,000 miles to the south, discovered the Hawai'ian islands in the eighth century A.D. The first inhabitants developed a simple agrarian culture, growing taro plant and grinding the root into their food staple, poi. They also built canoes and fished, constructed grass huts for dwelling, erected crude stone temples and wove tapa cloth.

Around the twelfth century A.D, the Tahitians arrived in Maui. They were led by chiefs who became the ali'i, the Hawai'ian ruling class. The Tahitians established the "kapu" system, the rigid social order that became the foundation of ancient Hawaiian culture. Additionally, they introduced their religion with its many goddesses. Haleki'i and Pihana, two archeological sites in the Iao Valley, are religious structures built by Tahitian ali'i. The full name of Pihana is actually Pihanakalani, meaning "a gathering place of the ali'i."

For several centuries, warfare raged among competing ali'i on Maui and between chieftains from the neighboring islands of Oahu and Hawai'i. In 1550 AD the Ali'i Pi'ilani unified all the Maui districts, and after he died his two sons battled for control of the island. With the help of warriors from Hawai'i, Kiha-a-pi'ilani prevailed to become the supreme ruler of Maui.

Maui Becomes Part of the Monarchy
During the late 1700s, Kamehameha I, ruler of the big island Hawai'i, invaded the adjacent islands to establish the Hawaiian Kingdom. One of his armies, led by Kalani'opu'u, attacked Maui in 1776. He was soundly defeated by the warriors of King Kahekili, who surprised the invaders by hiding behind the sand dunes at Maalaea Bay. However, in 1790, Kamehameha I invaded Maui once again, this time with a fleet of war canoes so large it is alleged to have filled the bay from Hana to Kahului. Kamehameha finally conquered Maui in the brutal battle of Wailuku, where after two days of intense fighting he unleashed a cannon operated by two European soldiers. The Maui army, commanded by Kalanikapule (King Kahekilis son), was forced to retreat into Iao Valley, where they tried to escape by scaling the steep cliffs. This historic battle is now known as Kauwaupali ("clawed off the cliff") and Kepaniwai ("the damming of the waters"). In 1802 Kamehameha I built the "brick palace" in Lahaina, where he lived for a year.

The Influx of Westerners
The British explorer Captain James Cook landed in Kahului Bay on November 26, 1778, an event that began the influx of Western influence. French explorer Captain Jean-Francois La PĂ©rouse, the first Westerner to settle on Maui, established a village in 1786. Probably the most significant influence was that of the Christian missionaries, who founded the first mission under Reverend Richards in Lahaina in 1823. In 1824 Kaahumanu, Mauis regent under Kamehameha II, issued a code of laws based on the Ten Commandments. During this time, whaling had begun to boom in Lahaina, a development that swiftly introduced some of the more unsavory Western elements to the port town. A riot broke out in 1825 when a law was passed prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Whalers attacked the Richards' home, but were unsuccessful in squelching the Christian presence. Meanwhile, the missionaries established their instrumental role in educating the local population. Since the Hawaiians had no written language, the missionaries developed a written language based on a twelve-letter alphabet. The Lahainaluna Mission School was opened in 1831 and a seminary for girls was founded in 1836. In 1835, the governor of Maui ordered all children over four to attend school. Missionaries taught reading, writing and Bible studies in Hawaiian, and by 1850, Hawaii had the worlds highest literacy rate!

Unfortunately, the Westerners also brought diseases that over the next century would obliterate the native Hawaiian population. Viruses such as measles that were endemic in Westerners had a devastating effect on the previously unexposed Hawaiians. Soon the ratio of Hawaiians to immigrants began to drastically decrease.

Commercial Growth and the Advent of Tourism
As Western traders and seafarers flocked to Maui, commercial growth expanded. Lahaina became a major port during the whaling era, and by the 1840s, hundreds of ships anchored there. Merchants, prostitutes, saloons, and gambling establishments prospered, although tensions between the whalers and missionaries created social unrest. The discovery of oil in 1850 signified the decline of whaling.

Agriculture also flourished because of foreign influence. In 1828, Kamehameha III built the first sugar mill in Maui, a water-powered mill designed by two Chinese technicians. George Wilfong, an entrepreneurial whaler, established Mauis first sugar plantation in Hana. During 1853-1854, a smallpox epidemic killed many native Hawaiians, resulting in a depleted work force. Immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, and even Europe flocked to Maui to work in the sugar cane fields. American businessmen began to invest in pineapple and sugar plantations, and in 1875 negotiated a reciprocity treaty with the governor of Maui to protect their investments.

The expansion of foreign power and influence ultimately led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. In 1894, American pineapple tycoon Dole became the governor of the Republic of Hawaii, which was annexed to the United States in 1898 and made a U.S. territory in 1890. During the early 1900s, Japanese immigration swelled; Mauis population was forty percent Japanese by 1925. The American military presence in Hawaii was also expanding during this time, and the U.S. Navy established its Pacific headquarters in Pearl Harbor.

The opening of the Pioneer Hotel in 1901 signaled the beginning of tourism in Lahaina. Visitors Mark Twain and Robert Lewis Stevenson praised Maui, and Lahaina became a vacation hot spot for the rich and famous. After World War II, sugar production declined and tourism experienced phenomenal growth. Mauis first resort hotel, Hotel Hana, was opened in 1946. After Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, investment capitol poured in for development of vacation resorts. Kaanapali, dubbed the worlds first "master planned resort," and site of such mega-resorts as the Ka'anapali Beach Hotel and the Hyatt Regency, was built in 1961, followed by the development of the Ritz Carlton and Kapalua Bay resorts in West Maui. In the 1970s, sunny South Maui, with its great snorkeling beaches and constant sunshine, was discovered. Over the next few years, several plush resorts and championship golf courses were developed in Wailea. Most recently, the opening of the magnificent Maui Prince resort signified the spread of commercialization to the very southern tip of Maui, Makena Beach.