1840 to 1890: The Great Mahele and the Rise of
Sugar and Ranching on the Hamakua Coast

In the 1840s, the Christian, western-educated, and progressive King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) began a system of land reform, providing his subjects with fee-simple ownership of the lands they formerly worked for the chiefs. Called the Great Mahele, this process divided the land between the Hawaiian people, the chiefs, and the Hawaiian government, but also allowed foreigners to purchase or otherwise own land (much of it was awarded via grants) rather than leasing it from the aliʻi or the Crown. This opened the door for enterprising ranchers such as John Parker to expand into Hamakua and other Big Island districts. He formed the Parker Ranch in 1847, which came to encompass over 250,000 acres and was one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States (after accession). Today Honokaa hosts Western Week, celebrating the Paniolo traditions from the Hamakua cattle ranches.

In addition to Land Commission Awards to Native Hawaiians, between 1850 and 1880 land on the Hamakua Coast was divided into grants awarded or sold to both Hawaiians and haoles, or as part of homesteads to encourage the settlement of rural areas. Some of these grants were very large, and were purchased from the Kingdom cheaply, often as a result of political influence. In 1876, Honokaa resident William H. Rickard purchased 67.5 acres for $128.61, which probably equated to less than $3,000 in 2010 dollars. He had been in the Crown’s Legislature, and he managed the Hamakua Sugar Plantation from 1880 to 1892, which gave him the access and connections to make such a deal possible. Many profited off of these transactions even in the short-term, as grantees could now sell their property to the highest bidder, usually another wealthy foreign resident, or to the sugar plantations.

In this map, commissioned in 1896, the large, fairly even plots of the Ahualoa Homestead give some insight into the way in which they were given away or sold.

Next: 1850 to 1920: Plantations and Ethnicity