Under King Kamehameha III, the most important event in the reformation of the land system in Hawai‘i was the separation of the rights of the King, the Chiefs, the Konohiki (land agents) and makaʻāinana (the native tenants.)
More than 240 of the highest ranking Chiefs and Konohiki in the Kingdom joined Kamehameha III in this task (generally referred to as the Great Māhele.) The first māhele, or division, of lands was signed on January 27, 1848; the last māhele was signed on March 7, 1848.
Each māhele was in effect a quitclaim agreement; in each māhele for lands for the King, the Chief or the Konohiki signed an agreement: “I hereby agree that this division is good. The lands above written are for the King. I have no more rights therein.”
The King retained all of his private lands as his individual property; one third of the remaining land was to be for the Hawaiian Government; one third for the Chiefs and Konohiki; and one third to be set aside for the tenants, the actual possessors and cultivators of the soil.
The high Chiefs and the lesser Konohiki were required to present their claims before the Land Commission to receive awards for the lands. Until an award for these lands was issued by the Land Commission, title to such lands remained with the government.
In the Māhele, of the approximate 10,000 awards, around 1,000,000-acres were reserved by King Kamehameha III as “Crown” lands, 1,500,000-acres were given by the King (as “Government” lands) to the ‘government and people’, approximately 1,500,000-acres were set aside for the Chiefs (as “Konohiki” lands) and less than 30,000-acres of land were awarded to the native tenants (Kuleana lands.)
Kamehameha III divided the lands he reserved for himself into two separate parts; the smaller portion he retained for his personal use (“Crown” lands); the larger portion he gave ‘to the Chiefs and people’ (“Government” lands.)
On June 7, 1848, Kamehameha III approved a Law, passed at the Council House, that listed respective ahupua‘a and ili that were “the private lands of His Majesty Kamehameha III … and said lands shall be regulated and disposed according to his royal will and pleasure subject to the rights of native tenants.”
Another long list of ahupua‘a and ili were noted as “the lands of the Hawaiian Government.” A shorter list of O‘ahu lands were “set apart for the use of the Fort in Honolulu, to be cultivated by soldiers and other tenants under the direction of the Governor of O‘ahu”. (An Act Relating to the Lands of His Majesty the King and the Government, 1848)
For a while, the ‘Crown’ lands were viewed and handled “to be the private lands of His Majesty Kamehameha III, to have and to hold to himself, his heirs and successors forever”. (An Act To Relieve The Royal Domain From Encumbrances, And To Render The Same Inalienable, 1865)
Kamehameha IV administered his land in much the same way as his uncle (as if it was his own private property.) In dispositions, Queen Emma joined him, waiving her right of dower in such lands.
Queen Emma was the first to make a claim to the Crown Lands as private property, with the death of Kamehameha IV.
She “claimed that all the property possessed by her late royal husband was his private property” and made claim of dower to one-half of the Crown Lands in the royal domain; the Attorney General opposed her claim, noting they constituted “a Royal Domain annexed to the Hawaiian Crown”.
Kamehameha V responded that he, as “hereditary successor to the throne, shall inherit the entire estate, both real and personal derived from his Majesty Kamehameha III, at his decease, and held by Kamehameha IV, the King lately deceased.”
The Hawai‘i Supreme Court, in deciding the Estate of Kamehameha IV noted, “In 1840 (Kamehameha III) granted the first Constitution by which he declared and established the equality before the law of all his subjects, chiefs, and people alike.”
“By that Constitution, he voluntarily divested himself of some of his powers and attributes as an absolute Ruler, and conferred certain political rights upon his subjects, admitting them to a share with himself in legislation and government. This was the beginning of a government as contradistinguished from the person of the King …”
“… who was thenceforth to be regarded rather as the executive chief and political head of the nation than its absolute governor. Certain kinds of public property began to be recognized as Government property, and not as the King’s.”
The Court noted, “These lands are to be in the perpetual keeping of the Legislative Council (Nobles and Representatives) or in that of the superintendents of said lands, appointed by them from time to time, and shall be regulated, leased, or sold, in accordance with the will of said Nobles and Representatives, for the good of the Hawaiian Government, and to promote the dignity of the Hawaiian Crown.”
The Court found, “while it was clearly the intention of Kamehameha III to protect the lands which he reserved to himself out of the domain which had been acquired by his family through the prowess and skill of his father, the conqueror, from the danger of being treated as public domain or Government property …”
“… it was also his intention to provide that those lands should descend to his heirs and successors, the future wearers of the crown which the conquerer had won; and we understand the act of 7th June, 1848, as having secured both those objects.” (Supreme Court Decision in the Matter of the Estate of Kamehameha IV, 1864)
The Crown Land stayed with the government and dower was acknowledged with Queen Emma, however there was a “settlement of a permanent annuity upon Queen Emma in lieu of her claim of dower in the royal domain.” (Alexander)
This litigation led to legislation which affirmed the decision of the court; on January 3, 1865, Kamehameha V approved an Act of the Legislative Assembly that initially noted …
“the history of said lands shows that they were vested in the King for the purpose of maintaining the Royal State and Dignity; and it is therefore disadvantageous to the public interest that the said lands should be alienated, or the said Royal Domain diminished.”
That 1865 law noted the Crown Lands “shall be henceforth inalienable, and shall descend to the heirs and successors of the Hawaiian Crown forever”.
The Act also noted that, “during the two late reigns, the said Royal Domain has been greatly diminished, and is now charged with mortgages to secure considerable sums of money” – the Law converted the mortgages to bonds. (An Act To Relieve The Royal Domain From Encumbrances, And To Render The Same Inalienable, 1865)
On the death of Kamehameha V, his half-sister, Ruth Keʻelikōlani, inherited his private lands, but the Crown Lands were held by the commissioners for the benefit of his successors.
Later (September 13, 1880,) Claus Spreckels purchased from Ruth Keʻelikōlani all her interest or claim in and to the Crown Lands. Rather than taking the issue to court, a compromise and an act was carried through the Legislature of 1882, where Spreckels received the ahupua‘a of Wailuku with ili and quitclaimed any interest in other Crown Lands. (Alexander)
Queen Lili‘uokalani made a claim to Crown Lands as her personal property. Noting, “Her cause of action is predicated upon an alleged ‘vested equitable life interest’ to certain lands described in the petition, known as ‘crown lands,’ of which interest she was divested by the defendants.”
However, the US Court of Claims noted, “It may not be unworthy of remark that it is very unusual, even in cases of conquest, for the conqueror to do more than to displace the sovereign and assume dominion over the country.”
The Court concluded, “The crown lands were the resourceful methods of income to sustain, in part at least, the dignity of the office to which they were inseparably attached. When the office ceased to exist they became as other lands of the Sovereignty and passed to the defendants as part and parcel of the public domain.”
“Since 1865, so far as the record before us discloses, the character of the crown lands has not been changed; they have passed to the succeeding monarch. The income, less expense of management, has been used to support the royal office and treated as belonging to the Crown. All other property of the King has uniformly passed to his heirs regardless of his royal successor.”
The Court further noted, “The constitution of the Republic of Hawai‘i, as respects the crown lands, provided as follows: ‘That portion of the public domain heretofore known as crown land is hereby declared to have been heretofore, and now to be, the property of the Hawaiian Government …” (Lili‘uokalani v The United States, 1910)
Today, abstracting (researching title) government lands is fundamentally different from abstracting private lands. For private lands, owners have a deed that evidences ownership and a title company can trace the ‘chain of title’ at the Bureau of Conveyances by researching the transfers of the land from owner to owner via legal documents.
Instead of a deed or other legal document, the State owns the majority of former crown and government land through passage of laws. Public land title is passed by ‘operation of law.’
Today, there is no paper title for the majority of public lands, i.e., there is no deed showing the State owns it. There is no ‘chain of title’ for the majority of former Crown and Government Lands, since the lands were never conveyed out of the government.
We now generally refer to the Crown and Government Lands as ‘ceded’ lands. Under the Admission Act, about 1.2-million acres are to “be held by (the) State as a public trust” to promote one or more of five purposes:
1. support of the public schools and other public educational institutions
2. betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians (per the Hawaiian Homes Act, 1920)
3. development of farm and home ownership on as widespread a basis as possible
4. making of public improvements
5. provision of lands for public use
As noted in the earlier discussion of Crown and Government Lands above, these lands, though under the control of changing sovereigns and governments (Kingdom to Provisional Government to Republic to Territory to State,) were in and continue to remain in the ‘public domain’ for the public good.