He was born about 1789 with the name Kaluaikonahale, the son of Keʻeaumoku and his wife Nāmāhana. He was the youngest of four famous siblings.
His sisters were Queen Kaʻahumanu, Kamehameha’s favorite wife who later became the powerful Queen Regent and Kuhina nui, Kalākua Kaheiheimālie and Namahana-o-Piʻia (also queens of Kamehameha) and brother George Cox Kahekili Keʻeaumoku.
His father, Keʻeaumoku, was a “tried friend of Kamehameha and one of the principal promoters of his fortunes. Being of prodigious personal strength, his valor powerfully assisted Kamehameha in securing the entire dominion of the group.” (Polynesian, January 4, 1845)
Kaluaikonahale was born on Maui, but as an infant he was taken to Keauhou to grow up; he excelled in canoeing and other sports. In his youth, he once jumped a stone wall and injured his foot; he almost died from the injury, but recovered and remained lame for the rest of his life. (Oaks)
He married Analeʻa (Ane or Annie) Keohokālole; they had no children. (She later married Caesar Kapaʻakea. That union produced several children (including the future King Kalākaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani.))
He later married Lydia Haʻaheo Kaniu. They had one son Keōua, who died in infancy, and one daughter Kamanele (1814–1834.)
With the introduction of Christianity and adoption of western names, he changed his name and chose the name John Adams after John Quincy Adams (the US President at the time.)
From then, he was called John Adams Kuakini.
His physical appearance was formidable; standing 6-feet, 3-inches “and even heavier than this gigantic stature would indicate.” Ellis noted he was “tall, stout, well made and remarkably handsome.” (Oaks)
His wife “was like himself, a royal chief of highest rank, and not quite equally ponderous. I remember seeing the princely pair lolling on their own pile of rich Niʻihau mats, with many attendants busily kneading their bodies and limbs (lomi-lomi). Ages of nourishing diet and massage for digestion had bred a royal Hawaiian race of immense stature and girth.” (Bishop)
Kuakini was an important adviser to Kamehameha I in the early stages of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. His “first office of importance under Kamehameha I was that of captain of the ordnance at Oʻahu. Upon the King’s last return to Hawaiʻi in 1813, he was raised to the rank of counselor.”
“Immediately after the death of the King, Kaʻahumanu made him Governor of Hawaii; his original charge was limited to the district of Kona. In 1830, she further appointed him to the governorship of Oahu, which office he retained until December, 1831, when he returned to Hawaiʻi.”
“(Kuakini’s) administrations were vigorous and effective. Energetic in action, but reserved in manners, he assumed to himself much responsibility. It was difficult to secure his confidence in matters of council, as he relied much upon his own judgment.”
“While in Hawaiʻi, being remote from the seat of government and the influence of other chiefs mostly assembled around the King, he acted in a great measure independently of them, and sometimes contrary to their opinions.”
“His acquaintance with the English language, and his thirst for knowledge, gave him a superiority in general intelligence, over most of the chiefs of his rank; and afforded him a better insight into the nature of things than others attained.”
“He was more enterprising in deed than other native rulers, and many of the objects which claimed his attention, such for instance as the building of churches and the making of roads, were intended for the public benefit”.
“(Y)et in most of his enterprises, his aim was to accumulate property. But he was correct in his business transactions and a man of his word.” (Polynesian, January 4, 1845)
“By sea and by land we have enjoyed the protection of God, and the countenance and patronage of the king and chiefs. Especially would we notice the kindness of Kuakini, the Governor of Owhyhee (Hawaiʻi,) who received us with great hospitality, and freely lent his influence and authority to aid us in the attainment of our immediate objects”.
“… with a view to the permanent establishment of a missionary station there, (Kuakini) has promptly commenced the erection of a chapel at Kairua for the worship of Jehovah, whose rightful and supreme authority he has publicly acknowledged.” (Ellis)
Kuakini gave land to missionary Asa Thurston to build Mokuʻaikaua Church. “This was erected by Governor Kuakini about 1828. It was a wholly native structure, framed with immense timbers cut and dragged from the great interior forest by Kuakini superintending his subjects in person.” (Bishop)
“(I)n 1835, the great church was burned by some incendiary, and the services were then conducted in a large canoe-shed of the Governor, which was vacated for the purpose.”
“The energetic Kuakini immediately set about building the great stone church now standing on the site of the old one. … the corners were built up with large square blocks of pāhoehoe lava, which were transported by the people from some heiau at a distance. They were smoothly hewn, evidently with great labor. (Bishop)
During his tenure, Kuakini built other historical sites that dominate Kailua-Kona today. The Great Wall of Kuakini, probably a major enhancement of an earlier wall, was one of these.
The Great Wall of Kuakini extends in a north-south direction for approximately 6 miles from Kailua to near Keauhou, and is generally 4 to 6-feet high and 4-feet wide.
He built Huliheʻe Palace in the American style out of native lava, coral lime mortar, koa and ‘ʻōhiʻa timbers. Completed in 1838, he used the palace to entertain visiting Americans and Europeans with great feasts.
The Palace was constructed by foreign seamen using lava rock, coral, koa and ʻōhiʻa timbers. Kuakini oversaw the construction of both Mokuʻaikaua Church and Huliheʻe Palace and these landmarks once shared a similar architectural style with exposed stone.
Kuakini died December 9, 1844 in Kailua-Kona; the Palace passed to his adopted son, William Pitt Leleiōhoku. Leleiōhoku died a few months later, leaving Huliheʻe to his wife, Princess Ruth Luka Keʻelikōlani. It became a favorite retreat for members of the Hawaiian royal family.
A highway is named “Kuakini Highway,” which runs from the Hawaii Belt Road through the town of Kailua-Kona, to the Old Kona Airport Recreation Area. He is also the namesake of Kuakini Street in Honolulu, which is in turn the namesake of the Kuakini Medical Center on it.