Keʻelikōlani’s heritage was controversial. She was the poʻolua (“two heads”) child of Kāhalaiʻa and Kekūanāoʻa. (Johnson)
Her mother, Pauahi, was said to be carrying the child of Kāhalaiʻa when she married Kekūanāoʻa. Kekūanāoʻa claimed Keʻelikōlani as his own in court, and the matter was officially settled, though it would be debated again in later years, even by her own half-brother, Lot. (Nogelmeier)
After Pauahi’s death, Kekūanāoʻa married Kīna‘u, and they became the parents of Lot Kapuāiwa, Alexander Liholiho, and Victoria Kamāmalu, making Keʻelikōlani a half-sister to these three.
Her mother died during her childbirth (February 9, 1826,) and she was raised by the Kuhina Nui and favorite wife of Kamehameha I, Kaʻahumanu. (Kaʻahumanu died six years later; she was then sent to live with her father, Kekūanāoʻa, and her stepmother, Kīnaʻu.)
Keʻelikōlani was an important figure during her lifetime, known for her high rank in the Kamehameha lineage, her social position as a governor and woman of means, and for her character as a woman of dignity, both strong-willed and kind.
She was held in high regard by the general populace, and treated lovingly or respectfully by the ranking chiefs, government officials, and the people of her time.
She was a great-granddaughter of Kamehameha, a grand-niece to Kamehameha II and III, and a half-sister of Kamehameha IV and V. (Nogelmeier)
As a Kamehameha descendant, Keʻelikōlani was part of the royal family and the court for as long as the Kamehameha dynasty ruled. Following the death of Kamehameha V, William Charles Lunalilo ascended the throne by election in 1873.
A Kamehameha through his mother Kekāuluohi, Lunalilo proclaimed the royal family to consist of himself, his father Kanaʻina, Dowager Queen Emma and Keʻelikōlani. His official royal court included these four, along with the king’s treasurer, H. G. Crabbe. (Nogelmeier)
When mentioned in the press, Keʻelikōlani was usually listed as Ka Mea Kiʻekiʻe, Ke Ali‘i Ruta Keʻelikōlani – Her Highness, Chiefess Ruth Keʻelikōlani. Foreigners knew her as “Princess Ruth.” (Nogelmeier)
At the age of sixteen, Keʻelikōlani married William Pitt Leleiōhoku. While serving as governor of Hawai‘i Island, Leleiōhoku died, only twenty-two years old. Their surviving son, William Pitt Kīnaʻu, died at the age of seventeen in an accident on Hawai‘i. (Silva)
Keʻelikōlani’s second husband (June 2, 1856) was the part-Hawaiian Isaac Young Davis, grandson of Isaac Davis, a British advisor to King Kamehameha I. The two had a son (1862,) Keolaokalani, whom Keʻelikōlani gave as a hānai to Bernice Pauahi. Keolaokalani died in about 6-months and Leleiōhoku died of pneumonia in 1877.
She was also the adoptive mother of Leleiōhoku, brother to Kalākaua, Liliʻuokalani and Likelike, and heir apparent, whom she had renamed in honor of her first husband. (Nogelmeier)
“Princess Ruth, daughter of Pauahi and Kekūanāoʻa, who had adopted Leleiōhoku, asked of the king (Kalākaua) if she herself could not be proclaimed heir apparent; and this suggestion was placed before the king’s counsellors at a cabinet meeting, but it was objected that …”
“… if her petition was granted, then Mrs. Pauahi Bishop would be the next heir to the throne, as they were first cousins. At noon of the tenth day of April, 1877, the booming of the cannon was heard which announced that I was heir apparent to the throne of Hawaii.” (Liliʻuokalani)
Keʻelikōlani died in 1883 at Haleʻōlelo, her large hale pili native-style home on the grounds of Huliheʻe Palace in Kailua-Kona, Hawai‘i.
At her death, Keʻelikōlani’s will stated that she “give and bequeath forever to my beloved younger sister (cousin), Bernice Pauahi Bishop, all of my property, the real property and personal property from Hawaiʻi to Kauaʻi, all of said property to be hers.” (about 353,000 acres)
This established the land-base endowment for Pauahi’s subsequent formation of Kamehameha Schools at her death. Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop passed away a year later.