One of the most famous heiau in Hawaiʻi is Puʻukoholā Heiau (“whale hill”,) a significant structure (224-feet by 100-feet) with walled ends, and open and terraced on the makai side – sitting above the Kohala shoreline.
In the 1780s, there were warring factions were fighting for control. The island of Hawaiʻi was in internal struggle when one of the aliʻi nui, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, died.
He passed his title to his son Kīwalaʻo and named his nephew, Kamehameha, keeper of the family war god, Kūkaʻilimoku.
Kīwalaʻo, the new ali‘I, then bestowed gifts of land to his uncle Keawemauhili, but left his own half-brother, Keōua Kuʻahuʻula, with nothing.
Kīwalaʻo was later killed in battle, setting off a power struggle between Keōua, Keawemauhili and Kamehameha. The 1782 Battle of Mokuʻōhai gave Kamehameha control of the West and North sides of the island of Hawaiʻi.
By 1790, the island of Hawaiʻi was under multiple rule; Kamehameha (ruler of Kohala, Kona and Hāmākua regions) successfully invaded Maui, Lānaʻi and Molokaʻi.
While on Molokaʻi, he sent an emissary to the famous kahuna (priest, soothsayer,) Kapoukahi, to determine how he could conquer all of the island of Hawaiʻi. Kapoukahi prophesized that war would end if Kamehameha constructed a heiau dedicated to the war god Kū at Puʻukohola.
Called back to Hawaiʻi by an invasion of Kohala by his cousin, Keōua (ruler of Kaʻū and part of Puna,) Kamehameha fought more battles without gaining a decisive victory.
One part of the legend stated that Kamehameha first intended to refurbish and rededicate Mailekini heiau, on the lower slope. But Kapoukahi, who had joined Kamehameha’s staff as royal architect, suggested that a new heiau on the summit would be more appropriate and provide greater benefits.
According to Thrum, Kapoukahi instructed Kamehameha “to build a large heiau for his god at Puʻukoholā, adjoining the old heiau of Mailekini.”
Thrum continues: “Of Mailekini heiau little of its history is learned, or what connection, if any, it had in its working with Puʻukoholā within two hundred feet above it. In early days it was said that traces of an underground passage existed, though it was difficult to tell whether or not the two temples were connected by it. … A tradition is current that this was the one that Kamehameha set out to rebuild that he might be successful in war, but on the advice of Kapoukahi he transferred his labors to the upper one of Puʻukoholā.”
According to Samuel Kamakau, Kamehameha “…summoned his counselors and younger brothers, chiefs of the family and chiefs of the guard, all the chiefs, lesser chiefs, and commoners of the whole district. Not one was allowed to be absent except the women. . . .The building of the heiau of Puʻu-koholā was, as in ancient times, directed by an expert … by a member of the class called hulihonua who knew the configuration of the earth (called kuhikuhi puʻuone) …”
“When it came to the building of Puʻu-koholā no one, not even a tabu chief, was excused from the work of carrying stone. Kamehameha himself labored with the rest. The only exception was the high tabu chief Ke-aliʻi-maikaʻi [Kamehameha’s younger brother]. …”
“Thus Kamehameha and the chiefs labored until the heiau was completed, with its fence of images (paehumu) and oracle tower (anuʻunuʻu), with all its walls outside and the hole for the bones of sacrifice. He brought down the ʻōhiʻa tree for the haku ʻōhiʻa and erected the shelter house (hale malu) of ʻōhiʻa wood for Kū-kaʻili-moku according to the rule laid down for the kahuna class of Pā‘ao.”
According to Historian Kuykendall, basing his information on Kamakau and Fornander, in 1790: “The building of this heiau was a great and arduous undertaking. Priests were everywhere about; they selected the site, determined the orientation, the dimensions, and the arrangement of the structure, and at every stage performed the ritualistic ceremonies without which the work could not be acceptable to the gods.”
Recalling the words of Kapoukahi, Puʻukoholā Heiau was being used by Kamehameha to secure unification of the Hawaiian Islands (at the same time that George Washington was serving as the US’s first president (1790.)
Many of the stones on Puʻukoholā Heiau are believed to have come from Pololu Valley. It is storied that Kamehameha and his men formed a human chain nearly 20 miles long and passed the stones one person to another all the way to the heiau site.
After completing the heiau in 1791, Kamehameha invited Keōua to come to Kawaihae to make peace. However, as Keōua was about to step ashore, he was attacked and killed by one of Kamehameha’s chiefs.
With Keōua dead, and his supporters captured or slain, Kamehameha became King of Hawaiʻi island, an event that according to prophesy eventually led to the conquest and consolidation of the islands under the rule of Kamehameha I.
In early 1795, Kamehameha took Maui, Lānaʻi, and Molokaʻi. With the conquest of Oʻahu that year, Kamehameha succeeded in bringing all the islands, but Kauaʻi, under his control. In 1810, Kaumualiʻi, that island’s paramount chief, acknowledged Kamehameha’s supremacy, completing the consolidation of the islands into the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
Puʻukoholā Heiau was designated as a Historical Landmark by the Hawaiian Territorial Government in 1928.
The Queen Emma Foundation donated 34 acres of land in 1972, encompassing Puʻukoholā Heiau and the John Young Homestead, making it possible for the establishment of Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site.
Through an act of Congress on August 17, 1972, this site became one of the chosen few to be recognized as one of our nation’s crown jewels and national treasures, to be preserved and protected for future generations.
The image shows Puʻukoholā Heiau in 1890; in addition, I have added some other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.