Over the centuries, and even today, Waimea was an attractive draw with ideal climate and soils, and moderate distance from the ocean.
Still holding remnants of a cowboy town, it looked very different in centuries past – with transformation of forest lands, to agricultural fields, to pasture lands.
Now upper pasture land, archaeologists and others suggest the upper slopes of Waimea was a forest made up of ʻōhiʻa, koa, māmane, ʻiliahi (sandalwood) and other trees. Pili grass and shrubs were also found.
Within these forested uplands, you could find a variety of forest birds, ʻiʻiwi, ʻelepaio, ʻapapane and others. Fossil remains of a flightless goose have been found in the region.
This is what the earliest settlers to the region probably saw (however, it is likely the first settlers on the island probably first lived in the valleys on the wetter windward side of the island and others later came to Waimea.)
The forests had general characteristics of an open canopy and the appearance of a wooded parkland, particularly when contrasted with the grassy plains to the west and the dense “impenetrable” rainforest to the east. (McEldowney)
Statements typifying these characteristics, generally made while enroute from the Waimea settlements, through Parker’s ranch house at Mana, and along Mauna Kea’s eastern slope, include: “a scanty forest” (The Polynesian 1840); “those parts of the plain adjoining Hāmākua are better wooded having a parklike appearance” (Sandwich Islands Gazette 1836) …
… “well shaded by clumps of trees” (The Polynesian 1847); and is “thickly wooded with large trees, entirely free from underbrush, and is covered with a greensward, giving it the appearance of a parkland” (The Polynesian 1848.) (McEldowney)
Reverend Lorenzo Lyons (missionary leader of Waimea’s Imiola Church and songwriter who composed “Hawaiʻi Aloha”) frequently described his home as ʻAla ʻŌhiʻa Nei (home of the fragrant ʻōhiʻa lehua.) (Paris)
The population began to increase dramatically around 1100 AD and the west side population doubled every century. (Kirch) The population of the islands reached a peak in about 1650 AD, with a total of several hundred thousand.
Waimea’s initial population (probably first settling in the 1100s – 1200s) likely grew into a fairly large community. Settlement areas expanded into the hillsides and out onto the drier Waimea plains.
As permanent settlements were established and populations grew, to feed the people and increase the amount of arable land, the leeward slopes and valleys were cleared of the native forest and replaced by intensively cultivated field systems. (Watson)
Field walls (kuaiwi) delineated garden plots (Kihāpai) and helped retain the soil. Fields were irrigated using canals (ʻauwai) that tapped the Waimea streams. (Watson)
Once the advantages of living in Waimea were known, the population quickly grew. Terraced agricultural plots expanded and more of the forest was removed.
The upper slopes of Waimea are said to have supported more than 10,000-people prior to contact.
Post-contact brought further changes – two major modern land-use practices transformed the landscape – first, the harvesting of sandalwood, which was shortly-followed by the management of the cattle herds.
Various references establish the importance of sandalwood, the most famous of early historic export commodities, in the Waimea region, while remarks such as, these “woods frequented by sandalwood cutters” suggest exploitable sandalwood was in the region’s māmane/koa forests. (McEldowney)
William Ellis, in 1831 wrote, “Before daylight on the 22d, we were roused by vast multitudes of people passing through the district from Waimea with sandalwood, which had been cut in the adjacent mountains for Karaimoku (Kalanimōku,) by the people of Waimea, and which the people of Kohala, as far as the north point …”
“… had been ordered to bring down to his storehouse on the beach, for the purpose of its being shipped to Oahu. There were between two and three thousand men, carrying each from one to six pieces of sandalwood, according to their size and weight.”
In 1856, while editor of the Sandwich Islands’ Monthly Magazine, Abraham Fornander wrote an article arguing that large cattle herds had altered or ameliorated the climate of Waimea by destroying a “thick wood” that covered “the whole of the plain” as early as 1825 or 1830 (Sandwich Islands’ Monthly Magazine 1856). (McEldowney)
All of this forever changed Waimea. Once the native forests were cleared, the “natural” landscape of Waimea ceased to exist. (Watson)
Early Hawaiians first altered the landscape by clearing the forest and plotting out agricultural fields; later, introduced species took over.
A notable introduced (and invasive) plant to Waimea is fountain grass; it was introduced on the island of Hawaiʻi as an ornamental plant in the 1920s. It spread quickly and today, less than a century later, fountain grass is a dominant species along roadsides and in undeveloped areas on the leeward side of the island. (Watson)
Waimea, we used to call it home – I miss it.