Puʻuhonua is a Hawaiian designation for a land of refuge or sanctuary, stemming from early Polynesian cultural traditions. Each Hawaiian island had several puʻuhonua. Christian missionaries to the Sandwich Islands noted the similarity of puʻuhonua to ancient Hebrew “cities of refuge,” a function assigned to church buildings in western religion.
A decree by Queen Kaʻahumanu, before her death in 1832, re-established Maui puʻuhonua grounds which had existed from prehistoric times, one of which was Olowalu Valley.
Between 1-million and almost 2-million years ago, lava from Puʻu Kukui formed the fifteen-mile long West Maui mountain ridge. It was named Puʻu Laina in Lāhainā and called Kahalawai in Wailuku.
Olowalu Ahupuaʻa begins atop Pu’u Kukui at the 4,457-foot elevation; it is directly behind the head of ʻIao Valley in Wailuku. From this narrow point its boundaries trace downhill through Olowalu upper valley.
In the fourteenth century, King Hua of Maui sent his men into the mountains of Olowalu to trap nesting ʻuaʻu birds; the mountains were thick with ʻiliahi, koa, kou and ʻōhiʻa and cloud drip was captured as the moist tradewinds blew through. When the hills were cleared of sandalwood and other hardwoods in the early-1800s, Olowalu Valley is drier today than it was in the past.
Trails extended from the coast to the mountains; a trail known as the alanui or “King’s trail” built by Kihapiʻilani, extended along the coast passing through all the major communities between Lāhainā and Makena.
A trail to Wailuku once ran near the top of Puʻu Kukui and continued back over the northeast wall into the head of ʻIao Valley; it was a land route between Wailuku and Olowalu, with the upper valley serving as a rest stop before attempting the crossing of the Olowalu mountains to ʻIao Valley.
In 1790, when Kamehameha conquered Maui at the Battle of Kepaniwai, defeated Maui ali’i escaped through Olowalu Pass and Olowalu Valley and fled by sea to Moloka’i and O’ahu.
At lower elevations, Olowalu valley opens up to a gently sloped, fanned alluvial plain. Near the stream was wetland kalo (taro) cultivation, which incorporated pond fields and irrigation canals. In areas where water was not as abundant, food crops such as sugar cane, banana, and sweet potato and material crops like kukui, wauke, ʻolona, pili and naio. were grown. Olowalu was known for dry-land taro and breadfruit groves. Agriculture in this area of the island was believed to have started in about 1200-1400 AD.
Inshore lowlands of Olowalu and Ukumehame ahupua’a were once salt marsh habitats for nesting sea birds, shore birds, fish and mollusks. These wetlands supported native grasses and shrubs.
The name “Olowalu” translates to “a cluster of hills;” multiple cinder cones are common features of southwest rift zones on Hawaiian Islands. Early Hawaiian planters and modem sugar growers quarried or leveled some of these in the process of farming. (In modem times, “split hill” in northern Olowalu was completely removed to Kāʻanapali Beach for the construction of their executive golf course; only the tip of the hill makai of the highway remains.)
“Olowalu” is also a Hawaiian verb/adjective, used to describe a number of sounds occurring at once, or a din, such as drums beating, dogs barking, or chickens crowing at the sun. La’amaikahiki, who is credited with bringing the drum to Hawai’i from Tahiti in the eleventh century, is called, “O ke ali’i ke olowalu a ka pahu a Hawai’i.” “The ali’i is the rumble of Hawai’i’s drums.” Both definitions apply at Olowalu Valley.
Kaʻiwaloa Heiau (“the great ‘ʻiwa” – 100 by 150-feet) served entire region from Ukumehame (to the south) to Kekaʻa on the north.) The ʻiwa bird frequented Olowalu, it is an aid to Polynesian navigators and is often pictured at the center of the navigators’ sky compass. Kaʻiwaloa heiau faces south-southwest toward Kahoʻolawe and Ke Ala i Kahiki navigation lane to Tahiti.
Petroglyphs were inscribed and are still visible on the bare stone sides of a hill about a mile in from the highway past the present Olowalu Store. The figures are of several types and timeframes, including those of dogs, women, children and letters from the English alphabet.
In 1789, Simon Metcalf (captaining the Eleanora) and his son Thomas Metcalf (captaining the Fair American) were traders; their plan was to meet and spend winter in the Hawaiian Islands. The Eleanora arrived in the islands first at Kohala on the island of Hawaiʻi. After a confrontation with a local chief, Metcalf then sailed to the neighboring island of Maui to trade along the coast.
Captain Simon Metcalf anchored his trading ship the Eleanora off shore, probably at Makena Bay, to barter for necessary provisions. Someone stole one of Metcalfe’s small boats and killed a watchman. Captain Metcalfe fired his cannons into the village, and captured a few Hawaiians who told him the boat was taken by people from the village of Olowalu.
He sailed to Olowalu but found that boat had been broken up for its nails. (Nails were treasured like gems in ancient Hawaiʻi; they were used for fishhooks, adzes, drills, daggers and spear points.) An enraged Metcalfe invited the villagers to meet the ship, indicating he wanted to trade with them.
However, he had all the cannons loaded and ready on the side where he directed the canoes to approach. When they opened fire, about one hundred Hawaiians were killed, and many others wounded. Hawaiians referred to the slaughter as Kalolopahu, or spilled brains.
This tragedy, termed the Olowalu Massacre, set into motion a series of events which left two Western seamen and a ship (the Fair American) in the hands of Big Island chief Kamehameha. John Young (off the Eleanora) and Isaac Davis (off the Fair American) befriended Kamehameha I and became respected translators and his close and trusted advisors. They were instrumental in Kamehameha’s military ventures and his ultimate triumph in the race to unite the Hawaiian Islands.
Kalola ruled the puʻuhonua of Olowalu and presided over Kaʻiwaloa Heiau. Kahekili, ruler of Maui, lived at Halekiʻi Heiau around 1765. This indicates the important spiritual, political and economic connection between ʻIao and Olowalu. Kalola was still ruling at Olowalu in 1790 when Simon Metcalf fired cannon on Honua’ula and Olowalu.
Several months after the massacre at Olowalu, Kalola watched the great Battle of Kepaniwai from a panoramic flat area in the back of ʻIao Valley. Kamehameha stormed Maui with over twenty thousand men, and after several battles Maui troops retreated to ʻIao Valley. Kalola, her family and seven high chiefs of Maui escaped through the pass to Olowalu, where they boarded canoes for Molokaʻi and Oʻahu.
Commercial sugar is said to have started here by King Kamehameha V, who reigned from 1863 to 1872. The mill was probably constructed in the 1870s. Included with the mill was a 2-foot gauge railroad, a manager’s house and 3 other plantation houses.
The plantation was incorporated as the Olowalu Sugar Company in May 1881 and eventually was sold to Pioneer Mill Company, Ltd. in 1931. Lands in Olowalu eventually became a part of the former Pioneer Mill lands until the closure of the mill in the late-1990s. Since then, much of the former sugar lands have laid fallow. (Lots of information here from Olowalu Cultural Reserve.)