Ni‘ihau was formed from a single shield volcano approximately 4.89-million years ago, making it slightly younger in age than Kaua‘i. It is approximately 70-square miles or 44,800-acres. It’s about 17-miles west of Kauaʻi.
The island’s highest point is 1,281-feet; approximately 78% of the island is below 500-feet in elevation. Located inside Kauai’s rain shadow, Ni‘ihau receives only about 20 to 40-inches of rain per year. Ni‘ihau has no perennial streams. (DLNR)
“There was no appearance of any running stream; and though they found some small wells, in which the fresh water was tolerably good, it seemed scarce. The habitations of the natives were thinly scattered about; and, it was supposed, that there could not be more than five hundred people upon the island, as the greatest part were seen at the marketing-place of our party, and few found about the houses by those who walked up the country.” (Cook’s Journal)
With limited rainfall and no perennial streams, for people to survive on the island, they likely farmed ʻuala (sweet potato) and/or uhi (yams.) The evidence indicates Niʻihau produced excellent ʻuala and/or uhi.
“The eastern coast is high, and rises abruptly from the sea, but the rest of the island consists of low ground; excepting a round bluff head on the southeast point. It produces abundance of yams, and of the sweet root called Tee … they brought us several large roots of a brown colour, shaped like a yam, and from six to ten pounds in weight.”
“The juice, which it yields in great abundance, is very sweet, and of a pleasant taste, and was found to be an excellent substitute for sugar. The natives are very fond of it, and use it as an article of their common diet … We could not learn to what species of plant it belonged, having never been able to procure the leaves ….” (Cook’s Journal)
For many years Niʻihau was called Yam Island by Western sailors because of the high quality of yams grown there. A map of Yam Bay and the island of Niʻihau appeared in Captain George Dixon’s journal in 1788. (Joesting)
So, while the island has limited rainfall, it was sufficient to grow food and sustain a population of around 500 (according to Cook.) Niʻihau had a population of 790 people in 1853. The census of 1860 reported a Niʻihau population of 647.
In the Māhele (1848,) Victoria Kamāmalu (sister of Kamehameha IV and V) claimed Niʻihau, however returned it and the land was retained by the government. A couple Land Commission Awards were made to Koakanu, as well as a sale to Papapa.
Following the Māhele, the Kuleana Act of 1850 encouraged makaʻāinana to file claims with the Land Commission for land they were cultivating, plus an additional quarter acre for a house lot. Islands-wide a total of 14,195 claims were filed and about 8,421 awards were approved; there were no Kuleana awards granted on Niʻihau. (Van Dyke)
A couple things happened in 1863 that changed things on the island.
Through a letter dated September 22, 1863, Niʻihau residents petitioned Prince Lot (later Kamehameha V) “for a new lease of the land.” The petition was signed by 105 of the residents of Niʻihau.
They selected one resident to represent them to negotiate the terms. (Jonah Roll found this letter in his late father’s (Warren Roll) files. It is not clear how Warren got it, or if it ever presented to the Prince.)
The letter also notes, “… the people from here on Niihau are leaving their long established residence on the land to be with the foreigners, or to be on Hawaii, Maui, Oahu and Kauai. At tax time, they do not pay their taxes. Some just make a small payment.”
At about this same time, the Sinclair clan sailed from New Zealand, with the idea of possibly relocating to Hawaiʻi. The family was anxious to find land on which to settle and they were offered several large tracts on Oʻahu (at Kahuku, Ford Island and ʻEwa.)
When King Kamehameha IV heard the family might leave the Islands, the King offered to sell them the island of Niʻihau. (Joesting) (Later, the family includes the Sinclairs, Gays, Robinsons and Knudsens.)
A final purchase price of $10,000 was agreed upon, but Kamehameha IV died on November 30, so Royal Patent No. 2944 shows his brother, Kamehameha V, completed the transaction on January 23, 1864, giving fee simple title to James McHutchinson Sinclair and Francis Sinclair for all the government lands on Ni‘ihau.
These “government lands” did not include two large parcels of land set off for Koakanu during the Great Māhele in 1848 and a tract of land containing 50 acres previously sold to Papapa. (Niʻihau Cultural Heritage Foundation)
Papapa apparently agreed to sell his acreage to the Sinclairs without incident, but it seems Koakanu refused to allow anyone to cross any portion of his land and even forbade boats to come in closer than one-half mile off the shoreline of his property.
The story goes that it was his wife who finally convinced him to accept an offer of $1,000 (or $800 according to other records) for his lands. (Niʻihau Cultural Heritage Foundation)
“The whole island is now owned by a Presbyterian family of Scotch origin, who received me very kindly, & who will assist our work there very materially & very heartily. The native population now remaining there is about 250 in number.” (Gulick to Anderson ABCFM (1865,) Joesting)
As he signed the contract, the king said: ‘”Niihau is yours. But the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.’” (New York Times)
“It is said that the transfer of the island involved some hardships, owing to a number of the natives having neglected to legalize their claims to their kuleanas, but the present possessors have made themselves thoroughly acquainted with the language, and take the warmest interest in the island population.” (Isabella Bird, 1894)
The Sinclairs “bought sheep and cattle from the big ranches on Hawaii, and took them, with some fine sheep (they) brought with (them) from New Zealand, (began a) new ranch on Niihau.” (Von Holt) They hired the Hawaiians to help with the ranch and the island.
“The natives on Niihau and in this part of Kauai, call Mrs. (Sinclair) “Mama.” Their rent seems to consist in giving one or more days’ service in a month, so it is a revival of the old feudality. … It is a busy life, owing to the large number of natives daily employed, and the necessity of looking after the native lunas, or overseers.” (Isabella Bird, 1894)
Today, Niʻihau has about 130-people who live at Pu‘uwai village, on the western (leeward) side of the island. Niʻihau is nicknamed the “Forbidden Island,” because the Robinsons (present owners and descendents of the original Sinclairs) strictly limit access to the island.
The island lacks basic municipal infrastructure. There are no paved roads (walking, horseback or bicycle are the only transportation options on Ni‘ihau.) No water and wastewater systems. No stores. No restaurants. No doctors. No police. No fire department.
But it has a school – the only school in Hawai‘i that relies entirely on solar power for its electricity (a 10.4-kW photovoltaic power system with battery storage was installed in December 2007.) This enabled reliable refrigeration and use of technological hardware (yes, they have computers – however, no internet or email system is available to Niʻihau School, as of yet.) School enrollment fluctuates between 25-50 students.