“The glimpses of Molokai which one obtains from a steamer’s deck while passing to Honolulu from San Francisco or in passing to and from Maul (along its south shore,) give the impression that the island is bleak, mountainous and desolate.”
“Skirting its (north) shores on the Hālawa, Wailua and Pelekunu sides on Wilder’s fine steamer Likelike, gives a far different picture. For miles sheer precipices rise from the sea and tower 1,500 feet into the air.”
“Now and then, and sometimes in groups, beautiful waterfalls are seen on the face of the cliff, now falling in clear view for a couple of hundred feet, now hidden under denses masses of foliage, only to reappear further down, another silvery link In the watery thread which ends In a splash and scintillating mist in the breakers below.” (Hawaiian Gazette, March 31, 1905)
The large windward valleys – Pelekunu, Wailau and Halawa – and Papalaua, along with all of Kalaupapa comprise the old Hawaiian Koʻolau Moku (district) of Molokai.
Literally defined, the word Pelekunu means “smelly for lack of sunshine.” (Pukui) Being that it is such a tall and narrow valley, the sun is out for only about seven hours a day. Short days, coupled with the windward tendency for rain, creates a generally damp condition in Pelekunu.
Marion Kelly gives an alternate possibility suggesting the name Pelekunu relates to Pele, the goddess of the volcano. The area is said to be sensitive to very light earthquakes that are felt by the folks in the area, thus the name, Pelekunu, “coughing” or “grumbling” Pele.
Archaeological evidence suggests this area of Molokai was traditionally the home of the majority of early Hawaiians. The water supply was ample; ʻauwai (irrigation ditches,) loʻi kalo (wetland taro ponds) and habitation sites were found here.
“Every possible square yard was utilized for growing taro as the patches go nearly to the beach and even up the small ravines which cut the sides of the valleys. … In the matter of food, the emphasis which has been placed upon taro should not obscure the importance of fish whether from deep water or from other places and of fruits and other plant products.”
“The depth of the sea off this region prohibited the development of fish-ponds … but fishing with hook and line or with nets found rich opportunities.” (Phelps, NPS)
The “narrowness of the gulches and their steep slopes result in the patches being no more than 12-feet on a side and the down-slope retaining wall may have to be seven-feet high. The stream flows on one side of the gulch and is tapped at the highest placed patch, the water running successively into the lower ones.” (Phelps (1937,) NPS)
Pelekunu is an unusual ahupua‘a for several reasons. Within the Pelekunu ahupua‘a are three lele (disconnected portions of associated land) that belong to ahupua‘a on the other side of the island in the Kona District. Another unusual feature is that the ahupua‘a of Kawela actually extends up and over the mountains at the back of Pelekunu and runs into the valley.
Additionally, the ahupua‘a of Pelekunu includes not only most of the valley itself (less the extension of Kawela at the back and the lele within), but also the land of Honokaʻupu to the west as well as the small valley of Waiahoʻokalo just beyond. (Eminger/McElroy)
The windward valleys developed into areas of intensive irrigated taro cultivation and seasonal migrations took place to stock up on fish and precious salt for the rest of the year. Kalaupapa was well known for its bountiful ʻuala (sewwt potato) crops and its fine-grained, white salt which was preferred over that from the salt ponds of Kawela and Kaunakakai. (Strazar)
Emory (1916) describes Pelekunu Valley as the “most densely populated area of the ahupuaʻa … where we found miles and miles of huge stone terraces, witnesses of a once thriving population that must have run into the thousands.” Taro was grown on the flat land and in the steep ravines of the valley. (NPS)
The earliest recorded population figures we have for Molokai are those of visiting missionaries in 1823. A loose estimate of three to four thousand inhabitants in 1823 was published by Claudius S. Stewart in 1830. The Reverend Harvey Rexford Hitchcock who established the first permanent Mission Station at Kaluaʻaha in 1832, gave a census figure of 6,000 for the island. (Strazar)
These early counts were generally taken in the field by both native school teachers and missionaries. During this period, the Reverends Hitchcock and Smith preached once a week at seven different stations from Kamaloʻo to Hālawa, and in 1833 they estimated the population of the entire island to be about 3,300. (Strazar)
During the years around 1854, taro was raised extensively in the windward valleys and shipped as far away as Maui. Everywhere the inhabitants (of Pelekunu) were busy making baskets of ki (ti) leaves …., which they used to pack and transport … the product of their oasis, taro reduced to paʻiʻai (dry poi.) (Strazar)
In 1898, Johnny Wilson (later Mayor of Honolulu) looked into living in Pelekunu and farming there. Wilson’s parents’ friends included John and Lydia Dominus (Queen Liliʻuokalani) and King Kalākaua.
“We had known Mr. Wilson quite well as a young man when he was courting his wife. My husband and myself had warmly favored his suit; and, with his wife, he naturally became a retainer of the household, and from time to time they took up their residence with us.” (Liliʻuokalani)
During her imprisonment, Queen Liliʻuokalani was denied any visitors other than one lady in waiting (Mrs. Eveline Wilson – Johnny’s mother.) Johnny would bring newspapers hidden in flowers from the Queen’s garden; reportedly, Liliʻuokalani’s famous song Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani (written while imprisoned,) was dedicated to him (it speaks of the flowers at her Waikiki home, Paoakalani.)
Johnny Wilson brought his wife Jennie Kini Kapahu to Pelekunu to live in 1902. The entry in Johnny’s diary for Tuesday, April 8, 1902, reads, “Arrived Pelekunu & occupied Koehana’s house” According to Bob Krauss, Kini was “one of Hawai‘i’s premier hula dancers” and not used to country life; the Hawaiians in the valley wondered how long Kini would stick it out.
In the beginning Johnny and Kini lived at the shore, but sometime after the 1903 tsunami Johnny built Kini a house farther back in the valley. Later, Johnny bought Kini a piano, the only one in Pelekunu. (Krauss)
Kini did stick it out for quite a while. She helped teach the children in Pelekunu and ran their taro operation while Johnny was away. Eventually, however, Kini did leave the valley; in the summer of 1914, Kini finally got tired of the rain. She staged a one-woman mutiny and moved to a drier place on Molokai at Kamalō, where Johnny had a cattle ranch.
Wilson tried to aid the small native Hawaiian farmers by arranging for a steamer schedule to remote taro- and rice-producing areas. When his plans for a commercial line fell through Wilson convinced the federal administration to place a post office in Pelekunu, guaranteeing regular steamer visits to deliver the mail. (Cook)
However, when his wife left (she was postmistress,) no one filled the post and the post office closed. The steamships tried to keep regular schedules to Pelekunu to support the valley’s residents. However, they were not regular enough and eventually others abandoned Pelekunu valley, deeming it as too isolated to remain viable in a cash economy. (Cook)
(Johnny Wilson served three times as mayor of Honolulu: from 1920 to 1927, 1929 to 1931 and from 1946 to 1954.)
In 1986, The Nature Conservancy purchased nearly 5,800-acres of Pelekunu Valley from Molokai Ranch to create a preserve to protect its natural and cultural resources. (It contains nearly all the native Hawaiian aquatic fish, crustacean and mollusk species; in addition, 27-rare plant, 5-endemic forest bird and 2-endemic land snail species have been reported in the area.) (TNC)
The Pelekunu Preserve is managed in partnership with the State Department of Land & Natural Resources through the Natural Area Partnership Program; due to its remote, rugged location, Pelekunu Preserve is not open to the public.
Pelekunu Preserve is bordered by four other managed natural resource areas: state-owned Pu‘u Ali‘i and Oloku‘i Natural Reserve Areas (NARs), Kalaupapa National Historic Park and the Conservancy’s Kamakou Preserve.
It is a part of the East Molokai Watershed Partnership (EMoWP); (a public-private partnership that protects more than 30,000 acres of contiguous ecosystems that range from sea level to 4,970 feet in elevation.)
The image shows an image of Pelekunu Village (Stokes, Bishop Museum – 1909.) In addition, I have added other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.