There are lots of theories are out there about what Nānākuli means – several suggest it relates to looking at knees – others reference other body parts.
A common perception is that Nānākuli was a poor land with little agriculture, leading the few residents to instead rely on marine resources. One translation of the naming of the ahupua‘a, which seems to support this perception, is that Nānākuli means, “to look deaf”.
This is said to refer to the behavior of Nānākuli residents, who, embarrassed about not being able to offer food to passing strangers, pretended to be deaf. (Cultural Surveys)
The ahupua‘a of Nānākuli encompasses a little over 1,000-acres and is bounded on the east by Honouliuli in the ‘Ewa District and on the west by Lualualei in the Waiʻanae District
This leeward area is especially noted for its susceptibility to drought and famine. In valleys such as Nānākuli, where perennial streams are lacking, agricultural resources would have been sparse due to poor water and land resources.
It is probable that there were small, scattered settlements here and there whose main subsistence was the ‘uala (sweet potato.) (Cultural Surveys)
“The eastern slopes of the southern end of the Waiʻanae Mountains below Pu‘u Puna were famous for sweet potato growing. Although there was a little taro grown in the valleys of Wai‘anae-uka, sweet potatoes grown on the kula lands were the main food of the people here.”
“On the other side of the Waiʻanae Mountains sweet potatoes were planted on the dry slopes of Nānākuli, Lualualei, Waiʻanae-kai, and the other small valleys as far as Mākua. With the exception of Waiʻanae-kai, the sweet potato was the staple for the inhabitants of this dry section.” (Handy, Cultural Surveys))
Pukui related a story told to her by Simeona Nawaʻa in 1945: “In the olden days, this place was sparsely inhabited because of the scarcity of water. The fishing was good but planting very poor. When it rained, some sweet potatoes would be put into the ground, but the crops were always poor and miserable.”
“There were a few brackish pools from which they obtained their drinking water and it is only when they went to the upland of Waiʻanae that they were able to get fresh water. They carried the water home in large calabashes hung on mamaka or carrying sticks and used their water very carefully after they got it home.”
“They spent most of their time fishing and most of the fish they caught were dried as gifts for friends and relatives in the upland. Sometimes they carried dried and fresh fish to these people in the upland and in exchange received poi and other vegetable foods. As often as not, it was the people of the upland who came with their products and went home with fish.” (Cultural Surveys)
To make up for this agricultural deficit, the coastal areas were rich in marine resources and there was always an abundant supply of fish.
Accounts of early foreign observers give only a generalized picture of the late pre-contact/early historic patterns of population and activity within the Waiʻanae District and Nānākuli Ahupua‘a. Captain George Vancouver, sailing along the Waiʻanae Coast in 1793, noted:
“The face of the country did not…promise an abundant supply (of water;) the situation was exposed.” He described the coast as “one barren rocky waste nearly destitute of verdure, cultivation or inhabitants”.
The only village Vancouver observed was “at Waianae, located in a grove of coconut and other trees on the southern side of a small sandy bay”. It is probably this village that was visited in 1815 by John B. Whitman, who described the western coast of O‘ahu between Waiʻanae and Honolulu:
“After proceeding for some time over an uncultivated plain, we arrived at small village situated on the sea shore. It consisted of about twenty huts occupied by fishermen”. (The “uncultivated plain” Whitman observed before reaching Waiʻanae likely encompassed Nānākuli.)
In 1816, Boki was made governor of O‘ahu (and chief of the Waiʻanae district) and served in that capacity until 1829, when he sailed in search of sandalwood.
In the mid-1800s, the back of Nānākuli Valley used primarily for ranching purposes and probably did not support permanent habitation. Tax records from the mid-1800s for coastal Nānākuli indicate that possibly as many as 50-people resided along the shore.
The population in the area dropped precipitously during the 1800s, and in 1888, the Hawaiian Island Directory referenced only four residents of Nānākuli.
O‘ahu Railway and Land Company’s Benjamin Dillingham, a prominent business man and developer, envisioned populating the western side of O‘ahu by introducing agriculture; however, the lack of water proved to be an obstacle until the discovery of artesian water solved the issue in the early 1880s.
Dillingham saw that reliable transportation was needed to move crops from the west side of the island into Honolulu; he formed the O‘ahu Railway and Land Company (OR&L) in February 1889 and the rail stretched around Kaʻena Point as far as Kahuku by 1899.
The families returned. In 1895, the Republic of Hawai‘i decided to open up lands for homesteading. The Dowsett-Galbraith ranch lease was set to expire in 1901, and the Hawaiian Government intended to auction off these lands to the highest bidder.
There were two waves of homesteading on the Waiʻanae Coast. The first had more of an impact on Lualualei, while the second resulted in development of Nānākuli as a residential area.
The early wave of homesteading passed by dry, barren Nānākuli; however, despite an insufficient water supply, Nānākuli was an attraction to some people: Because of its water shortage, parched Nānākuli had never attracted many residents. It remained a kiawe wilderness.
Yet, the very fact that nobody wanted it turned the area into a kind of informal public park. Some came for the summer; others camped all year round.
In 1916, Benjamin Zablan was appointed as Waiʻanae District Manager. He moved his family to Nānākuli and made his home on a beach stretch, now the stretch adjacent and south of Nānākuli Avenue. The southeastern end of this stretch was a safe swimming spot and was soon known as “Zablan’s Beach”.
The beach was eventually named Nānākuli Beach, but local residents wished to give it a more specific name. In 1940, local residents petitioned the board of supervisors to name the park Kalanianaʻole, in honor of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, the “father of the Hawaiian Homestead Act.” In recent years, Kalanianaʻole was combined with nearby Piliokahe Park to the south to form the Nānākuli Beach Park.
In 1917, the US Government set aside land located where Nānāikapono Elementary School is presently located as ‘Camp Andrews.’ It was used as a rest and recreation (R&R) area for military personnel, both prior to and during World War II.
The retreat at Camp Andrews consisted of cabins, cook house, a canteen, septic systems, a barber shop, armory, etc. The Navy acquired the property from the Army in 1952. All structures on the property were demolished. The Navy transferred the property to the State of Hawai‘i in 1962.
World War II greatly affected the Waiʻanae coast. Military troops were sent in to train and practice maneuvers. Concrete bunkers and gun emplacements were built on the beaches and ridges, and barbed wire was strung along the beaches.
After WWII ended, the lower portions of Nānākuli and Lualualei Valleys were further developed into residential lots after Chinn Ho bought the Waiʻanae Sugar Plantation.