Moku‘ula boundaries found with the help of a 1916 map

County may talk to the Army Corps about revising restoration plans

Archaeologists work on the site of Moku’ula in March 2016. The island that once served as a home to Native Hawaiian royalty has been buried under a Lahaina ballpark for a century. Archaeologists have recently confirmed the island’s long-sought perimeter, which is key to the restoration of the island and pond, known as Loko o Mokuhinia. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A 1916 Public Works map turned out to be the key to discovering the long-sought perimeter of Moku’ula, the former home of Native Hawaiian royalty that’s been buried under a Lahaina ballpark for a century.

The exact location of the island has held back restoration for years. Now, archaeologists say they’ve unearthed enough portions of the stone wall that once surrounded the island to confirm its perimeter. The findings were published in a draft report released last month and presented to the public last Monday.

“There’s a lot of work that’s going to be ahead of us, but I think getting this (report) done and published was a major step in helping us solidify our planning efforts,” said Blossom Feiteira, executive director of the Friends of Moku’ula.

Moku’ula was a 1-acre sandbar island surrounded by a 17-acre inland pond known as Loko o Mokuhinia. The island served as the home of the high chiefs of Pi’ilani in the 16th century, and later as the residence of King Kamehameha III from 1837 to 1845 when Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

In 1845, the capital was relocated to Honolulu and both the pond and the island became less prominent. As sugar plantations took water from the stream that fed Mokuhinia, the pond turned into a stagnant marsh. By 1917, it was completely filled in to prevent mosquito growth. Eventually, the site became Malu Ulu Olele Park, though it was later closed as crews worked to restore the island and the pond, which sit about 2 to 6 feet under the surface.

This 1916 county Public Works map helped a group of archaeologists discover the perimeter of the island of Moku’ula. The county drew up the map while planning to fill in the pond 100 years ago. It was found to be more accurate than maps used in previous studies.

Xamanek Researches did an archaeological study at the site in 1989, followed by Bishop Museum in 1995 and the University of Hawaii Maui College in 2012.

However, one thing that had always eluded archaeologists was the perimeter of the island, which had to be confirmed before either Moku’ula or Mokuhinia could be restored.

In 2015 and 2016, archaeologists with Cultural Surveys Hawaii worked on the site, guided by a 1916 map that the county drew up while planning to fill the pond. The map had not been used in previous studies and was different from older documents, depicting a smaller, L-shaped island with what appeared to be a causeway bridging the island to the north side of the pond.

Tanya Lee-Greig, lead archaeologist for the study and the former Maui island director of Cultural Surveys Hawaii, said one of her colleagues found the map in Hale Pa’i, the 19th-century printing shop on the grounds of Lahainaluna High School. It turned out to be “a big help.”

“From previous studies, we knew generally where the island was,” Lee-Greig said. “But that distinctive edge had not been formally confirmed, and so we were able to accomplish that in this study.”

Archaeologists unearthed portions of the stone wall and the banks of Moku’ula, discovering the most intact sections under the county parking lot at the corner of Front and Shaw streets. The team also confirmed the “northern causeway,” an earthen berm leading from the island to the edge of the pond that only appeared in the 1916 map.

“There had been folks living on the island before that was constructed, because we found cow bone and pig bone and metal fragments underneath the earthen berm,” Lee-Greig said. “But we don’t know the age of the berm, and we don’t know why it was built or constructed. There’s this extra piece of the island that we are recommending for conservation.”

In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put together a draft environmental assessment for the restoration of Mokuhinia, which the Army Corps and the county hope will create a habitat for native water birds. But the map that the Army Corps had was different from the 1916 Public Works map, so the county was hesitant to move forward.

Given the discovery of the island’s perimeter, the county may have to talk to the Army Corps about revising the restoration plans, said Wendy Taomoto, capital improvements project coordinator for the county. The community also will have to decide whether it wants Mokuhinia restored as a pond or a wetland, which would be federally protected and could impact cultural practices on the site, Taomoto said. More public meetings are likely ahead, and Taomoto said there’s no timeline yet for the next steps.

What’s long been discussed is whether Mokuhinia or Moku’ula will be restored first. If the pond or wetland comes first, the report recommends putting a 10-meter “no construction buffer” around the island and the causeway, Lee-Greig said. But if the island and the rock wall can be rebuilt first, the buffer wouldn’t be necessary.

Because the area around the park is mostly developed, the restoration of Mokuhinia would only be partial. According to the report, crews would excavate the fill material on the park’s surface and try to intercept the groundwater in the area. The goal is also to restore surface flow from Mokuhinia to the ocean through an existing drainage ditch.

“I think we feel a lot better doing the restoration of the island wall first before the Army Corps comes in, because we can minimize any potential impacts,” Feiteira said.

Feiteira was born and raised in Lahaina and said it was “gratifying” to see the archaeological study confirm the things her kupuna once spoke of.

“We kind of had a good inkling of the history of Moku’ula and the pond itself,” she said. “But just to see the information that Tanya compiled actually was more of a confirmation of the stories our kupuna shared with us as kids.”

One thing they did warn was that Moku’ula could contain iwi kupuna, or ancestral bones, Feiteira said. Sure enough, during the study a number of teeth and bone fragments were discovered. Lee-Greig said the remains had already been disturbed, though she wasn’t sure whether that had happened before or during the fill-in of the pond. She added that any talk of restoration should include a burial treatment plan for future remains.

“We answered some questions, and we came up with more questions,” Lee-Greig said. “This place is so incredibly special and has the history there to tell the story of Lahaina, from before Hawaiians set foot on that land and what it looked like through today. . . . To be able to tell the story of Lahaina from its very beginnings, that possibility is immense.”

The state Historical Preservation Division is reviewing the draft archaeological inventory survey report, which can be viewed at

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at