Place Names of Hamakua

We live on the Hamakua coast, a little ways outside of Hilo, and almost every time I drive into town I think about my grandmother, my Tutu, telling me offhandedly once that her great-grandfather had known every twist and turn of that road.

Even when he was in his 80s and 90s and fully blind, she told me, he knew where he was by the turns and feel of the road, and he would call out the name of every small bit of land as they drove by.

Hamakua, Place Names of Hawaii

In the old times from which he came, place was so important, and every small area of land was known and labeled. Things have changed for most of us; I mostly just know “Papaikou,” “Ka‘ie‘ie,” “Pauka‘a,” and a handful of other place names still marked by signs or street names. But there are, of course, so many more places with their own names and characteristics and stories.

Tutu told me about this one day long ago. It was when we passed a place she told me Kamehameha Schools had considered, before deciding to build their Hawai‘i Island campus at Kea‘au. At that time, they were using the old Hawaiian name for the potential Hamakua site, one that hadn’t been used for a very long time.

“I hadn’t heard that name in absolutely decades,” Tutu told me — not since the 1920s and early 30s when her great-grandfather Nalimu had ridden that route and named every individual place along the way.

I wish we could ride along with Tutu Nalimu, and hear and learn all the names. I want my daughter to know about this place where she lives, including the Hawaiian names and their stories.

We’ll have to find a book or an old map that shows us the names, and talk to people who might know, and look up some of the old stories. I’m going to start working on this now as part of our Summer of Exploration.



  1. Great post Leslie! Although there may be another map solely dedicated to the old historic places, we have found that the best map is Map of Hawai’i the Big Island Cartography by James A Bier Published by the University of Hawai’i. It is only $3.95. It has all Hawaiian words spelled with all accent marks and also has a special “Guide to the Index of Hawaiian Place-Names. Another thing that is really interesting is that it marks all lava flows by date. It also shows most streams & all rivers coming into the coast and where they originate. It also notes trails, caves and elevations.

    The University also has a book you might want to check out, Hawai’i Place Names: Shores, Beaches and Surf Sites by John R. Clark. and then Mary Kawena Puki, Samuel H. Elbert and Ester T. Mookini have complied the new Pocket Place Names of Hawai’i which is very good (Also UH Press)

    I am pretty sure you can find all of these at Basically Books, as I think that is where we got them.


  2. Leslie

    I have a couple of these and will have to have a close look. I really want to find a map specifically with the old names, which not all maps have. The Place Names book is a classic and helpful in some instances, once you know what name you’re looking up! Thanks for pointing all these out, Devany.

  3. Cathy West

    Oma also knew all those place names and would remind us of them when we rode from Hilo to Kona for our annual summer vacation. She knew every gulch name and bridge name and name of everything else along the way. Wish I had paid more attention to that, but a good memory of Oma, nonetheless.

    1. Leslie Lang

      What happened? Our family lost that knowledge! Oma was Cathy’s and my great-grandmother, and she undoubtedly knew all those place names from her grandfather (the one I wrote about in this post). It is so sad (and common) that in recent generations that sort of information was lost in so many families here.

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