Hawaii Genealogy

by Darcie Hind Posz

When the earliest seafaring pioneers arrived at the Hawaiian Islands, they brought traditions that would survive for a thousand years: their means of preserving the historical knowledge of their ancestors. Creation chants and the hula tell the story of their arrival. For centuries, the Native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) had their own government (kapu) and ruling chiefs (ali’i). English Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778 marked the beginning of waves of new people, each leaving their distinct mark on the islands and their written records. From a kingdom to a territory to statehood, Hawaii has a location in the Pacific that’s made it historically valuable. Here is how to research ancestors who made the long journey there.

Hawaii Genealogy Research Guide Contents

Hawaii Genealogy Fast Facts



Annexed in 1898; territory in 1900




1840–1843 (index only), 1866 (fragment), 1878 (Hawaii), 1890 and 1896 (Oahu)






Birth, 1842; death, 1859 (most date to 1896)


1842 (most date to 1896)


Hawaii State Department of Health
Office of Health Status Monitoring
Issuance/Vital Records Section

Box 3378
Honolulu, HI 96801
(808) 586-4539

State History


The eight main islands that make up Hawaii rise from the Pacific Ocean: Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, O’ahu, Moloka’i, Lanai, Kaho’olawe, Maui and Hawai’i (“the Big Island”). The archipelago is made up of 15 volcanoes and varying ecosystems, and all but one island (Kaho’olawe) are inhabited. The nearest continent is nearly 2,000 miles away. And yet, the first people arrived at the Hawaiian Islands at least a millennium ago on wa’a kaulua (double-hull canoes). Experts at wayfinding using stars to navigate, these inhabitants would remain secluded for hundreds of years.

The kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) are descendants of other Polynesian groups: Tahitians (Ma’ohi), peoples of the Marquesas Islands, and the Maori of New Zealand to name a few. A system of government, the kapu system, relied on ruling chiefs whose rank was associated to land (aina) possession.


When James Cook arrived in 1778, he ushered in a new era of other populations coming to the islands. Many British and American citizens settled there, leading to the eventual discontinuation of the kapu system. The Americans brought with them missionaries, who increased literacy rates and spread Christianity. The eight islands were divided until 1810, when King Kamehameha united them. The Kingdom of Hawaii was so named because Kamehameha was initially a chief from the Big Island of Hawaii.

Settlement from the mainland continued in earnest through the 19th century. The 1848 land-division act, the Great Mahele, marked the moment when foreigners and commoners could purchase land that had previously been only by ruling chiefs (ali’i). This led to the growth of plantations, which were hungry for laborers. Contract workers began arriving from China in 1852 and Portugal in 1878, followed by laborers from Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Many plantation workers chose to stay in Hawaii after their contracts had run out.

The islands’ location and agriculture made them militarily and economically valuable to the United States, especially during the Spanish-American War. A coup led by US-a·liated militia and business interests seized power in 1893, and (under pressure from US authorities) Queen Lili’uokalani abdicated in 1898. Then the United States annexed the islands and made them a territory in 1900. Hawaii was once again valuable during World War II. Its famous Pearl Harbor was the site of the Japanese attack that brought the United States into the war.

In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill that made Hawaii the 50th (and, so far, final) state. From kingdom to territory to statehood, all of these phases impact the type of records available.

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Hawaii History Timeline


Polynesians first arrive at and settle the Hawaiian Islands; some estimates pre-date this by centuries
James Cook, the first European known to visit the Hawaiian Islands, lands at Kauai


Kamehameha unites the islands under one kingdom
The Great Mahele allows non-Hawaiian settlers to own land
The “Bayonet Constitution” removes power from the Hawaiian monarch


Queen Lili’uokalani abdicates; the United States annexes the “Republic of Hawaii”
Hawaii becomes a US territory
The Hawaii legislature establishes five counties; one of them, Oahu County, is renamed Honolulu County in 1907


Japan attacks the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II
Hawaii becomes the 50th state

Historic Map

Map of the Territory of Hawaii. By United States Land General Office. Published By U.S. Geological Survey. 1918. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

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Hawaii Genealogy Records Online

Vital Records


Territory-wide birth, marriage and death records were required beginning in 1896. But some localities kept records as early as 1826—and others didn’t full comply until the 1920s. The state archives has indexes for vital records from 1832. Early records will likely be written in Hawaiian. Some common Hawaiian words that appear in records include: inoa (name), hanau (birth), make (death), kane (male), wahine (female), mahina (month), and la (date). Ulukau hosts an Hawaiian-to-English dictionary, useful if you encounter other unfamiliar words.

Some vital records are available online and vary for the specific island. Birth certificates (available at or delayed birth records can include testimony of the parents to the child’s birth or neighbors. Marriage certificates often name the parents, place of birth, and approximate age of the couple when marrying. Death records available depend on the island and the time period, and not all deaths were recorded or are available online. The state department of health <> holds records from 1909 forward. For privacy reasons, access may be limited to direct family members only.

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Census Records

Hawaiian authorities tracked the population as early as 1840, albeit not across all islands. FamilySearch has records that vary from 1840 to 1896, with a digitized collection of 1878 to 1896. (Unlike many other places in the United States, Hawaii has a census of 1890!) The US federal census was first conducted in Hawaii in 1900, then every 10 years after. That first, 1900 enumeration is especially important because it includes the US military bases and barracks that were part of the military occupation, as well as the population growth driven by the arrival of foreign contract workers. Keep an open mind when searching for your family in these records, because names may be reversed or shortened if the person enumerating could not understand the informant.

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Passenger Lists

The state archives hold ship passenger manifests from 1843 to 1900, which capture the influx of workers into Hawaii. (FamilySearch has a copy as well.) You can find ship manifests for Chinese workers, specifically, through the FamilySearch Library. Honolulu was the most frequently used port of entry, and FamilySearch has manifests from 1900 to 1952. Records can include the place of origin (sometimes an address or town), port of departure, age, place of birth, and with whom they will be staying when they arrive. Also, look for stamped numbers in these entries, because they can indicate if there is an alien number or other number that would allow the record to be requested from the USCIS.

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Land Records

In the Great Mahele period, the Hawaiian feudal system was abolished and land was redistributed for private ownership. Both foreigners and commoners could own land from that time, which led to awards, patents and land claims. A helpful guide provided by the University of Hawai’i Manoa details the process and includes searchable databases and images. Other searchable databases for these land entries are at Waihona Aina and the Papakilo Database.


The Plantation Archives at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library holds records kept by di¤erent plantations. Coverage varies by place, but records can generally be used to narrow down the arrival date(s) of contract laborers.

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State Publications and Resources


The first newspaper of Hawaii, Ka Lama Hawaii, was written in the Hawaiian language and published in 1834. Papers written in both English and Hawaiian from that year on have been digitized and are searchable by keywords (in both languages). The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America includes images of the Hawaiian Gazette beginning in 1868, and Papakilo Database has 12,000 issues from around the islands.


In the Great Mahele period, the Hawaiian feudal system was abolished and land was redistributed for private ownership. Both foreigners and commoners could own land from that time, which led to awards, patents and land claims. A helpful guide provided by the University of Hawai’i Manoa details the process and includes searchable databases and images.. Other searchable databases for these land entries are at Waihona Aina and the Papakilo Database.

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Hawaii Genealogy Resources


Cyndi’s List: Hawaii

FamilySearch Research Wiki: Hawaii

Hawaii USGenWeb

Linkpendium: Hawaii

Papakilo Database

Ulukau: The Hawaiian Electronic Library


Hawaiian Antiquities by David Malo (HawaiianGazette Co.)

Native Land and Foreign Desires by Lilakala Kame’eleihiwa (Bishop Museum Press)

Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1835–1920 by Ronald T. Takaki (University of Hawaii Press)

The Polynesian Family System in Kau, Hawaii by E.S. Craighill and Mary Kawena Pukui (Mutual Publishing)

Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii by Samuel M. Kamakau (Kamehameha Schools Press)

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