Five hundred years ago, Umi, the king of the Big Island, is said to have conducted a census of his realm. Collecting all his people on a plain near Hualalai, he instructed each person to deposit a stone on a pile representing his district at a heiau, or Hawaiian temple.
The first population census in historical times was undertaken in Wainiha Valley, Kaua‘i, near the beginning of the nineteenth century. “At a time as late as the reign of Kaumaulii,” according to a later historian, “the local konohiki (or headman) making a careful census of the valley by villages from the sea mauka returned upwards of 2000 souls,” 65 of whom were described as menehune—the legendary race of small people who worked at night building fishponds, roads, and temples.
The first full-scale censuses, covering all islands, were those made under missionary auspices in the 1830s. Counts taken in 1831 and 1832 reported a total population of more than 130,000; four years later, the count found fewer than 109,000.
The population declined for another forty years, then took a sharp upward turn. Disease, low birth rates, and emigration reduced the kingdom’s total to 84,000 in 1850, when the first complete governmental census was completed, and ultimately to an all-time low of 54,000 in 1876. At that point the influx of contract workers—first Chinese, later Japanese, Portuguese, Koreans, Filipinos, and others—became large enough to reverse the trend, and the population began to rise.
The first census conducted by the U.S. government took place in 1900, when the headcount reached 154,000. Forty years later, on the eve of World War II, 423,000 persons lived in the Islands. The most recent official tally, taken in 1990, reported Hawai‘i with 1,108,000 residents, by far the most ever reported in an Island census.
By Robert C. Schmitt