Bones in the Streets

Bones In The Streets

Originally Appearing in "Hawai'i Intrigue" (Abstract 4)
Text & Images by Katie Whitman


In 2007, I joined a local archaeology company, digging for historical artifacts and ancient burials. As a member of this company, I monitored construction sites and performed cultural assessments for development projects, dealing with any finds lawfully and with a culturally respectful nature. One particularly sensitive site in Kaka’ako was filled with Hawaiian cultural artifacts and rich with history.

Kaka‘ako used to be marshy, so the inhabitants of early 20th century Honolulu were encouraged to dump their trash here to make solid ground for building. This site was prolific with artifacts from the early 1900s. In one pit, I found ceramic dishware, an undamaged and datable glass soda bottle, the arm and torso of a plastic doll, and colorful clay marbles.

Nearby, my co-workers excavated a privy (outhouse) which, surprisingly, still stunk nearly a century later. We uncovered a small pet cemetery, the final resting place of two cats and one dog. The dog must have been buried with little booties on its feet, because at each paw were two blue buttons.

In post-dig reports, I became familiar with burial maps and customs. Ancient Hawaiians preferred to bury their dead deep in the sand. Waikīkī, Kaka’ako, Kailua—these are places filled with the iwi (bones) of Hawaiians’ past. I remember the first time I excavated a full skeleton.

It was at the Kaka‘ako site; the Blue Angels were performing maneuvers over our heads as part of a demonstration, while I gently used a toothbrush to dust sand off a femur. An entire skeleton lay flat, outstretched and bared once again to the air and the sky. Other skeletons here had been found in the fetal position, a common burial position for ancient Hawaiians. The bones were very delicate, as if more earth than bone.

I cringed as I removed the skeleton delicately, piece by piece. For just a moment, I held a human skull in my hands as I transferred to it to a container for safekeeping. This skull, along with all the other remains, were stored in a climate controlled trailer before being re-interred in a specific location designated by the O‘ahu Burial Council.

While doing background research for one of our reports, I noticed a parking lot in the area bordered by Queen Street, South Street, and Quinn Lane, just around the Kaka‘ako Fire Station. This lot was unusual because the burials were packed tightly together; so much so that the dead had been buried on their sides and only three feet down. What had happened here?

This site, commemorated by a memorial in the back of the Honolulu Fire Department headquarters, was the Honuakaha Smallpox Cemetery, used from 1853 to 1854. While smallpox ran rampant in San Francisco, ships continued to arrive in Honolulu, carrying the disease with them.

Samuel Kamakau, a Hawaiian historian and scholar, was alive during the epidemic. He describes:

From the last week in June [1853] until the first week in September the disease raged in Honolulu. The dead fell like dried kukui twigs tossed down by the wind. Day by day from morning until night horse-drawn carts went about from street to street of the town, and the dead were stacked up like a load of wood, some in coffins, but most of them just piled in, wrapped in cloth with head and legs sticking out… Not a family but bore its loss. (Kamakau 1992, 416 – 417)

At the hospital in Kaka‘ako, 40 to 50 people died every day. Today, 160 years later, we can still see the urgency and devastation. People were dying in such large numbers and so quickly that there wasn’t time to dig graves more than three feet deep and the dead had to be placed on their sides to make room for the others that would surely be coming. Some estimate that as many as 1,000 people lay buried in the smallpox cemetery and some say that the original Kaka‘ako Fire Station at the corner of Quinn and South streets, built on part of the cemetery, is haunted. So serious are these claims that a new Kaka‘ako Fire Station now stands about 500 feet away on Queen Street, while the old station acts as a museum and remains closed most of the time.

As I walk on the streets of Honolulu, a mental map of the burials I have seen plays through my head. It’s impossible to forget the history that lies beneath my feet.