by William Ellis
The following passages were reprinted from the 1823
Journal of William Ellis. The reverand William Ellis
(pictured on the right) and his party were the first
non-Hawaiian group to enter the sacred region of Pele
now known as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Ellis was
guided by a man named Makoa (pictured on the left) who
was provided by the high chief Kuakini of Hawaii. By
foot and by canoe the Ellis party had to endure diarrhea,
sunburn, fleas, lack of food and water during their
two month trek around the island of Hawaii. Ellis
words are western mans first written accounts
from the volcano in Hawaii.
FIRST VIEW OF KILAUEAS FIRES
While the natives were sitting round the fire, Mr. Thurston
and I ascended to the upper region, and walked to a
rising ground at a small distance from the mouth of
the cavern, to try if we could discern the light of
the volcano. The wind blew fresh from the mountains;
the noise of the rolling surf, to which we had been
accustomed on the shore, was not heard; and the stillness
of the night was only disturbed by the chirping of the
insects in the grass. The sky was clear, except in the
eastern horizon, where a few light clouds arose, and
slowly floated across the expanse of heaven.
A Man named Mokua. Mokua
was the personal guide for the Reverand William
On looking towards the north-east, we saw a broad column
of light rising to a considerable elevation in the air,
and immediately above it some bright clouds, or thin
vapours, beautifully tinged with red on the under side.
We had no doubt that the column of light arose from
the large crater, and that its fires illuminated the
surrounding atmosphere. The fleecy clouds generally
passed over the luminous column in a south-east direction.
As they approached it, the side towards the place where
we stood became generally bright; afterwards the under
edge only reflected the volcanic fire; and in a little
time each cloud passed entirely away, and was succeeded
We remained some time to observe the beautiful phenomenon
occasioned by the reflection of the volcanic fire, and
the more magnificent spectacle presented by the multitude
and brilliancy of the heavenly bodies. The season was
solemn and delightful.
ON THE ROAD TO THE VOLCANO
Refreshed by a comfortable nights sleep, we arose
before daylight on the morning of the first of August,
and after stirring up the embers of our fire, rendered,
with grateful hearts, our morning tribute of praise
to our almighty Preserver.
As the day began to dawn, we tied on our sandals, ascended
from the subterraneous dormitory, and pursued our journey,
directing our course towards the column of smoke, which
bore E.N.E. from the cavern.
The path for several miles lay through a most fertile
tract of country, covered with bushes, or tall grass
and fern, frequently from three to five feet high, and
so heavily laden with dew, that before we had passed
it, we were as completely wet as if we had walked through
The morning air was cool, the singing of birds enlivened
the woods, and we travelled along in Indian file nearly
four miles and hour, although most of the natives carried
heavy burdens, which were tied on their backs with small
bands over their shoulders, in the same manner that
a soldier fastens on his knapsack. Having also ourselves
a small leather bag containing a bible, inkstand, note-book,
compass, &c. suspended from one shoulder, a canteen
of water from the other, and sometimes a light port-folio,
of papers, with specimens of plants besides, our whole
party appeared, in this respect at least, somewhat en
In 1824 the high chiefess
Kapiolani, an ardent Christian, decided
to act in defiance of Pele as a demonstration
to her people of her new faith.
Ignoring dire warnings
she descended into the caldera to the brink of
the fire-pit Halemaumau. Here she
ate ohelo berries without asking Peles
permission and read passages from the Bible.
Unharmed, she returned
home, hopeful that her action would help win converts
among her people.
STOPPED BY A CHASM
After travelling a short distance over the open country,
we came to a small wood, into which we had not penetrated
far, before all traces of a path entirely disappeared.
We kept on some time, but were soon brought to a stand
by a deep chasm, over which we saw no means of passing.
Here the natives ran about in every direction searching
for marks of footsteps, just as a dog runs to and fro
when he has lost the track of his master..
After searching about half an hour, they discovered
a path, which led some distance to the southward, in
order to avoid the deep chasm in the lava.
SUGAR CANE REFRESHMENT
Near the place where we crossed over, there was an extensive
cavern. The natives sat down on the top of the arch
by which it was formed, and began eating their sugar-cane,
a portable kind of provision usually carried on their
journeys, while we explored the cavern in hopes of finding
fresh water. In several places drops of water, beautifully
clear, constantly filtered through the vaulted arch,
and fell into calabashes placed underneath to receive
it. Unfortunately for us, these were all nearly empty.
Probably some thirsty traveller had been there but a
short time before.
A SANDY DESERT
Leaving the wood, we entered a waste of dry sand, about
four miles across. The travelling over it was extremely
fatiguing, as we sunk in to our ankles at every step.
The sand was of a dark olive colour, fine and sparkling,
parts of it adhering readily to the magnet, and being
raised up in heaps in every direction, presented a surface
resembling, colour excepted, that of drifted snow.
It was undoubtedly volcanic; but whether thrown out
of any of the adjacent craters in its present form,
or made up of small particles of decomposed lava, and
the crystalline olivin we had observed so abundant in
the lava of the southern shore, and drifted by the constant
trade-wind from the vast tract of lava to the eastward,
we could not determine.
When we had nearly passed through it, we sat down on
a heap of lava to rest and refresh ourselves, having
taken nothing since the preceding noon. About ten oclock,
Messrs. Bishop and Goodrich reached the place where
we were sitting. They had heard by some travellers,
that two or three days would elapse before Makoa would
overtake them, and deeming it inexpedient to wait so
long, had procured a guide, and earlier this morning
set out from Kapapala to follow the rest of the party.
Pu'u O'o Vent
VOLCANIC FORMATIONS DESCRIBED
Having refreshed ourselves, we resumed our journey,
taking a northerly direction towards the columns of
smoke, which we could now distinctly perceive. Our way
lay over a wide waste of ancient lava, of a black colour,
compact and heavy, with a shining vitreous surface,
sometimes entirely covered with obsidian, and frequently
thrown up, by the expansive force of vapour or heated
air, into conical mounds, from six to twelve feet high,
which were, probably, by the same power rent into a
number of pieces, from the apex to the base. The hollows
between the mounds and long ridges were filled with
volcanic sand, and fine particles of olivin, or decomposed
This vast tract of lava resembled in appearance an
inland sea, bounded by distant mountains. Once it had
certainly been in a fluid state, but appeared as if
it had become suddenly petrified, or turned into a glassy
stone, while its agitated billows were rolling to and
Not only were the large swells and hollows distinctly
marked, but in many places the surface of these billows
was covered by a smaller ripple, like that observed
on the surface of the sea at the first springing up
of a breeze, or the passing currents of air which produce
what the sailors call a cats-paw. The billows
may have been raised by the force which elevated the
mounds or hills, but they look as if the whole mass,
extending several miles, had, when in a state of perfect
fusion, been agitated with a violent undulating or heaving
A HARD ROAD
The sun had now risen in his strength, and his bright
rays, reflected from the sparkling sand, and undulated
surface of the vitreous lava, dazzled our sight and
caused considerable pain, particularly as the trade-wind
blew fresh in our faces, and continually drove into
our eyes particles of sand.
This part of our journey was unusually laborious, not
only from the heat of the sun and the reflection from
the lava, but also from the unevenness of its surface,
which obliged us constantly to tread on an inclined
plane, in some places as smooth and almost as slippery
as glass, where the greatest caution was necessary to
avoid a fall. Frequently we chose to walk along the
ride of a billow lava, though considerably circuitous,
rather than pass up and down its polished sides. Taking
the trough, or hollow between the waves, was found safer,
but much more fatiguing, as we sunk every step ankle-deep
into the sand.
The natives ran along the ridges, stepping like goats
from one ridge to another. They, however, occasionally
descended into the hollows, and made several marks with
their feet in the sand at short distances, for the direction
of two or three native boys with our provisions, and
some of their companions, who had fallen behind early
in the morning not being able to keep up with the foremost
CRATERS AND ACTIVE VOLCANIC CRACKS
Between eleven and twelve we passed a number of conical
hills on our right, which the natives informed us were
craters. A quantity of sand was collected round their
base, but whether thrown out by them, or drifted thither
by the wind, they could not inform us.
In their vicinity we also passed several deep chasms,
from which, in a number of places, small columns of
vapour arose, at frequent and irregular intervals. They
appeared to proceed from Kirauea, the great volcano,
and extended towards the sea in a south-east direction.
Probably they are connected with Ponahohoa, and may
mark the course of a vast subterraneous channel leading
from the volcano to the shore. The surface of the lava
on both sides was heated, and the vapour had a strong
DEPOSITS OF PUMACE LAVA
We continued our way beneath the scorching rays of a
vertical sun till about noon, when we reached a solitary
tree growing in a bed of sand, spreading its roots among
the crevices of the rocks, and casting its grateful
shade on the barren lava. Here we threw ourselves down
on the sand and fragments of lava, stretched out our
weary limbs, and drank the little water left in our
In every direction we observed a number of pieces of
spumous lava, of an olive colour, extremely cellular,
and as light as sponge. They appeared to have been drifted
by the wind into the hollows which they occupied.
The high bluff rocks on the north-west side of the
volcano were distinctly seen; the smoke and vapours
driven pas us, and the scent of the fumes of sulphur,
which, as we approached from the leeward, we had perceived
ever since the wind sprung up becoming very strong,
indicated our proximity to Kirauea.
EATING OHELO BERRIES
Impatient to view it we arose, after resting about half
an hour, and pursued our journey. In the way we saw
a number of low bushes bearing beautiful red and yellow
berries in clusters, each berry being about the size
and shape of a large currant. The bushes on which they
grew were generally low, seldom reaching two feet in
height; the branches small and clear, leaves alternate,
obtuse with a point, and serrated; the flower was monopetalous,
and, on being examined, determined the plant to belong
to the class decandria, and order monogynia.
The native name of the plant is ohelo. The berries
looked tempting to persons experiencing both hunger
and thirst, and we eagerly plucked and ate all that
came in our way. They are juicy, but rather insipid
to the taste.
NATIVE FEARS OF PELE
As soon as the natives perceived us eating them, they
called out aloud, and begged us to desist, saying we
were now within the precincts of Peles dominions,
to whom they belonged, and by whom they were rahuiia,
(prohibited,) until some had been offered to her, and
permission to eat them asked. We told them we were sorry
they should feel uneasy on this account, -that we acknowledged
Jehova as the only divine proprietor of the fruits of
the earth, and felt thankful to him for them, especially
in our present circumstances.
Some of them then said, We are afraid. We shall
be overtaken by some calamity before we leave this place.
We advised them to dismiss their fears, and eat with
us, as we knew they were thirsty and faint. They shook
their heads, and perceiving us determined to disregard
their entreaties, walked along in silence.
We travelled on, regretting that the natives should
indulge notions so superstitious, but clearing every
ohelo bush that grew near our path, till about two p.m.
when the Crater of Kirauea suddenly burst upon our view.
We expected to have seen a mountain with a broad base
and rough indented sides, composed of loose slags or
hardened streams of lava, and whose summit would have
presented a rugged wall of scoria, forming the rim of
a mighty caldron. But instead of this, we found ourselves
on the edge of a steep precipice, with a vast plain
before us, fifteen or sixteen miles in circumference,
and sunk from 200 to 400 feet below its original level.
The surface of this plain was uneven, and strewed over
with large stones and volcanic rocks, and in the centre
of it was the great crater, at the distance of a mile
and half from the precipice on which we were standing.
Our guides led us round towards the north end of the
ridge, in order to find a place by which we might descend
to the plain below.
NATIVE TRIBUTE TO PELE
As we passed along, we observed the natives, who had
hitherto refused to touch any of the ohelo berries,
now gather several bunches, and, after offering a part
to Pele, eat them very freely. They did not use much
ceremony in their acknowledgment; but when they had
plucked a branch, containing several clusters of berries,
they turned their faces towards the place whence the
greatest quantity of smoke and vapour issued, and, breaking
the branch they held in their hand in two, they threw
one part down the precipice, saying at the same time,
E Pele, ela ka oheloau; e taumaha aku wau
ia oe, e ai hoi au tetahi. Pele, here are
your Ohelos: I offer some to you, some I also eat.
Several of them told us, as they turned round from
the crater, that after such acknowledgments they might
eat the fruit with security.
DESCENDING INTO KILAUEA
We answered we were sorry to see them offering to an
imaginary deity the gifts of the true God; but hoped
they would soon know better, and acknowledge Jehovah
alone in all the benefits they received.
We walked on to the north end of the ridge, where,
the precipice being less steep, a descent to the plain
below seemed practicable. It required, however, the
greatest caution, as the stones and fragments of rock
frequently gave way under our feet, and rolled down
from above; but, with all our care, we did not reach
the bottom without several falls and slight bruises.
The steep which we had descended was formed of volcanic
matter, apparently a light red and gray kind of lava,
vesicular, and lying in horizontal strata, varying in
thickness from one to forty feet. In a small number
of places the different strata of lava were also rent
in perpendicular or oblique directions, from the top
to the bottom, either by earthquakes, or other violent
convulsions of the ground connected with the action
of the adjacent volcano.
ON THE EDGE OF THE PIT
After walking some distance over the sunken plain, which
to several places sounded hollow under our feet, we
at length came to the edge of the great crater, where
a spectacle, sublime and even appalling, presented itself
before us- We stopped and trembled.
Astonishment and awe for some moments rendered us mute,
and like statues, we stood fixed to the spot, with our
eyes riveted on the abyss below.
Immediately before us yawned an immense gulf, in the
form of a crescent, about two miles in length, from
north-east to south-west, nearly a mile in width, and
apparently 800 feet deep.
A FLOOD OF BURNING LAVA
The bottom was covered with lava, and the south-west
and northern parts of it were one vast flood of burning
matter, in a state of terrific ebullition, rolling to
and fro its fiery surge and flaming billows.
Fifty-one conical islands, of varied form and size,
containing so many craters, rose either round the edge
or from the surface of the burning lake.
Twenty-two constantly emitted columns of gray smoke,
or pyramids of brilliant flame; and several of these
at the same time vomited from their ignited mouths streams
of lava, which rolled in blazing torrents down their
black indented sides into the boiling mass below.
The existence of these conical craters led us to conclude,
that the boiling caldron of lava before us did not form
the focus of the volcano; that this mass of melted lava
was comparatively shallow; and that the basin in which
it was contained was separated, by a stratum of solid
matter, from the great volcanic abyss, which constantly
poured out its melted contents through these numerous
craters into this upper reservoir.
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