Lahaina has a long and varied history, which is now woven into the fabric of the present-day town. The earliest settlers of Maui stepped foot on its shores around 450 A.D – and some think even earlier. However, it was the prosperity of the 1800s and the foresight of King Kamehameha that put Lahaina on the map.
In 1802, King Kamehameha pronounced that the West Maui town of Lahaina would be the capital of his Hawaiian island kingdom. He even built a brick palace on the shores of Lahaina (the ruins of which are still there) along with other royal buildings and residences on a site called Moku`ula. Lahaina served as the seat of government for over 50 years, until the capital moved to Honolulu.
In the 1800s, Lahaina was also a major whaling port and fishing town, thanks to the calm harbor and it’s location on the whale migration routes. Also known as Lele, which means “Land of Relentless Sun,” the weather was a major draw for immigrants as well. However, the bawdy sailors had to share the immigration limelight with the missionaries that were also attracted to the area. This brought about a battle of virtues – the missionaries had many virtues and the sailors had none. Eventually, with the construction of missionary schools, the introduction of the missionaries of the printing press on the island and the construction of a prison for sailors in 1853, the missionaries won out and tamed the nautical culture.
In 1873, the now-famous Banyan tree was first planted by the courthouse by the sheriff of Old Lahaina Town, William Owen Smith. Its original purpose was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Lahaina’s first Christian Mission. In 1886, it served as the site for a birthday party for King Kamehameha III, and in 1898 was the site of a ceremony marking Hawaii becoming a United States territory.
Lahaina has moved with the times, and now the wooden buildings along Front Street that were once outfitters for sailors and grog houses are now unique shops and art galleries. The port that was once where whalers’ ships docked is now where tourists take boat excursions. However, the past is always present in Lahaina.