Island History

Ethel Damon’s “Koamalu,” privately published in two volumes in Honolulu in 1931, has been called the ‘Bible’ of Kaua‘i histories.

Its value to researchers is inestimable, and it remains to this day essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of Kaua‘i, many historians say.

Only Edward Joesting’s widely-read “Kauai, The Separate Kingdom,” published in 1984, approaches “Koamalu’s” importance to historians and Kaua‘i history aficionados.

A third historian, the Rev. John Mortimer Lydgate (1854-1933), made extensive contributions to Kaua‘i’s history that rank with Damon’s and Joesting’s, but of the three, Damon, by the authority of “Koamalu,” ranks first, according to fellow historian Hank Soboleski, author of two editions of “History Makers of Kauai.”

Although “Koamalu” was first conceived by Damon to serve only as a setting for the family histories of the Rices and the Isenbergs, two kama‘aina families long prominent on Kaua‘i, it gradually and almost unconsciously took on the nature of an epic of the island during its creation, according to Soboleski.

“Koamalu” is lengthy, 976 pages, indexed by over 1,530 references, and it contains a great range of historical subject matter with emphasis on a roughly 100-year period, from the early 1800s through the early 1900s.

“Koamalu” makes for fascinating reading, according to Soboleski, because of its detailed etchings, the hundreds of revelations of activities, human behaviors, and now-vanished locations that give readers a feel of the moment of long-ago Kaua‘i.

In “Koamalu’s” pages, a reader can get a sense of what it was like to be alive in old Kaua‘i.

Damon’s research is painstakingly thorough, her writing style is highly readable, and she made a point of incorporating numerous photographs and illustrations throughout the book, Soboleski said.

“Koamalu” has long been out of print, but it can be found in both the Hawai‘i State Public Library System and the University of Hawai‘i library system.

Purchasing the two-volume set is another matter, however, since “Koamalu” is only infrequently available in the used- and rare-book market. People who have it tend to keep it.

Damon spent three years working on “Koamalu” at the Isenberg’s Molokoa estate in Lihu‘e, which consisted of a large plantation-style house, gardens, a small dairy, a stable for horses, and a poultry yard.

It was located near Molokoa Valley in the cane fields approximately 400 yards to the north of the end of today’s hardtop road (Ho‘omana Road) above the Lihue Lutheran Church.

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