Rev. William Alexander: Revisiting an early island icon

William Patterson Alexander, the first pastor of Kaua‘i’s Wai‘oli Mission, was born in Kentucky in 1805, educated at the Princeton Theological Seminary and ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1831.

In October of that same year, he married Mary Ann McKinney. A month later, the Alexanders sailed from New Bedford, Mass., aboard the whale ship “Averick” to Hawai‘i, arriving in 1832 after a tiresome 173-day voyage.

(Although the Alexanders were Presbyterians and virtually all of the New England missionaries in Hawai‘i were Congregationalists, sectarian differences were set aside to work together.)

The Alexanders’ first duties as missionaries were not in Hawai‘i, however. Not long after arriving in the islands, Alexander sailed to Tahiti and the Marquesas with Revs. Tinker and Whitney to explore the possibility of establishing missions in those islands. During 1833 and 1834, however, the Alexanders, along with Rev. Richard Armstrong and Rev. Benjamin Parker, were unsuccessful in establishing a mission in the Marquesas.

They returned to Hawai‘i, where Alexander was soon assigned the task of founding a mission station at Wai‘oli. In 1834, the Alexanders and their small son arrived on Kaua‘i in Gov. Kaikio‘ewa’s double-hulled canoe, which had sailed from Waimea around the Na Pali Coast. Making the trip with them were 75 others, including Davida Popohaku (David Stonewall) of Rev. Samuel Whitney’s Waimea Mission, who would assist Alexander in many ways, including correcting sermons that Alexander wrote in Hawaiian.

Hawaiians greeted the Alexanders on the shore at Wai‘oli, helped land their canoe, and built them a new thatched house while they lived in temporary huts at the mouth of Wai‘oli Stream, a place they and the others named Kalema, Bethlehem.

When Wai‘oli’s wet weather made quick work of the Alexanders’ new thatched house, it was replaced in 1837, by the Wai‘oli Mission House. Unnamed Hawaiians built this house, as well as Alexander, Joseph Hicks of New Bedford, Frederick Barlow, William Randall, someone called the Long Carpenter and an American Indian named Isaac.

The Alexanders’ Wai‘oli Mission House still stands, and in its time it also served as the home of Rev. and Mrs. Rowell and family (1843-1846), and Mr. and Mrs. Abner Wilcox and their family (1846-1869), after which it slowly fell into disrepair until 1921, when it was restored by Etta Wilcox Sloggett and Elsie and Mabel Wilcox, grandchildren of Abner and Lucy Wilcox.

Nowadays, it is open to the public and is listed on the Hawai‘i and National Register of Historic Places.

Construction of a western-style church with a distinctive bell tower was completed at Wai‘oli in 1841, likely by Hawaiians and an American carpenter, to replace the mission’s Hawaiian-style pole and thatch church that had been built in 1835. This church was also restored in 1921.

Alexander was an eloquent preacher, linguist and scholar, who translated many books from English into the Hawaiian language.

The Alexanders would serve at Wai‘oli until 1843, when he was replaced by Rowell and was transferred to the Lahainaluna Mission Seminary on Maui, where he was stationed until 1856. He later managed Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui, worked as a land surveyor and was pastor of the church at Wailuku, Maui.

In May of 1884, Rev. and Mrs. Alexander (who would have nine children), sailed to San Francisco for Alexander to receive medical treatment for failed health, but he worsened and died in Oakland in August. Mrs. Alexander returned to Hawai‘i afterwards, where she passed away at Haiku, Maui, four years later.

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