The census is not a new practice in Hawaiʻi. The earliest known census can be traced back to the 1500s when ʻUmi-A-Liloa, King of Hawaiʻi Island, directed his citizens to each place a pōhaku representing themselves in a pile for their district. This allowed the chief to assess resources, and it gave him important information when assembling for a battle.
Sometime between the 1790s and 1821, a konohiki during the reign of Kaumualiʻi on Kauaʻi made a population census of Wainiha Valley, documenting the villages from ma uka to ma kai. It included “upwards of 2,000 souls” and reported 65 Menehune in the community of Lāʻau. It’s the last recorded data of Menehune in the Islands.
Later, population estimates were made by missionaries and other foreigners, and by the Hawaiian government, but it wouldn’t be until 1850 that the census was expanded upon and would then evolve to be the census that we see today. It would eventually include geographic distribution, age, sex, race, nationality, occupation, real estate ownership and housing.
As expected, Hawaiʻi’s population saw a steep decline from 1832 to 1879, falling from 130,300 total residents to 58,000. It was followed by an increase that lasts to today. In 1976, there was a total population reported of 952,306.
Populations by city have changed too, as detailed in Robert C. Schmitt’s report “Historical Statistics of Hawaiʻi.” Looking back on the data gives an impression of what life was like then in comparison to today.
Hāna, with 10,750 residents, had the highest population of all of Maui County in 1832, until its population declined to 3,501 in 1866 and Wailuku took the lead. Wailuku’s numbers steadily rose from 4,300 in 1866 to 22,219 in 1970, while Hāna’s population in 1970 dropped to 969.
Honolulu was the population center on Oʻahu with 13,344 residents in 1832. Koʻolaupoko came in second with 4,987, and ʻEwa was third with 4,015.
On Kauaʻi in 1853, Waimea’s 2,872 residents and Hanalei’s 1,998 residents outnumbered Lïhuʻe’s 1,615, until things shifted. In 1970, Waimea’s total of 7,569 residents still exceeded Lïhuʻe’s 6,766, but Hanalei’s population stayed roughly the same and became the least populous at 1,182.
On Hawaiʻi Island, Hilo, with 12,500 residents, was the most populous in 1832 and grew significantly into the 20th century. South Kohala’s numbers rose from 922 to 1,352 in the early part of the century, while North Kohala’s rose to 6,275 in 1920, then decreased by half to 3,326 by 1970.