Who owns Hawaii?

The Great Māhele paved the way for some people, corporations, and public entities to become big landowners of Hawaii’s beautiful land.

By REAL. Updated Aug 16, 2022. | Real Estate, Living in Hawaii | 12 min. read

Do you want to own property in Hawaii? Anyone can buy land in Hawaii. However, finding a home in Hawaii might deem difficult, as land is limited in the Hawaiian Islands.

In fact, a lot of Hawaii’s land is owned by a few main people, corporations, or public entities, meaning there are few properties actually available to be bought.

Here are the top ten Hawaii landowners in all the Hawaiian Islands, according to the State of Hawaii Data Book 2017:

1. The Hawaii State Government. 1,574,530.8 total acres

The State of Hawaii owns land on every island, including 127.1 acres on Niihau and over 1 million acres on Hawaii Island (the Big Island). Of the total acres that the state owns, 198,896 acres are designated to the Hawaii Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which was an initiative spearheaded by Prince Kuhio in 1921 to create a government-sponsored homesteading program for Native Hawaiians; tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians are currently on waitlists to receive these lands from the Department of Hawaiian Homelands.

How did the State of Hawaii get so much land? Of the approximately 4 million acres of land in Hawaii, the state government owns most of this. The state’s large possession of land dates back to King Kamehameha III’s Great Māhele (great land division) in 1848 in which all the land was divided into three categories: 1 million acres going to the king and his family; 1.5 million designated for the king’s rulers (ali‘i) and managers (konohiki); and another 1.5 million designated as Government Lands. While some of the Government Lands have been sold to non-government entities, some remained with the state of Hawaii. Over the years, the State of Hawaii also has acquired some of the Crown Lands from the king’s portion as well as the Konohiki lands.

In 1898, when the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands and had them become a territory of the United States, about 1.8 acres of Crown and Government lands went to the United States; these lands are now commonly known as “Ceded Lands”. When Hawaii became a state during the 1959 Admission Act, around 1.4 million acres of this land went to the new State of Hawaii. The Admissions Act said the land should be used for public purpose and “for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians.”

2. The U.S. Federal Government. 531,444 total acres

How did the United States government get so much land in Hawaii? When the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy occurred in 1893, with Queen Lili‘uokalani on the thrown at ‘Iolani Palace, this paved the way for the eventual annexation of Hawaii, which included the taking of over 1 million acres of Crown and Government Land. While much of this land was transferred to the new state of Hawaii in 1959, the federal government did keep some.

About 350,000 acres of the U.S. government land in Hawaii were kept for military installations and national parks. The U.S. government has over 400,000 acres on Hawaii Island, which includes Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, over 30,000 acres on Maui, which includes Haleakala National Park, and over 60,000 acres on Oahu, which includes most of the Hawaii military bases such as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Schofield Barracks, Camp Smith, and Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe Bay.

3. Kamehameha Schools. 362,244.5 total acres

Kamehameha Schools has almost 300,000 acres on Hawaii Island and almost 50,000 acres on Oahu. How did Kamehameha Schools get their land? In 1883, before the overthrow of Hawaii by the U.S. government and before the U.S. government took much of the land in Hawaii, Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a member of the Royal Hawaiian family and heir of Kamehameha V and other Hawaiian royalties, designated much of her land and money to be held in a trust to create Kamehameha Schools. She left 375,000 acres to be used as a gift to educate her people.

Today Kamehameha Schools operate three main campuses. The Kapalama Heights campus has 600 acres. The Maui campus, opened in 1996, has 180 acres, and the Hawaii campus, opened in 2001, has 300 acres. Most of Kamehameha Schools land is undeveloped and designated as either conservation or agricultural land. Some of the land is used as commercial real estate, including properties for shopping centers, such as Windward Mall in Kaneohe and Kahala Mall. The Kahala Resort & Hotel and the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki are also on Kamehameha Schools land, as is the popular up-and-coming neighborhood of Kakaako.

4. Parker Ranch. 105,995.6 total acres

Located on the Big Island, the Parker Ranch history is well documented, with six generations of Parker family members working the lands. The history begins in 1788, just ten years after James Cook first landed in Hawaii and shared the news of the Hawaiian Islands with other foreigners. In 1788, one of these foreigners, British Captain George Vancouver brought eight cows to King Kamehameha I, who let them roam free throughout Hawaii Island. Cows multiplied by the thousands and roamed the island freely, creating havoc in gardens.

In 1809, John Palmer Parker arrived in Hawaii as a sailor from Massachusetts, befriending King Kamehameha I, learning to speak Hawaiian, and working in the fishponds. When Parker returned to Hawaii after serving in the War of 1812, he brought an American musket, and King Kamehameha gave him exclusive permissions to shoot the wild cattle and sell it locally and in foreign lands – paving the way for the Parker Ranch of today.

Decades passed with various Parker family members acquiring land, raising cattle and horses, befriending Hawaiian royalty, and bringing over cowboys who were fondly called paniolo. The final heir to Parker Ranch was Richard Smart, who was born in 1913. Under his direction, the ranch acquired over 500,000 acres and 30,000 head of cattle. Today the ranch is managed by the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust with a mission to serve the education and health needs of the Waimea community.

5. Robinson Family. 101,287.7 acres

The Robinson Family has over 55,000 acres on Kauai and over 46,000 acres on Niihau. In fact, they own nearly all of Niihau except a few hundred acres owned by the government. How does the Robinson Family own Niihau and much of Kauai?

In 1864, Elizabeth HcHutchinson Sinclair purchased this land from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. After losing her husband and oldest son at sea in 1846, Elizabeth managed the family’s property with her five children in Pigeon Bay in New Zealand, but after some time, she sold the land and searched for land elsewhere – finding Hawaii the perfect place at the age of 63. When she purchased all these acres, the king made the family promise that they protect the island and its residents from outside influences – and many generations later, descendants of the Sinclair family have upheld that promise to today. Brothers Bruce and Keith Robinson currently manage Niihau, and Niihau is one of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands where it is basically impossible to purchase land and even difficult to visit, giving it the nickname of the “Forbidden Isle.”

6. Pūlama Lanai. 89,075.1 acres

Who owns Lanai? Larry Ellison purchased nearly 90,000 acres of Lanaiin 2012. Pūlama Lanai was created by Larry Ellison “to manage, preserve and protect [the] the precious land and natural resources,” according to the Pūlama Lanai website. Larry Ellison made much of his wealth as the executive chairman of the Oracle Corporation, which develops and provides a range of software products.

While this acreage was once owned by James Dole, who transformed Lanai into one of the largest pineapple plantations in the world, and later by Castle & Cooke in the 1980s, who continued some pineapple farming as well as resort development, today Lanai is home to around 3000 residents, and Ellison’s land is used for the Four Seasons Lanai Resort, restaurants in Lanai City, as well as conservation programs and alternative energy research.

7. Alexander & Baldwin. 86,514.1 acres

Alexander and Baldwin have a little over 21,000 acres on Kauai and 65,000 acres on Maui. Their offices are in Honolulu. This multimillion-dollar company today was founded by two young visionary men: Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin.

In 1869, Alexander, who was 33, and Baldwin, who was 27, bought their first 12 acres in Makawao on Maui for $110 to grow sugarcane. Through hard work, vision, and partnerships, they later acquired more land, became agents for nearly a dozen plantations, bought the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, purchased the Kahului Railroad, and also created irrigation systems, which became the model for most Hawaii irrigation projects. A&B was incorporated in 1900, and the Board of Directors at the first meeting consisted of Joseph P. Cooke, Wallace M. Alexander, James B. Castle, Henry Baldwin and Samuel Alexander, who were big names in the Hawaii plantation era.

After incorporation, both Alexander and Baldwin passed away within the next decade. Today Alexander & Baldwin have an estimated $2.1 billion in assets and are a public company with commercial real estate, land operations, and construction businesses.

8. Molokai Ranch. 53,797.5 acres

Molokai Ranch encompasses about one-third of the island of Molokai, mostly on the western side of the island. This land was once owned by King Kamehameha V, who had a summer house there and began raising cattle on the land. The title to the land later passed to Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani and then to Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. In 1897, Honolulu businessmen, including A.D. McClellan, Judge Alfred Hartwell, and Charles M. Cooke, purchased 70,000 acres from the trustees of the Bishop Estate.

Ten years later, the land was completely bought by the Cooke family, who raised cattle and grew sweet potatoes and wheat crops for nearly two decades. Molokai Ranch also began to produce honey during this time, becoming the world’s largest honey producer between 1910 and 1937. Between 1923 and the mid-1980s, thousands of acres of land were leased to Libby and Del Monte to grow pineapple, which became an economic staple on the island of Molokai.

The Cooke family continued to own the land for 100 years, until nearly 30 years ago it was bought by Singapore-based company GL Ltd. Molokai Ranch has been the site of Molokai Lodge, Kaluakoa hotel, two golf courses, residential, agricultural, commercial, and conservation land, and recently, after a controversial shut-down of tourist operations in March 2008, the site of cattle operations for grass-fed Wagyu-bred cows.

Molokai was listed for sale in 2017 with an asking price of $260 million, so there may be a new top ten Hawaii landowner soon. The State of Hawaii has been one of the prospective buyers, but only time will tell what will become of Molokai Ranch.

9. County Governments. 38,127.7 acres

The City and County of Honolulu owns over 18,000 acres on Oahu. The Government of the County of Hawaii owns almost 10,000 acres on Hawaii Island, or the Big Island. The Government of the County of Maui owns 209 acres on Lanai, 8,158 acres on Maui, and 264 acres on Molokai. The Government of Kauai owns 975 acres on Kauai. Much of this land is used as parks and recreational facilities as well as for infrastructure and buildings for public sector employees, such as firefighters and police officers.

How did Hawaii’s county governments acquire these lands? It is difficult to find the details to answer this question, but some of it was acquired through eminent domain, or the government’s right to purchase property, while others were acquired during the Great Māhele and donations. Other acres were acquired through other methods.

10. Grove Farm. 30,837.2 acres

Grove Farm’s acreage is found on Kauai. In 1850, following the Great Māhele, Warren Goodale purchased these former Crown Lands, who then sold the land to James Marshall, who then sold the land to Judge Herman Widemann in 1856, who began clearing kukui nut trees and planting sugarcane.

In 1864, Hanalei-raised George Norton Wilcox took over the lease for Grove Farm, soon becoming its sole owner, and the Wilcox family would own the Grove Farm land for over 100 years. They expanded to purchase nearby plantations, including the Koloa Plantation, built irrigation systems, and continued sugarcane as well as cattle operations. They brought people from around the world to work on these plantations, offering them housing.

Today, Grove Farm’s owner is Stephen Case, co-founder of AOL, who purchased the land in 2000. A little over 200 acres has been gifted to the University of Hawaii for the Kauai Community College and for the Island School, a private school. They continue to use the land for some agricultural operations but also have done some residential, industrial, and commercial land development, stating they aim to “[preserve] historic sites and [enhance] the many plants, birds, and other endangered species,” according to their website.

Ten landowners just missing the top ten list but with some big names, are the following:

  1. Haleakala Ranch. 29,167.3 acres
  2. Maui Land & Pine. 22,354.9 acres
  3. Yee Hop. 21,636.4 acres
  4. Dole Food Company. 19,782.9 acres
  5. Ulupalakua Ranch. 18,372.2 acres
  6. W.H. Shipman. 16,798.9 acres
  7. Kahuku Aina Properties. 16,423.1 acres
  8. McCandless Ranch. 15,365.4 acres
  9. E.C. Olson. 13,744.2 acres
  10. The Nature Conservancy. 13,357.6 acres

Who owns Kauai?

After the State of Hawaii, who owns over 155,000 acres on Kauai, the Robinson Family is the second-largest landowner at over 55,000 acres (excluding their Niihau acres), and then Grove Farm is the third-largest landowner at over 30,000 acres. Click here if you're interested in owning your piece of Kauai.

Who owns Maui?

After the State of Hawaii, who owns over 154,000 acres on Maui, Alexander & Baldwin is the second-largest landowner at over 65,000 acres, and the U.S. Government is the third-largest landowner at over 33,000 acres. Check out land and homes for sale on Maui.

Who owns Oahu?

After the State of Hawaii, who owns nearly 94,000 acres on Oahu, the U.S. Federal Government is the second-largest landowner at over 61,000 acres, and then Kamehameha Schools is the third-largest landowner at over 47,000 acres. View homes for sale on the island of Oahu.

Who owns the Big Island (Hawaii Island)?

After the State of Hawaii, who owns over 1,092,000 acres on the Big Island, the U.S. Federal Government is the second-largest landowner at over 432,000 acres, and then Kamehameha Schools is the third-largest landowner at over 297,000 acres. Whether you're interesting in buying land or a house, you can view the properties for sale on Hawaii Island here.

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