Hannah Kaaepa: A Hawaiian Mormon Woman in Washington

By January 10, 2013

Queen Liliuokalani as a young woman

In 1899, a young Mormon woman named Hannah Kaaepa traveled to Washington, D.C., as a delegate to National Council of Women?s Congress.  She had been invited by May Wright Sewall to speak about the rights of Hawaiian women and the recent overthrow of the Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani.  While in Washington, she was feted by Hawaiian Queen who threw her a dinner party and invited the women who had accompanied the young Kaaepa to Washington.  As a result, Emmeline B. Wells, Susa Young Gates, and Lucy B. Young would be among those in attendance that night.  Susan B. Anthony finished out the guest list.

I have little information about what happened that night.  Gates? history of the Young Ladies? Mutual Improvement Society simply noted that she had been well received, ?wearing with dignity the modified costume of her people, decked with leis and shells.? (251) I have even less information about the rest of her life.  At BYU, lying in a folder in the Benjamin Cluff papers are two letters she wrote to him when he was the President of the university.  The first explains that she must refuse his offer of admission to BYU because her mother cannot speak English and needs her to conduct daily business for them in Iosepa and to submit their family?s names to the temple.  The second is written in Hawaiian and remains a mystery.  Although I have carefully typed what it says ? ?Aloha kana anui loaa, na loaa mai ia mana o mama ka ia, ake mahalo nui aku nei?? and see a few words I recognize, ?aloha? = hello, ?mana? = power, respect, ?mahalo nui? = thank you very much, I can?t read it.  The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has also microfilmed the Family Book that her husband created when she passed away and there are a few snippets of information in the Honolulu Advertiser.  From these I learned that she had nine children and four miscarriages, that her mother had been involved in a punalua marriage, and that she served as President of the Relief Society in Honolulu.[1]  Although this is a good deal of information compared to the information we have about other Polynesian Mormon women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it pales in comparison to the boxes of information we have about Susa Young Gates or Lucy Bowen Young.  Kaaepa appears as a fragment.

In spite of the fragmentary nature of the information I have about Kaaepa, I find her fascinating.  She raises so many questions for me:

  • Throughout my reading on the Pacific, one of the things that scholars have stressed is the importance of the ?aina or the land to Hawaiian conceptions of identity. I wonder what it meant for Kaaepa?s family to move to L??ie and then to Iosepa.  Did Kaaepa feel disconnected from the lands where her ancestors had previously lived?  What did it mean to be continually asked to form new genealogies and new connections only to have them severed when she was asked to immigrate to the United States or to move back to Hawai?i?
  • Did native Hawaiians who saw genealogy as sacred and told of lineages stretching back into prehistory and even back to creation itself view temple work as the same way as white Mormons?
  • What did Hannah Kaaepa think about the fact that she had to turn down an offer to attend BYU?
  • How did Kaaepa react to Mormon polygamy, especially since her mother had two husbands?
  • And, finally, what was the reaction of women like Susa Young Gates and Lucy Bowen to Kaaepa?s speech at the convention?  How did Mormons feel about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in relationship to their missionary work in Hawai?i?  Many Hawaiian Mormons maintained their loyalty to the Queen.  Did their white brethren also support the monarchy or after the U.S. accepted Hawai?i as a territory (after initially rejecting it) did they support the actions of the American government?

Although I am hoping to find information to allow him to answer some of these questions (I am pretty sure I can find a partial answer to number 5 in particular), others are certain to remain a mystery.  Such is one of the problems with history.  Although the lives of some people are well documented, others such as that of Hannah Kaaepa remain just outside our grasp.

[1] A punalua marriage is one in which one spouse has multiple partners.  A husband can either have two wives or one wife can have two husbands.  In the case of Kaaepa?s mother, she had two husbands, one of whom was a physician to the Royal Family.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Amanda, while this still leaves us reading between the lines for answers, do you know that Hannah’s mother Makanoe left real estate in various parts of the Islands valued at $12.450 in 1900 when Hannah (then back in Honolulu) petitioned to be named her mother’s executor? Perhaps she wasn’t entirely alienated from ancestral lands (I hope).

    Also, it looks like she had a brother and sister who lived in the leper colony on Molokai. I am entirely unfamiliar with the records there, but is it possible that any existing records might mention Hannah and visits or support given to her siblings?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 10, 2013 @ 11:13 am

  2. Fascinating, Amanda. I wonder about her pre-Mormon life–whether her family had already joined a non-Native religion and if they were acculturated to non-Native ways. It sounds like her mother was from the Hawaiian elite class, judging from her husband’s status. How would these factors contribute to how they saw land–had they adopted European norms in terms of land tenure? Lots of questions; few apparent answers.

    Comment by David G. — January 10, 2013 @ 11:59 am

  3. Fascinating post, Amanda, and a number of important questions, too. Are there any other historians who have written about Kaaepa? Or are there local histories of the church in Hawai’i written by Latter-day Saints there might include oral traditions/remembrances about her? Here’s to hoping you can find more information somewhere.

    Ardis, way to Kaaepa-pitchin-in! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

    Comment by Christopher — January 10, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  4. Great stuff, Amanda; and thanks for your helpful addition, Ardis.

    Comment by Ben P — January 10, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

  5. Thanks all! Ardis, that’s really helpful information. Several influential Hawaiian Saints ended up at Molokai including the wife of Jonathan Napela, one of the first Mormon converts in Hawai’i. Mormon missionaries also frequently visited Molokai to see Napela. Looking at the sources concerning the leper colony there and looking for references would be fascinating.

    David, by the time that Kaaepa was born (c. 1873), most of Hawai’i was Christianized. Although many people maintained native religious beliefs, the kapu system had been overthrown in the early nineteenth century before the arrival of Christian missionaries. The first missionaries to the islands interpreted the removal of kapu as God interfering on their behalf. The relationship between Kaaepa’s status and ideas about land tenure would be fascinating to examine.

    Christopher, I haven’t found any yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Here’s hoping they surface soon.

    Comment by Amanda — January 10, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

  6. Sounds like a great project. I have a friend who works with an organization that preserves Hawaiian documents. He’s fluent in Hawaiian and did some work on Mormonism in Hawaii. I can put you in touch with him if you email me.

    Comment by Michael — January 10, 2013 @ 11:16 pm

  7. Good questions, Amanda. I assume you’ve read Susa’s lengthy account of Kaaepa’s visit to the ICW in the Young Woman’s Journal? I can’t recall too many specifics at the moment, including whether Susa printed Kaaepa’s own words or just summarized them. I think it was the former.

    Also, a small correction. If you’re referring to Susa’s mother, it’s Lucy Bigelow, not Bowen. Which I’m sure you know. 🙂

    Comment by LisaT — January 17, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  8. Thanks, Lisa! I haven’t seen Susa’s description. And thanks for catching the typo! I didn’t even see it.

    Comment by Amanda HK — January 19, 2013 @ 5:27 pm

  9. Cool! There’s even a photograph of Hannah Kaepa in the YWJ!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 19, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  10. *Kaaepa

    Amanda,since reading your post a week ago, Hana and Makanoe have popped up in several places in my reading. None of the references go very far toward addressing any of your major questions, but if I ever do find anything significant I will refer it to you. One minor bit:

    Honolulu Branch, Hawaiian Mission. General Minutes. (CHL LR 3887 11)
    25 November 1896

    The S School was reorganized with Wm Mendenhall pres. … Chas Broad and Kamaawe Theological Class Kane, Makanoe and Ane Kaulukou, Theological Class Wahinie … Hattie Davis and Hana Kaaepa Primary class.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 19, 2013 @ 6:24 pm


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