The island of Niihau, located eighteen miles southwest of Kaua'i, is deliberately cut off from the influences of the outside world. For over a century, access has been limited to those Hawaiian families who work on its privately owned cattle and sheep ranch.
Niihau is twenty-three miles long, three to six miles wide, and relatively flat. Most of its seventy square miles are under five hundred feet and its highest point, Mt. Paniau, is only 1,281 feet above sea level. While Mt. Waialeale, on Kaua'i, is the wettest spot in the islands, tiny Niihau gets only about twelve inches of rain a year.
Because of its size, dry climate, and lack of fresh water, Niihau has always had a small population. Today the island shelters about 250 residents. Their modest wood-frame houses, devoid of fancy plumbing and electricity, are provided by Niihau Ranch in addition to salaries, basic foods, and medical care.
The residents of Niihau are a proud people, tied to the land, and family-oriented. Hawaiian is the daily spoken language on the island and children are taught through eighth grade in Hawaiian, as well as English, in the ranch school. Students who further their education are sent off-island and their tuition is paid by the ranch.
The island's pasture lands support two thousand head of cattle, three thousand wild turkeys, and twelve thousand sheep grown mostly for wool. Other exports include pond-raised mullet, honey, and charcoal made from keave trees. Niihau is also known for the tiny seashells that residents gather off the beaches and string into beautiful leis.
Because of its small size and population, Niihau has long maintained close economic and political ties with Kaua'i. Neither fell into the grasp of Kamehameha I when he began to unite all the islands under his rule in the late 1700s. It was not until 1810 that Niihau and Kaua'i reluctantly chose to join the kingdom.
In 1819, the year that Kamehameha I died, a young woman in Scotland, Eliza McHucheson, married a former Royal Navy officer, Francis Sinclair. For twenty years they operated a large farm in Scotland before selling it and sailing to New Zealand in 1841.
They bought a new farm there, but tragedy struck in 1846 when Eliza lost her husband and oldest son in a shipwreck.
Left a widow with five children, Eliza managed to keep the New Zealand farm together until 1863 when she sold it for considerable profit. The family eventually settled in Honolulu, where the king offered them land stretching from the present Honolulu Hale in downtown Honolulu to Diamond Head in Waikiki. The asking price for this property, today one of the most valuable chunks of real estate in the country, was US$10,000.
The village of Puuwai is the main settlement on Niihau
The Sinclairs turned down the offer because they felt the land would be unsuitable for farming. Instead they spent their US$10,000 on Niihau, a deal that included an entire island as well as its native inhabitants. During the 1870s the family also bought plantation lands on the southwestern side of Kaua'i at Makaweli. Eliza Sinclair died there in 1892 at the age of ninety-three.
Aubrey Robinson, a grandson, became owner of Niihau after Eliza's death. When he died in 1936 the island was inherited by his children, and today it is managed by two of his own grandsons, Keith and Bruce Robinson. Like previous members of their family, they continue to protect Niihau from disruptive modern influences and, in so doing, help to perpetuate the traditional Hawaiian way of life.