We know Isabella Bird to have been a great explorer of the Rocky Mountains, but she also explored many other places around the world such as Australia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, India, Iran and Hawaii. Ms. Bird did this in a time when lone travel was rarely heard of, or accepted for women. This year marks 150 years since Isabella Bird explored Estes Park. As a way to celebrate, we have been creating a series of articles about her life featuring historians with a deep knowledge of Isabella Bird. As we continue to uncover more about her fascinating travels, we decided to take a deeper dive into her time in Hawaii.
We had the incredible opportunity to sit down with Professor, Jackie “Pua” Johnson for an exclusive interview about Bird's Hawaiian adventures. Born and raised in Hawaii, Johnson also spent time in Colorado where she graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Johnson then spent a decade performing a one-woman show about Isabella Bird in the places she explored.
“I still hearken to her chronicles here because of her daring attitude, which often put her in danger, but resulted in extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experiences! She loved Nature, yet natural elements were always clawing at her heels with floods, eruptions, high-altitude chills, etc. She was so resolute, putting aside discomfort so that experiencing an environment took precedence,” said Johnson.
Read the full interview below and learn why Johnson says Bird left behind a legacy of extraordinary courage in all her travels, especially Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains.
When did Isabella Bird explore Hawaii?
Ms. Bird arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1872, having left Liverpool for Melbourne, Australia. She was 41 years of age at the time. The initial trip to Australia took three months and she happened to land there during an atypical heatwave. After months of trying to endure the weather both in Melbourne and Aucklund, New Zealand, she booked passage to San Franciso. The stop in Hawaiʻi was to care for another passenger who had become ill. Ms. Bird subsequently spent six months in the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Why do you think Hawaii was such a special place for Bird?
Ms. Bird found great relief from her various ailments in the balmy, peaceful atmosphere of the Hawaiian islands. In her introduction to the book she wrote, “Six Months in the Sandwich Islands,” dated January 1875, she mentions “the necessity of leading a life of open air and exercise as a means of recovery.” Ms. Bird was welcomed by Natives and newcomers alike, the latter being those who had taken up residence in the islands as part of missionary duties.
What areas of Hawaii did Bird explore, and did she indicate some of her favorite places?
Ms. Bird visited most of the inhabited Hawaiian islands: Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, Maui, and Kauaʻi, referring to the island of Molokaʻi when sharing her perceptions of the leper colony located there. Her most enticing descriptions of her “adventures” were of her travels on the Island of Hawaiʻi where she rode on horseback up mountains to witness volcanic eruptions, participated in bullock hunts, and traversed raging rivers to explore secluded valleys. Her shoes and gloves melted when walking over hot lava in one instance; her horse lost its footing in one river, when it, “rolled backward into deep water...I saw her feet pawing the air, and then only her head was above water. I struck her hard with my spurs, she snorted, clawed, made a desperate struggle, regained her footing, got into shallow water, and landed safely.”
How do you think Bird’s experience in Hawaii influenced her other travels? Do you think it had any significance in her choice to travel to the Rocky Mountains?
I believe that Ms. Bird tested her own mettle in Hawaiʻi which allowed her to continue her adventurousness elsewhere, particularly in the Rockies. What she called “the rough life” in Hawaiʻi was as challenging elsewhere and was marked by bear encounters, awareness of cholera outbreaks, and the discovery of “only one horse...safe for a woman to ride.”
What did Isabella Bird accomplish in Hawaii during her travels? Did she leave a lasting impact on the area?
To this day, Ms. Bird is hailed for her contributions to identifying plants and notating environmental conditions during her travels in Hawaiʻi in the 1870s. Additionally, notations she made about how people lived-- their daily tasks, their interactions as members of a community-- serve to etch out life in the islands before the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Her commentary about newcomers to the islands and the manner in which they availed themselves of the abundant riches found in the islands (sandalwood, for instance), help us to understand rapid change in a kingdom in the most isolated chain of islands in the world, drifting 2,400 miles from the United States continent, its closest neighbor.
How unique was it for a woman in this era to travel and explore on her own the way Isabella did?
Very few women traveled solo in the Victorian era. It was considered dangerous and inappropriate by many. Contrary to this, Miss Bird was praised by Natives in Hawaiʻi when they came to understand that she was on her own and was not afraid to break established norms, including riding on a “Mexican Saddle,” and not in side-saddle “lady” fashion. She often was praised by Hawaiians for her zest and savvy, particularly her horsemanship when riding over rough terrain. Miss Bird mentions, in turn, how safe she felt in the Hawaiian islands and how welcomed she was into the homes of Natives and newcomers. She noted how people were generous and accommodating—although quite surprised--when she voiced interest in pushing the edges of decorum, insisting on seeing volcanic eruptions and wanting to be treated like everyday ranch hands who cooked over campfires and ate what was available.
What do you think are Bird’s greatest accomplishments?
I believe that Ms. Bird proved that a woman can thrive as a traveler without escort or entourage even in the most demanding of circumstances. That legacy was notable for her time and is relevant today. Her perceptive commentary about the people and places she encountered remains an astute window into the past. Only occasionally did her Victorian upbringing color or intrude on the way she captured people and events. She was often blunt and seemed to honestly report what she saw and what she heard.
Is Isabella well known in Hawaii the way she is in Estes Park? What do you think the perception of Isabella is in Hawaii?
Many in Hawaiʻi know of Ms. Bird’s accomplishments, but there is a need to pass the information on to the next generation. Her book is available in libraries and bookstores, but her story is best told through living history, in my opinion. Her vitality surfaces, her dynamic choices titillate, and her compassion for and interest in people become tangible when brought to life in a dramatic setting.
The most exciting use of living Ms. Bird’s history has been the efforts of the Kona Historical Society to schedule “nā huakaʻi,” journeys to the actual site where Ms. Bird nestled into a sheep station between the mountains of Maunakea, Maunaloa, and Hualalai.* People travel today in 4-wheel drive vehicles to the site where several buildings and lava rock walls remain exactly as they were during her sojourn. One can imagine her extraordinary fortitude when riding horseback up the wide plain between the mountains. She explains it here in an excerpt from her book:
“The next day I got up feeling refreshed and the Walls and I went up to this last of the Hawaiian triplet of mountains, Hualalai, 8,000 feet high. The ascent took about three hours and was not steep. Just as we got to a deep pit crater, a torrent of rain came on, as I have not seen in the islands. It came in sheets and, at that altitude, was like a cold Highland rain. I had no protection and was drowned in five minutes. We got back here to the house, I wrung out my chemise and put on my nightgown with one of Mrs. Wall’s holoku over it. I had some whiskey and soon got quite warm by the fire.”
What legacy do you think Isabella Bird left behind?
Courage! Sailing for three months to the other side of the globe must have been comparable to our traveling to the moon today. Not many would choose to do so in our time because of the dangers and mysteries that would be daunting to the everyday person. Ms. Bird was far from “everyday.” The likelihood of death as she was en route to the Pacific; the unknowns about survival in unfamiliar climes; the spurning of a solo woman gutsy enough to head into unexplored regions—all this should have dissuaded her. But travel she did, for over 50 years, and with an unending supply of COURAGE at every turn. How inspiring!!
New spellings for Maunakea and Maunaloa from our present attempts to honor the Hawaiian language.
Jacquelyn Pualani Johnson, Professor Emerita, was born and raised in Hilo, Hawai’i, and earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in Theatre from the University of Colorado at Boulder where she toured Colorado and Wyoming with the Colorado Caravan in the 1970s. In 1978, she founded the Hilo Community Players’ Shakespeare in the Park, celebrating 46 years in Kalākaua Park in 2023, and Kid Shakes, the accompanying family offering. She retired from the Performing Arts Department at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo in 2017, after 38 years as a drama professor and department chair, where she directed musicals, classics, and contemporary Western and Ethnic theatre. Living history scripting and performance about Hawaii’s Monarchy and the plantation era are her priorities today, illuminating her mixed heritage of Hawaiian, Portuguese, Norwegian, German, and Chinese. She remains active in retirement, adapting children’s books into a musical, writing another about early union history, and working with Native Hawaiian youth in performing arts programs. Aunty Pua is married to Edward “Mac” McMurray. Her three daughters, Kaihāwanawana, Malu, and Hailionaonaokekupuna have enriched her life with six mo`opuna (grandchildren), one grand-dog-er, and endless giggles and blessings. A wise saying from the Hawaiian perspective guides her career: ‘Aʻohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau hoʻokahi. One can learn from many sources.