The first 12 people were sent to the Makanalua peninsula, commonly referred to as Kalaupapa, on January 6, 1866. They would be followed by an estimated 8,000 more people, at least 90% of whom were native Hawaiians, who were separated from their families because they had leprosy. They were from all walks of life--lawyers, teachers, musicians, parents, children–-and ranged in age from 4 to 105. It was not part of the Hawaiian culture to separate those who were sick so, when allowed, many family members went along to Kalaupapa as mea kokua (helpers).
This peninsula is part of the island of Molokai, the fifth largest island in the Hawaiian chain. Surrounded on three sides by the rough waters of the Molokai channel, Kalaupapa’s isolation is made complete by two thousand foot cliffs that separate it from the rest of the island. Evidence of many stone walls and terraces built by the early Hawaiians are visible, along with the rocky coastline. On the eastern side of the peninsula is the area known as Kalawao, where the first people with leprosy were sent to live. The only buildings remaining in that area are two churches. Two and a half miles towards the east is the small village of Kalaupapa.
Sulfone drugs, the first cure for leprosy, were discovered in 1941 and introduced to Kalaupapa in 1946. In 1949, forced separation at Kalaupapa was stopped and individuals were provided with the alternative of living at Hale Mohalu, a residential treatment facility near Honolulu. Between 1949 and 1969, only 40 people chose to live at Kalaupapa. Hawaii’s century-old isolation policy was officially abandoned in 1969.
In 1982, the U.S. Congress designated Kalaupapa as a National Historical Park for the education and inspiration of present and future generations. This designation ensured the right of the last residents of Kalaupapa to live out their lives in this, their home. At the same time, it was an official recognition of the significance of Kalaupapa’s history to Hawai'i, the United States, and the world.