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  • A Rock in the Park: The Key to a Remarkable Historical Tale
  • Hugh R. Montgomery (bio)

The Discovery of the Rock

In the summer of 1851, a small party descending into Kīlauea’s caldera halted at a boulder adjacent to the trail.1 They chiseled onto its face personal names, the name of the vessel on which they had sailed, and on the top, the last two digits of the year. The rock, in Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, has a story of its own.2 It was erupted as lava on Kīlauea volcano between 1200 and 1400 ce. When the volcano’s summit collapsed around the year 1500, it remained as part of the crater wall over a thousand feet above the floor of the new caldera until it fell, probably during one of the numerous earthquakes the area endures. It tumbled down as part of a larger mass smashed by impacts into numerous chunks, coming to rest on a step fault, a flat created by an earlier slump. The area had been blanketed by airborne volcanic ash falling from powerful eruptive explosions in 1790, events defining that year as the earliest possible time of the rock’s placement. It tumbled farthest among the rubble with which it fell, coming to a stop near what would come to be the location of a trail used for [End Page 33] over 150 years now to pass between the upper edge of the crater and its floor. It happened to land with a relatively large and smooth face fronting that trail (now the Halema‘uma‘u Trail)—a tempting surface for passersby who were drawn to leave their marks.

At the time of this vandalism, the area was sparsely vegetated. It was not until the 1920s that the area finally started to reforest after explosive eruptions between the late fifteenth century and the nineteenth century. The marks on the rock would have been clearly visible to observers such as Mark Twain in 1866, volcanologist Thomas Jaggar and visitors to the Park at its founding in 1916.3

The boulder was subsequently hidden for decades by invasive ginger plants until Park workers removed the introduced vegetation. Even then, no one noticed the faint, lichen-covered inscriptions for several years. This writer, frequently passing by in his capacity as a professional guide, was apparently the first in a good while to see them, and, on inquiry, determined that they were unknown to the staff of the National Park Service. Most clearly evident were large and deeply incised letters spelling out “B BOYD” on the upper left quadrant and a smaller number “51” on the rim of the rock’s very top. Examination of the less legible marks on repeated visits with varying lighting and different observers eventually yielded the perception that, next to Boyd’s name, smaller, less deeply cut letters spelled out, on two lines, “YACHT WANDERER.” Below Boyd’s name, a much fainter “J WEBSTER” was finally seen.

An internet search found a digitized 1854 Australian newspaper4 reprinting from its November 25, 1851 issue an account of Benjamin Boyd’s voyage on his yacht Wanderer across a considerable expanse of the Pacific. It documented an anchorage at Hilo, an adventure to Kīlauea, and his murder in the Solomon Islands in October 1851. Prompting this 1854 reprint was a report suggesting that Boyd might, in fact, yet be alive.

This information compelled further research and an intriguing tale began to run its course. Chance observation of markings on a rock and ensuing curiosity revealed insight into the past, involving colorful characters, a splendid yacht, grandiose schemes, persistent currents of history including colonialism and labor-capital dynamics, and a cascade of tragic events. [End Page 34]

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Figure 1.

Boulder, 2019. Photo by author.

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Figure 2.

The year cut into the top of the boulder, 2017. Photo by Ranger Jay Robinson, National Park Service.

[End Page 35]

The Prelude

Born in England to a family of Scots, Benjamin Boyd did well enough as a stockbroker in England to acquire at...


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