Under the reign of Kamehameha III, Hawaii's traditional system of land use underwent drastic change. Guided by foreign advisors, the king divided lands that had formerly been held in common and administered by chiefs and their konohiki, or overseers. The Mahele allocated 23% of land in the Islands to the king (called crown lands); 40% comprised konohiki lands to be divided among 245 chiefs; and 37% was declared government lands, to be awarded to commoners who worked the land as active tenants. An appointed Land Commission and Court of Claims administered the land division.
The Mahele was followed in 1850 by the Kuleana Act which established fee simple ownership of land. Historical land tenants were required to document their claims to specific parcels in order to gain permanent title. Once granted, a kuleana plot was entirely independent of the traditional ahupua'a in which it was situated and it could also be sold to parties with no historical ties to the area.
By 1855, the deadline for commoners to apply for land grants, Hawaiians in Olowalu had legally claimed 50 kuleana parcels, consisting of approximately 115 acres of valuable arable land. Hawaiians utilized these kuleanas to continue traditional agricultural practices, though sometimes in a more Western manner. For example, a hui of Olowalu taro growers formed the Taro Planting Company. Other Olowalu residents never laid claim to land they occupied or lost kuleanas by selling it to non-Hawaiians eager to accumulate property. By the time a census was taken by the Hawaiian government in 1866, only 13 Hawaiians stated they owned kuleanas in Olowalu.