The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part II: Augustus Knudsen’s Enchanted Childhood

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Anne Sinclair married Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, she moved from her family’s “forbidden” island of Ni’ihau, whose population numbered in the low hundreds, to the comparatively populous but still rural Kaua’i, 17 miles to the east. Though Kaua’i had some towns–Hanalei to the north, Kapa’a and Lihue to the east, and Koloa to the south, the Knudsens lived on a ranch at the western end of the Island, not far from where the road ends and the Napali Coast begins.

The remoteness of their home, Waiawa, was underscored by its proximity to Polihale, an enormous white sand beach considered by Kaua’i’s natives to be “the place from where the souls of the dead descended to Po in the ocean depths,” according to Ida Knudsen Von Holt, Anne and Valdemar’s eldest daughter.

The Knudsens’ five children–Ida, Augustus, Maud, Eric and Arthur–were born between 1868 and 1875. Boys and girls alike galloped horses, surfed, swam, camped and hunted. From infancy they were taken to visit their maternal grandmother in Ni’ihau, a trip that started on horseback at 2am and ended after a 5-hour crossing in a whale boat rowed by Hawai’ians over rough seas. All the children spoke fluent Hawai’ian, as did their father, and had the peerless survival skills of both parents. Their mother, whose own childhood was spent in the wilds of New Zealand, seems to have been unfazed by danger. Wrote Ida:

I remember once when some one asked Mama how she could  bear to have her children running along the cliffs of the Waimea Canyon, hunting wild cattle, exploring the Alakai Swamp, etc., she replied, ‘If they are so fool-hardy as to fall over [the side of Waimea Canyon], or become lost, I tell them it will be good riddance to bad rubbish.’

But  Anne and Valdemar, both products of prosperous, educated families, were equally dedicated to their children’s formal education. At the ranch, Anne began the day by teaching them reading, writing and music. Then Valdemar would take over, teaching math and German before turning the children loose to collect plant samples for their botany class. An amateur ornithologist who was the first to catalog the Island’s birds, Valdemar also taught his children astronomy and Norse folklore.

The Knudsen children’s home-schooling culminated in a nearly three-year family stay in Berlin and Vienna, where they were enrolled at various academies and conservatories. They completed their educations in Boston, the girls at finishing school and the boys at Harvard and MIT. 

Valdemar Knudsen and His Children in Vienna, 1885

Kaua’i was home, but the Knudsen children’s splendid educations were a springboard for their varied destinies. Ida, a conservatory-trained musician, became a patron of the arts in Honolulu while raising a large family in the adventuresome style of her own childhood. Maud became a talented painter as well as a wife and mother. Eric, in addition to running his father’s businesses, had a distinguished political career in Hawai’i and became a noted folklorist. But it was Augustus who broke with the family, and with Kaua’i. Though he became an engineer as Valdemar had wished, and returned to Kaua’i for a time to run the family ranch, he was far more passionate about astronomy and religion. It was the latter interest, which he attributed to encounters with kahuna (Hawai’ian priests), that drew him to India and Hollywood, places far removed from his childhood paradise.

Additional Source for quotes and photos: Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.

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