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The Man Who Drew Hawaii

Since the 1970s, James Bier’s maps have shaped the way we see—and imagine—the Islands.

When the groundbreaking Atlas of Hawaii was first published in 1973, it instantly became the standard for its detail, comprehensiveness and its inclusion of Hawaiian place-names —something that had not been done before. Now in its third edition, the atlas remains authoritative, essential to state and federal agencies but also an enduring mainstay on bookshelves in homes throughout the Islands.

James Allen Bier was 43 in 1971 when he arrived in Hawaii to begin working on the atlas. As a cartographer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a lecturer in the university’s geography department, Bier had created a multivolume atlas for the state of Illinois; the atlas for Hawaii was to be similar in scope. He’d been invited by his friend and former graduate student R. Warwick Armstrong, who’d gone on to become a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Armstrong was ambitious, envisioning a full-color atlas that would include not only maps but graphs and illustrations as well as a section on Hawaii’s culture, history and demographics. He wanted to create the authoritative reference for the state. So Bier took a leave of absence from teaching and headed for Hawaii with his new wife, Lorene. “That happened to be our honeymoon,” Bier says. “We just got married just before we got on the plane to go off to Hawaii. That’s a good way to start.”

Once here, Bier had his work cut out for him. He’d been to Hawaii only once before, around the time of the Korean War while serving with the US Army’s 29th Engineer Mapping Battalion—the Army’s oldest mapmaking unit. While he had made Hawaii maps and charts for classroom lectures and publications in the past, he didn’t know much about the fiftieth state. “I came in green on that atlas project, because I was really green on the state of Hawaii. And, to make it even more challenging,” he says, “we were in a hurry. When I arrived, I set to work right away.”

Warwick suggested that the Biers stay at the Pagoda Hotel, a kamaaina favorite off the beaten Waikiki path. The hotel’s Japanese-inspired architecture and koi-filled water gardens reminded Bier of his stint in the Army during the 1950s, when he’d fallen in love with Japanese culture. After immersing himself with his assignment, the Biers started to explore and fell in love with Hawaii, too, as so many do. “At that time, Keeaumoku Street was just bustling,” Bier says. And they became devotees of Hawaiian music; to this day, half of Bier’s recorded music collection is Hawaiian, with the Sons of Hawaii and Sunday Manoa featuring prominently. “It was the beginning of the Hawaiian Renaissance and an increased awareness of Hawaiian culture. I just loved the music,” Bier says. He followed the Sons of Hawaii around O‘ahu and saw them perform on neighbor islands. On their many subsequent trips to Hawaii, if the Sons of Hawaii were playing, there was a good chance the Biers would be there.


Cartography has been described as both an art and a scientific discipline. A cartographer interprets data that exist in a three-dimensional world and records it accurately on what is (usually) a flat surface. Bier gathered information from government entities on the federal, state and local levels. These include the US Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the US Soil Conservation Service, the US Census Bureau, the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife and the US Public Health Service. The work also includes information generated by Hawa‘i’s state Departments of Agriculture, Planning and Development, Land and Natural Resources, and Health in addition to information from county governments. Bier also relied on information from private entities like Bishop Museum, the Hawaiian Electric Company and the Pineapple Growers Association of Hawaii.

Adding to the challenge, Armstrong wanted the atlas to emphasize Hawaiian place-names, even in cases where the English name is more commonly used. For example, the atlas privileges “Mokolii” over “Chinaman’s Hat” for the islet in Kāne‘ohe bay (Bier’s map of O‘ahu lists Chinaman’s Hat as a secondary name). “That’s the one thing I tried to do whenever possible,” Bier says, “to put the Hawaiian name first, and if there is an English name, to use parentheses after it, even if it might be the more commonly one used.”

This was easier in theory than in practice for a couple of reasons. First, the necessity of using diacritical marks in Hawaiian place-names. In the early nineteenth century, American missionaries created a twelve-letter Hawaiian alphabet consisting of five vowels and seven consonants. While this was functional, it was limited. Later, two marks were added, the okina to represent glottal stops and the kahako to differentiate short from long vowels. “During my research of place-names, I found one word that had six different meanings. Depending on where the diacritics are, the meaning would change. Pronunciation makes a lot more sense when you add those marks,” Bier says. While Bier incorporated them, he gives credit to Armstrong. “He was the one who came up with the idea of using the diacritics throughout the atlas,” Bier says. “Later, I would continue to use them on the series of maps of the individual islands I created for the University of Hawaii Press.”

Another complication in using Hawaiian place-names was in figuring out just what the Hawaiian names were. To advise Bier, UH Press tapped two prominent Hawaiian-language scholars, Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert. The pair had worked together in 1957 on the still definitive Hawaiian Dictionary and later, in 1966, on Place-names of Hawaii. “I think the press brought them in to check on what I was finding, because they were the experts,” Bier says. “I would not even try to do it myself.”

Bier was impressed by Pukui’s expertise. “I would ask her Hawaiian-language questions and wonder how she could answer all of them,” he says. “Of course, she understood the language so well, it wasn’t a problem for her to scan through and say, ‘This is not right’ or ‘That is not right,’ and she would be done right away. It didn’t take her a lot of time to make corrections. Elbert was the same way but less visible.” At 76 Pukui seemed much younger to Bier than the 64-year-old Elbert. To this day Bier is amazed by her indefatigable nature. “She was a vibrant person, busy with so many aspects of Hawaiian culture. She even recorded a record album for children, which I have,” he says. “But she was also very quiet. Working with her was mentally calming to me.”


Bier stayed in Hawaii for a year, leaving in August 1972 once work on the atlas was complete. Now 94 and living in Illinois, he still recalls the project fondly. “It was just a delightful time period. Everything I did for the atlas was accepted. The press just loved it,” he says. “They understood my design ideas, the layout of the book and even why I wanted an unconventional size (which emphasized the images).” One of Bier’s subtle touches was the use of rounded corners for the maps, which he hopes sends a message: “The rounded corners were meant to convey that the reader is looking at images of an island, instead of a feature on a continent. Round makes islands feel like islands.”

After the atlas was published, students at UH Manoa’s Hawaiian studies program took note of its sensitivity to the Hawaiian language. “We were at the beginnings of the Hawaiian Renaissance and the revival of olelo Hawaii,” or the Hawaiian language, says Danny “Kaniela” Kahikina Akaka who was a student in the program at the time. “Language is the key to the culture. We were doing Hawaiian-language radio programs, Ka Leo Hawaii, as well as oral research and documentation with kupuna [elders] on Hawaii Island. As the Hawaiian language was going through a time of revitalization, Hawaiian place-names were an important consideration. Place-names had been substituted with English names, and some place-names had even been shortened out of convenience, thus losing the moolelo [stories] behind the name as well as the mana [spiritual power] associated with the name. The maps had the correct place-names and also included the diacritical markers. They were valuable in the preservation of the Hawaiian place-names and in the context of the renaissance of Hawaiian culture,” says Akaka, who today serves as the Kahu Hanai, the Hawaiian cultural adviser at Mauna Lani Auberge on Hawaii Island.

As Bier was winding down work on the atlas, UH Press asked if they could republish some of the maps individually. A flattered Bier responded by saying they were too small for such a purpose. “When they suggested taking the maps out of the atlas and publishing them individually for schools and other educational purposes, I had to say no—even if they had been blown up, they just didn’t have enough information. But I said I could do something better: I could make bigger maps, with more information. And that opened up something I had not thought about before. The truth is, that turned into the best move of my professional career. The new versions were more detailed than the originals. And I was given free rein on their design.”

Bier’s maps quickly became the gold standard and are still sold throughout Hawaii. They have remained continuously in print, selling more than 2.6 million copies so far at bookstores, gas stations, supermarkets and car rental agencies. The early versions were created with the assistance of Elbert and Pukui; later, UH Press brought in other Hawaiian-language experts such as professor emeritus of Hawaiian language Puakea Nogelmeier. “Bier’s maps are a dense layering of data, and he prioritized Hawaiian knowledge in a way that had not been done for a long time and not on that scale,” Nogelmeier says, adding that the revised editions have continued to make the maps relevant. “New information continues to come to light as Hawaiian-language resources are rediscovered. I am hopeful that future mapmakers will follow Bier’s lead.”


Bier says that he and his wife have made more than forty trips to Hawaii to update the maps, driving every road that he has drawn on Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Oahu and Kauai. While he stresses that fieldwork is important in mapmaking, he did skip one island: He was once invited to visit Niihau, but at the time he didn’t think he could improve on the existing maps. “I wish I hadn’t turned down the opportunity,” he says wistfully. “I already had all the information I needed from the USGS, and from what I was told, there wasn’t a whole lot of detail to add by going there, other than physical features. It would have been nice to say I had been on the island.”

Over the years, sun and humidity took their toll on the archived materials Bier used to create the first and second editions of the Atlas of Hawaii, published in 1973 and 1983. The third and current edition, published in 1998, started almost from scratch, taking advantage of new digital techniques and remote-sensing technologies like infrared satellite imagery; it did not rely on Bier’s hand-drawn maps based on survey data. Still, “The original place-names by Bier were important for all the mapwork in the state that followed,” says Tom Paradise, chief cartographer for the third edition, which preserved and updated Hawaiian place-names. “The old adage is that all cartographers stand on the shoulders of the early mapmakers. This was true of us writing and mapping for the third edition, and it would have been true for Bier when he wrote and mapped for the first and second editions. The postwar maps of Hawaii were superlative and often act as references today.”

Throughout his more than sixty-year career, Bier estimates he has created more than three thousand maps, including other Pacific islands in Samoa and Oceania in general. But his work in Hawaii holds a special place for him. “I am proud of what I have done,” he reflects. “As a cartographer working within a university or as an independent, it would be extremely difficult to publish my own stuff. For someone in my position to get a map published for sale—that would have been almost impossible. And yet, UH Press asked me. I had a lot of fun with this project. It remains one of the best things I ever did.”

Story By Peter von Buol

Photos By Taylor Glascock

V25 №2 March - April 2022