Mauna Loa erupted in 1881. Lava flowed northeast toward Hilo, destroying everything in its path. The lava inched its way closer and closer to the city. Local Christians prayed to their god, but otherwise passively awaited their fate at the hands of the volcano. Some credit a Princess with saving the city by praying to Pele, the Hawaiian peoples' goddess of the volcanoes.
A small group of Hawaiians held to the island's old traditions and beliefs. Princess Ruth Luka Keanolani Kauanahoahoa Keʻelikōlani (pronounced Princess Ruth by most English speakers) was the leader of the believers in Hawaiian traditions and religion. A direct descendent and the heir to the legendary King Kamehameha, Princess Ruth chose to live in a traditional Hawaiian stone and grass house rather than a western-style mansion. She refused to conduct her official business in any language other than Hawaiian. She worshiped the gods of her people, rather than Jesus and the god of Abraham.
Princess Ruth was a formidable presence, weighing in at well over 400 pounds. She resembled a traditional Hawaiian ideal of noble female beauty – The bigger the better.
Many in Hilo held to the old beliefs. A group of true believers summoned Princess Ruth to petition Pele, the Hawaiian volcano Goddess, to spare their city. The Princess asked to be taken near the edge of the lava flow with four days' food supply and some brandy. Her entourage brought her near the edge of the lava flow and assembled a grass shack for shelter.
The princess asked to be left alone, but some of her supporters stood guard hidden on a nearby hill. They did not see the princess for an entire day. They feared for their monarch's life while the lava flow advanced to within twenty feet of the hut. The princess finally emerged from the hut, chanted for several hours and fell asleep exhausted on the ground after sunset.
The next morning, all could see that the lava flow stopped four feet from where the princess slept. Some say Pele chose to spare Hilo in response to the Princess's prayers, and in respect for her willingness to lay her life in Pele's hands to save her people.
A Hawaiian chant for Pele;
I can't vouch for the accuracy or universal acceptance of this story. The fact that Princess Ruth faced this lava flow very soon before it stopped is well accepted. The details about exactly how and when this happened vary. Here I focused on the most striking bits of the different stories I heard.
I asked a few Hawaiians about this story. The Haoles (White Hawaiians, pronounced Howleys) I asked seemed most willing to talk about the story. Every story I heard was different. In my experience, that's typical for most stories about Hawaiian history.