The village is the site of a former settlement for leprosy patients. The original leper colony was first established in Kalawao in the east, opposite to the village corner of the peninsula. It was there where Father Damien settled in 1873. Later it was moved to the location of the current village, which was originally a Hawaiian fishing village. The settlement was also attended by Mother Marianne Cope, among others. At its peak, about 1,200 men, women, and children were in exile in this island prison. The isolation law was enacted by King Kamehameha V and remained in effect until 1969, when it was finally repealed. Today, about fourteen former sufferers of leprosy (which is also known as Hansen's Disease) continue to live there. The colony is now part of Kalaupapa National Historical Park.
Shortly before the end of mandatory isolation in 1969, the state legislature considered closing the facility entirely. Intervention by interested persons, such as entertainer Don Ho and TV newsman Don Picken, resulted in allowing the residents to remain there for life. The opponents to closure pointed out that, although there were no active cases of leprosy in existence, many of the residents were physically scarred by the disease to an extent which would make their integration into mainstream society difficult if not impossible.