In or around 1790 a.d. an explosive eruption took place in the summit caldera of Kilauea shield volcano. A group of Hawaiian warriors close to the caldera at the time were killed by the effects of the explosions. The stratigraphy of pyroclastic deposits surrounding Kilauea (i.e., the Keanakakoi Ash Member) suggests that the explosions referred to in the historic record were the culmination of a prolonged hydrovolcanic eruption consisting of three main phases. The first phase was phreatomagmatic and generated well-bedded, fine fallout ash rich in glassy, variably vesiculated, juvenile magmatic and dense, lithic pyroclasts. The ash was mainly dispersed to the southwest of the caldera by the northeasterly trade winds. The second phase produced a Strombolian-style scoria fall deposit followed by phreatomagmatic ash similar to that of the first phase, though richer in accretionary lapilli and lithics. The third and culminating phase was phreatic and deposited lithic-rich lapilli and block fall layers, interbedded with cross-bedded surge deposits, and accretionary lapilli-rich, fine ash beds. These final explosions may have been responsible for the deaths of the warriors. The three phases were separated by quiescent spells during which the primary deposits were eroded and transported downwind in dunes migrating southwestward and locally excavated by fluvial runoff close to the rim. The entire hydrovolcanic eruption may have lasted for weeks or perhaps months. At around the same time, lava erupted from Kilauea's East Rift Zone and probably drained magma from the summit storage. The earliest descriptions of Kilauea (30 years after the Keanakakoi eruption) emphasize the great depth of the floor (300-500 m below the rim) and the presence of stepped ledges. It is therefore likely that the Keanakakoi explosions were deepseated within Kilauea, and that the vent rim was substantially lower than the caldera rim. The change from phreatomagmatic to phreatic phases may reflect the progressive degassing and cooling of the magma during deep withdrawal: throughout the phreatomagmatic phases magma vesiculation contributed to the explosive interaction with water by initiating the fragmentation process: thereafter, the principal role of the subsiding magma column was to supply heat for steam production that drove the phreatic explosions of the final phase. ?? 1990 Springer-Verlag.