Julia Napelakapuokakaʻe Kapi‘olani was born on December 31, 1834 in Hilo, Hawaiʻi. She remained in Hilo until she was eight years of age, when she went to Kona. At the age of 16 Kapiʻolani came to Honolulu and was taken under the protection of Kauikeaouli (King Kamehameha III.) Four years later, she married the High Chief Nāmākehā (he died on December 27, 1860.)
Later, efforts were underway to arrange a marriage between Victoria Kamāmalu and David Kalākaua. Kalākaua was, however, attracted to Kapiʻolani. On December 8, 1863, Kalākaua and Kapiʻolani married in a secret ceremony. Though childless, in 1890, she established the Kapiʻolani Maternity Home, which is today the Kapiʻolani Medical Center for Women and Children.