According to some old men, a white-skinned man was the first person to sight the island. This man, who came alone, did not settle as there were no trees and all the land was barren. Nukulaelae, means "the land of sands".
Later, according to tradition, another man came. This was Valoa from Vaitupu, who discovered Nukulaelae while on a fishing expedition. He did not stay long but returned to Vaitupu to obtain coconut seedlings which he soon afterwards planted on Nukulaelae.
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Thereafter, he made many trips from Vaitupu to Nukulaelae, each time bringing more nuts to plant. At length, when the trees had begun to bear fruit he asked the chief of Vaitupu for permission to settle on Nukulaelae.
Valoa was accompanied to Nukulaelae by his two sons Moeva and Katuli and a daughter named Teaalo. Soon afterwards a warrior named Takauapa, from Funafuti raided the island and the two boys were killed in battle, but Teaalo was spared and bore children.
Others who had come with Valoa from Vaitupu included his servants Vave and Tapo. After his death these two succeeded him as chiefs and ruled the island jointly. Vave and Tapo each had one son, named Noa and Kaituloa, respectively. These two succeeded their fathers as chiefs but when they in turn died the position ceased to be hereditary. Instead, their successors were chosen by the community although one was still selected from among the descendants of Vave and the other from the family of Tapo.
In 1860 there were about 300 people on Nukulaelae, contentedly living their traditional life and honouring their spirits. In 1861 Christianity was introduced by the Cook Islands castaway Elekana and in 1863 two-thirds of the people were kidnapped by Peruvian slavers. It is said that when the vessel arrived the crew members went ashore and persuaded the islanders to come aboard for a feast. Not knowing that they were being tricked, many of them did so, among them couples with children. They were taken away to work in the phosphate mines in the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. Upon arrival, they were given work mainly as domestics in Peruvian hotels, households and guest houses. The sad part is that none of them ever returned. In 1892 Captain Davis of the "Royalist" counted only 95 people on Nukulaelae.