The lush, luxurious islands of Hawaii became the United States’ 50th state and most recent addition when they were ushered into statehood by Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959.
Hawaii’s long, arduous path to statehood took many twists and turns from its early history as independent island states to its period as a unified kingdom to the over 60 years as a United States territory, finally culminating in statehood in the late 1950s.
Early Hawaiian History
The Hawaiian Islands were settled by pioneering Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands (located over 2,000 miles away) who made the lengthy, precarious journey by canoe. However, the exact date of their arrival is unknown.
It is believed that the earliest settlers arrived between 123 and 1120 AD, and Hawaiians remained insulated from outside influence for over 500 years.
Early Hawaiians were excellent fishermen and farmers organized into small communities ruled by powerful chieftains. These communities battled one another for territory and primacy.
James Cook, the prolific British explorer who charted the waters of Canada and ventured all over the Pacific from Australia and New Zealand to the icy waters of Antarctica, landed in Hawaii on the island of Kauai in 1778.
Nearly a year after his arrival Cook made his way to the big island in January of 1779. The Hawaiians initially treated Cook warmly and held a large feast in his honor.
After leaving and returning a week later, the Hawaiians, who realized Cook was no god, treated him with hostility. A battle ensued in which Cook and four of his sailors were killed.
Rise of Kamehameha
Born into a royal family (his mother was the daughter of a chief while his father was the chief of Kohala) on the Island of Hawaii sometime between 1753 and 1761, Kamehameha the Great is one of the most important figures in Hawaiian history.
Kamehameha became a great warrior, taking part in the battle against Captain Cook and other local disputes. Over time Kamehameha became the ruler of the Western side of Hawaii and engaged in a civil war with Kiwala’o (who eventually died in battle), the son of the previous King of Hawaii.
Kamehameha’s Foreign Relations
Kamehameha successfully adopted superior Western firepower into his arsenal, stockpiling large amounts of weaponry acquired from foreign ships at the port in Kealakekua Bay.
During this period (the 1790s), Kamehameha successfully attacked (but didn’t gain control over) the Island of Maui, which was at the time the most powerful of the Hawaiian Islands, and fought a brutal war against Keoua, a chief on the Island of Hawaii which lasted many years.
Eventually, Keoua was killed, and Kamehameha gained complete control over the big island. Subsequently, Kamehemea reached out for foreign help in the form of Captain George Vancouver.
Over nearly three years, Kamehemea rebuilt his island’s economy after a long war period and learned the art of war from foreign emissaries.
A Unified Hawaii
Over time Kamehemea and his armies liberated Maui and Moloka’i from the grip of powerful war-lord Kalanikupule. With its rich farmlands and ample fishing spots, Oahu was Kamehemea’s next target. His warriors successfully invaded and killed its two primary chieftains. The Hawaiian island of Kauai was next.
After dealing with intrigue and uprisings at home, bad weather, and the devastation of an epidemic that delayed the invasion for many years, Kamehameha built up an armada of war canoes and armed his soldiers with advanced for-the-time muskets.
After many years of psychological warfare, Kaui’s chief came to an agreement with Kamehemea, resulting in him being recognized as sovereign without going to war.
Hawaiian Kingdom & Missionary Arrival
King Kamehameha, who united the Hawaiian archipelago, ruled over the islands for nine years until his death in 1819. His successor Kamehameha II’s reign saw a significant influx of whalers, while Christian missionaries also arrived.
The arrival of these outsiders devastated the native Hawaiian population, and the population decreased from 300,000 in the late 1700s to only 70,000 in 1853.
The last ruler of the Hawaiian Kingdom was Queen Lili’uokalani, who was overthrown, imprisoned, and then forced to abdicate her throne in the 1890s. She is revered to this day as the writer of Hawaii’s culturally important song “Aloha’ Oe.”
Republic of Hawaii
Influential plantation owners from the mainland who dominated the lucrative sugar-based economy of Hawaii overthrew the Kingdom and established the Republic of Hawaii.
In 1898, Hawaii officially became a territory of the United States following an agreement of the American elite to annex the islands.
The annexation was driven by the self-interest of the plantation owners who saved money on taxation and protection of their interests from the United States government. However, there was some backlash from members of the American public who viewed annexation as unjust and imperialistic.
Roadblocks to Statehood
Though there were many positions for statehood during the early half of the 20th century, all of which were denied or ignored, it would take 60 years to achieve that goal.
The distance, both literally as a non-contiguous territory located over 2,000 miles from the closest point on the west coast of the United States, as well as the cultural differences and fear of the other, led to a resistance to Hawaiian statehood from some mainland Americans.
There was additional fear from mainlanders and Native Hawaiians of Polynesian descent of granting electoral power to the territory due to the large Japanese population (around 30%) and the fear that they would organize and control the state’s government.
World War II
Hawaii, specifically the island of Oahu, was the site of one of the most important events in American history, the event that thrust the United States into World War II.
On December 7th, 1941, a surprise attack by the Japanese on the American Naval base at Pearl Harbor was devastatingly successful. It resulted in the death of 2,400 Americans and the destruction of two battleships and a training ship.
As horrific as that day was, it bonded Hawaiians and mainlanders together and fully solidified Hawaii’s status as being American.
Despite widespread support for Hawaii’s admittance into the United States as a fully-fledged state, initial legislation failed to make it through Congress.
The Hawaiian Admission Act of 1959, near the end of President and former General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s time in office, resulted in President Eisenhower’s signing the bill into law on March 18th, 1959.
In June of 1959, the citizens of Hawaii voted in a referendum to accept or deny the statehood act and overwhelmingly approved of becoming a state. With nearly 93% of voters voting yes, President Eisenhower signed the official proclamation admitting Hawaii into the United States on August 21st, 1959.