All Of The Tragic Events That Led To Hawaii Becoming America's 50th State
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All Of The Tragic Events That Led To Hawaii Becoming America's 50th State

Many associate Aloha shirts, hula dancing, and surfing with Hawaiian culture. Beloved by many around the globe, the paradisiacal islands exude romance and relaxation. However, the story of how America acquired Hawaii is much less pristine than the sparkling oceans and beaches on postcards and travel brochures. Struggle and oppression fill Hawaii's history, as the United States forced the islands into becoming US territory. Much like the Native American Trail of Tears, the story of how Hawaii became a state brims with hostile takeovers, as well as displaced and mistreated Native inhabitants.

Eight major volcanic islands form Hawaii, located in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles from San Francisco. Historians believe Polynesians became the first Hawaiian inhabitants after traveling from the Marquesas Islands by canoe around 400 CE. They created a new society; used their farming and fishing skills to survive; and eventually formed a monarchy. As white Europeans settled on the islands, sugar plantation owners - including Sanford Dole, a relative of Dole Food Company founder - overthrew the Hawaiian government and began America's process of claiming the islands.

  • European James Cook Sailed To Hawaii In 1778 And Attempted To Kidnap The Native King

    European James Cook Sailed To Hawaii In 1778 And Attempted To Kidnap The Native King
    Photo: Nathaniel Dance-Holland/National Maritime Museum, UK / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Captain James Cook was the first recorded European to set foot in Hawaii while exploring the South Pacific with his crew in 1778. He named the islands the "Sandwich Islands" in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, one of Cook's financial backers.

    The iron on his ships, as well as the crews' metal tools and cooking utensils, interested the Native Hawaiians who were unfamiliar with the commodity. Thus, they at first welcomed Cook and his men as deities. 

    When Cook later returned to the islands on a different exploration, however, he took advantage of the trust and incited the Hawaiians against him. After he discovered a smaller boat stolen from his ship, Cook ordered his men to kidnap the elderly Hawaiian king in retaliation, which incited the Hawaiians against the Europeans.

    They forced the captain to retreat from the islands, but bad weather compelled Cook's ship to soon return to the beach where an angry mob killed him and most of the crew.

  • Missionaries And Whalers Brought Disease And Other Problems

    Missionaries And Whalers Brought Disease And Other Problems
    Photo: William Ellis / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In March 1820, a group of Protestant missionaries traveled to Hawaii and began setting up churches. Missionaries from other religions followed; many Natives adopted their practices and belief systems. In addition to churches, missionaries built schools - and through their descendants - started a social class of white elites in Hawaii.

    Whalers came to Hawaii around the same time as the missionaries, but their differences in lifestyle caused substantial conflict among all three groups. As the missionaries attempted to create laws to keep the sailors in line, whalers demanded the right to gamble and hire Native women for sex work.

    The whalers' desire for familiar foods also forced the island to obtain nontraditional Hawaiian foods, including sugar, potatoes, and meat. The foreigners also brought diseases such as measles, venereal disease, and smallpox to Hawaii. By 1853, roughly 230,000 Native Hawaiians had lost their lives.

  • Foreigners Used The Threats Of Force To Establish A New Constitution

    Foreigners Used The Threats Of Force To Establish A New Constitution
    Photo: James J. Williams / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    By 1810, Hawaii's eight main islands had united to form a single kingdom under the rule of King Kamehameha I. However, traders from France, Britain, and the United States influenced the islanders by supplying them with guns. The foreigners also convinced them to sign a free trade agreement, which entailed giving away Pearl Harbor and granting most of Hawaii's land to sugar plantation owners.

    Non-Native residents didn't like the Hawaiian form of monarchy, and when David Kalakaua became king in 1874, they felt threatened by his attempts to reduce the Missionary Party's power.

    Some party members formed a group called the Hawaiian League in 1887 and drafted a constitution, which would remove power from the king and give it to the legislature instead. The so-called Bayonet Constitution also took away voting rights from Native Hawaiians and Asian citizens who owned neither money nor land. The League then coerced Kalakaua to sign the constitution, threatening him with force from a militia if he didn't comply.

  • Non-Native Businessmen Staged A Coup And Took Over The Royal Hawaiian Government

    Non-Native Businessmen Staged A Coup And Took Over The Royal Hawaiian Government
    Photo: Gerald Farinas / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    King Kalakaua's sister Lili'uokalani assumed the throne in 1891, when the king passed away. As queen, Lili'uokalani attempted to restore the monarchy's power and return voting rights to Native Hawaiians - but the self-imposed white legislature refused to pass it.

    Fearing the possible loss of control, a group of 13 men from the United States, Germany, and Britain formed the Committee of Safety. Backed by the US military, the group of businessmen with stakes in the pineapple and sugar industries staged a coup in January of 1893 to overthrow Lili'uokalani's rule.

    The coup had about 1,000 supporters in Hawaii, and the US sent a ship with more than 120 Marines Corps members for support as tensions grew. A policeman died from a gunshot while trying to stop the committee's unofficial militia from illegally acquiring arms. Committee members took advantage of the confusion and ran into a government building, claiming they were now in charge.

    The US minister to Hawaii took the group's side and recognized committee leader Sanford B. Dole - of relation to the founder of Dole Foods - as head of this new provisional government.

  • Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani Abdicated Her Throne To Avoid Bloodshed

    Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani Abdicated Her Throne To Avoid Bloodshed
    Photo: Stanislaw Julian Ostrorog / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Queen Lili'uokalani stood down from fighting the US actions of 1893 with force, realizing many might die if she resisted the coup. Meanwhile, as leader of the new US provisional government in Hawaii, Sanford Dole began the process of annexation by submitting a treaty to the US Senate.

    Several congressmen realized Native Hawaiians didn't support annexation, and even President Grover Cleveland spoke out against the idea, supporting Lili'uokalani's return to the throne. He sent a new minister to represent the US to Hawaii, but Dole refused to stand down, forming the independent Republic of Hawaii in 1894.

    Since President Cleveland didn't want bloodshed either, he decided not to send in troops. However, Native Hawaiians took matters into their own hands. In 1895, they attempted their own coup, but did not succeed, costing several lives in the process. After the new republic government arrested Lili'uokalani and charged her with treason, she officially abdicated the throne.

  • Sugar Dominated Hawaii's Economy And Pushed Natives Off Their Land

    Sugar Dominated Hawaii's Economy And Pushed Natives Off Their Land
    Photo: Hawaii State Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When missionaries in Hawaii realized the islands were ideal for growing sugarcane, they convinced the Hawaiian monarchy to sell them land. Sugar plantations cropped up all over the islands, run by white people wealthy enough to afford the property.

    The plantation owners hired workers from nearby Asian countries, such as Korea, Japan, and China; though some set up their business and returned to America to live, a few stayed behind in Hawaii. By 1900, sugar plantation owners dominated Hawaii's economy, despite comprising only 5% of the island's residents.

    Their plantations grew, forcing Hawaiians to give up their land. At the end of the Civil War, the US government helped Hawaii's sugar economy grow by offering generous import rates. However, when Congress passed the McKinley Tariff in 1890, sugar plantation owners took a hit, and sales fell. This gave them more incentive to annex Hawaii and nullify these tariffs.