Hawaii became the 50th state on August 21, 1959.
The former nation of 137 volcanic islands is the only state-recognized as an archipelago, the only one located outside of North America (it’s not on the continental crusts of Oceania or North America and so it’s technically not located on either continent), and one of the few to have once been an independent nation.
It’s pretty unique, to say the least, and the history of how Hawaii became a state is even stranger.
Who Owned Hawaii Before it Was a US State?
Hawaii has a fascinating history, and it’s fair to say that native Hawaiians have been subject to a lot of hardship over the centuries, most of which has come at the hands of European and American settlers.
Early History of the Hawaiian Islands
Compared to Europe, Asia, and the Americas, the history of Hawaii is pretty short. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlers arrived here in around 1000AD, most likely coming from Tahiti.
However, this history is up for debate, with some suggesting that the first settlers came from the Marquesas Islands somewhere between 1000AD and 1200AD.
Early growth was slow and the islands were likely dominated by many chiefdoms.
As is often the case, these little groups fought with one another and consolidated their powers across multiple islands.
It’s possible that Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to encounter the Hawaiian Islands.
A ship bound for the Philippines left Mexico in 1542 and according to its captain, Juan Gaetano, it encountered what may have been the Hawaiian Islands.
However, it could also have been the Marshall Islands and there isn’t much evidence to support either one of these claims.
Officially, the islands were first discovered by James Cook on behalf of Great Britain in 1778.
He named the islands “The Sandwich Islands” as he was sponsored by the 4th Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, at the time. Incidentally, Montagu is also credited with the invention of the sandwich, and while the stories of its invention vary, it was definitely named after him.
Cook was eventually killed on the islands after a dispute involving temple idols led to a theft, a kidnapping, and then a massacre.
It’s fair to say that things got a little out of hand.
Many European travelers visited the islands after Cook’s discovery. They brought money, trade, and opportunities, but they also brought disease.
Smallpox, influenza, and measles killed huge numbers of Hawaiians, with a single 1850 measles outbreak wiping out roughly 20% of the population.
Chinese immigrants arrived around the same time and they are thought to have taken leprosy with them, adding to the islanders’ woes.
The Kingdom of Hawaii
Disease wasn’t the only problem that Hawaiians had to deal with.
The islands were constantly at war, with multiple chiefs all vying for power.
Eventually, King Kamehameha united the islands and created a dynasty that lasted from the late 18th century to 1872.
His heir, Kamehameha II, began welcoming missionaries to the island in the 18th century and these converted many of the locals to Christianity.
King Kamehameha III continued the tradition and eventually transitioned the nation into a Christian monarchy.
In 1874, Great Britain and the United States landed troops on the islands to restore order following a problematic election and in 1887, King Kalakaua signed the Constitution of the Kingdom of Hawaii, stripping him of authority.
The constitution essentially placed power into the hands of rich landowners and was signed with great reluctance.
When Kalakaua died, he was succeeded by his sister, Queen Liliuokalani.
The queen tried to implement a new constitution that would protect her, but a Euro-American coup was staged against her and she was powerless to defend herself.
Queen Liliuokalani was the last monarch of Hawaii.
The Republic and Territory of Hawaii
Queen Liliuokalani tried to regain her power after she was replaced by a provisional government.
Congress even conducted an independent investigation, but the parties involved with the coup were ultimately found not guilty (100 years later, in 1993, congress issued an apology to clarify that it was illegal).
Fortunately for Queen Liliuokalani, the president, Grover Cleveland, was a close friend.
Unfortunately, he was replaced by President William McKinley just a couple of years later.
The US annexed Hawaii and it officially became the territory of Hawaii.
It was granted self-governance status and while many attempts were made to make it a state, it remained as a territory for 60 years.
The island’s richest landowners used the island’s territory status to hire cheap workers, as it allowed them to bypass certain laws on labor and immigration.
The economic privileges permitted them to grow their already vast fortunes and they were able to use this money to cement their control over the island’s inhabitants.
The Hawaiian Islands as a United States Territory
In the 1950s, the tides began to turn.
The immigrant laborers hired by the plantation owners had stayed in the country to form families and communities, and the children of those laborers—officially recognized as US citizens—were able to have their say at the polls.
Until then, the Hawaiian Republican Party (backed by the plantation owners) had dominated the political landscape, but the new majority helped to increase the influence of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, leading to the creation of the Hawaii Admission Act and to a referendum that asked the people of Hawaii whether they wanted statehood or not.
94.3% voted in favor of statehood and the territory became the fiftieth state.
FAQs About Hawaiian Statehood
Still got a few questions about Hawaii’s history and its eventual transition to statehood?
Take a look at the following FAQs.
Why Was Hawaii Annexed?
The United States was a rising Pacific power by the end of the 19th century and there was a wave of nationalism triggered by the end of the Spanish-American War that brought an end to Spanish colonial rule.
For many decades, it had been assumed that Hawaii would fall under European control and so the US gradually increased its influence there.
With McKinley in power, the war over, and US influence at its height, annexation was all but inevitable.
Was Statehood a Good Thing?
At the time, it was certainly something that the Hawaiians wanted, and it definitely improved things in the country, leading to economic integration and providing better opportunities for the locals.
However, the annexation wasn’t quite as welcome.
Hawaii lost its independence following its annexation and it was practically forced under US rule.
It witnessed the end of its monarchy and the beginning of a period in which rich plantation owners had all the influence.
Who Owns Most of the Land in Hawaii?
The plantation owners are no longer in control and most of Hawaii’s land is owned by the Hawaii State Government.
Who Owned the Plantations?
Most of the plantations were owned by Americans and they hired laborers from all over the world, with many waves coming from South Korea and Puerto Rico.