Hawaii is a very unique state. It is made up of a group of volcanic islands in the central Pacific Ocean. The famous author Mark Twain said it was “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.” The beginning of the landmasses can be traced to at least 70 million years ago. Now, the volcanoes are mostly dormant except for the emerging volcanoes of Mauna Loa, Kilauea, and Loihi Seamount. On the “Big Island” (Hawaii), the first two can be seen sometimes erupting with lava flows.
The first known people to have inhabited the area were believed to be Polynesians who migrated from the Marquesas Islands between the fourth and seventh centuries. The name Hawaii is thought to be derived from “Hawaiki,” which was the former name of Raiatea, the ancestral home of the Polynesians. During the ninth or tenth century, a second wave of immigrants sailed from Tahiti to the new land.
Much like Native Americans in other states, the Hawaiians were made up of small communities ruled by chieftains who fought each other for territory rights. In 1778, Captain James Cook (not the pirate in Peter Pan) became the first European to land on the Hawaiian Islands. He named the territory after the Earl of Sandwich, calling them the “Sandwich Islands.” A year later, Cook returned but was killed during a confrontation with the natives at Kealakekua Bay.
King Kamehameha conquered other rulers between 1791 and 1810 and eventually united the entire place into one kingdom. He is considered Hawaii’s first king. He died in 1819, but floral parades in his honor are still active on June 11, King Kamehameha Day.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1820, and then soon afterward, traders and whalers came to the island. Many otherwise healthy natives became sickened by the diseases brought from the foreigners, and many died. Their numbers went from about 300,000 at the time of Cook’s arrival to approximately 40,000 by 1853.
American colonists came to the island to take advantage of the profitable sugar crops. Soon, in 1893, they dominated the sugar-based economy and in 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii as a territory. Queen Lili’uokalani was the last of the monarchs to rule the islands. After the U.S. took the area over, she was forced to abdicate her throne. She is the author of Hawaii’s signature song, “Aloha Oe,” and remains a hero to the people.
December 7, 1941, was a day of great tragedy as Japanese planes descended and bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, taking more than 2,300 American lives and destroying much of the fleet. This led to the U.S. joining World War II. The U.S.S. Arizona sank with 1,100 men on board and was turned into a memorial in 1962. On Sept. 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered, signing the agreement while onboard the U.S.S. Battleship Missouri, which is currently still anchored in Pearl Harbor and visitors can tour the ship.
Despite having an American base on its land, Hawaii did not become an official state until August 21, 1959, making it the 50th territory to join the Union.