Hawaii, a group of eight volcanic islands almost 2,400 miles off the coast of San Francisco, California, is the youngest, most recent territory to become a part of the United States. It’s the 50th state to join the nation, and its statehood only became official in 1959.

While it may be relatively young as far as statehood is concerned, Hawaii has a rich cultural history that sets it apart from any other state in the nation.

Humans on Hawaii

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Human settlements on the Hawaiian Islands are estimated to date back to anywhere between 124 AD and 1120 AD and are first attributed to the Polynesian people. These Polynesian people established religious practices, class structures, rulers of various subdivisions on the islands, rules based on taboos governing social order, land division, and a number of different genealogical observations.

The Hawaiian Islands remained in relative isolation for the next 500 years until “discovery” by European explorers in the late 1700s.

Explorer James Cook Lands on the Hawaiian Islands

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Captain James Cook, a surveyor for the British Royal Navy, explored the seas in an attempt to find the fabled “southern continent” and the Northwest Passage in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Cook took three voyages to chart the unknown for the British Empire, and his third led him to the Hawaiian Islands. His infamous visit marked both the introduction of white Europeans to Hawaii and the end of his days as a ship’s captain.

Cook and his crew were welcomed by the native Hawaiians upon landing on the islands in early 1778. There, Cook resupplied and set off to explore the coast of North America and Alaska and returned to Hawaii later that same year. Cook’s expedition explored the coastal regions of Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii Island from early 1778 to early 1779.

Cook’s expedition came to an abrupt and violent end in February 1779. Hawaiian natives stole one of Cook’s longboats while he was anchored in Kealakekua Bay, and in retaliation, the captain attempted to kidnap the current aliʻi nui/king when negotiations for the return of the longboat went sour. Captain Cook and his crew fired on a mob of Hawaiian people and, in the ensuing struggle, Cook was stabbed and killed.  

Hawaii from the 1790s to U.S. Annexation in 1898

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The history of the Hawaiian Islands from James Cook’s visit to annexation by the United States government 100 years later is full of regional political struggles and rulers vying for power and control of the islands. This time period alone could fill volumes. Here are a few key highlights:

  • The House of Kamehameha was the reigning ruling family of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1795 to 1874.
  • Sugar plantations changed the course of Hawaiian history when the first plantation was established in 1835.
  • Sugar tariffs between the United States and the Kingdom of Hawaii led to turmoil as sugar production expanded.
  • The United States began leasing Pearl Harbor in 1887, considering Hawaii to be vital for defense of the West Coast.
  • Rebellions, overthrows, and a coup saw Hawaii’s queen Liliʻuokalani dethroned, the Kingdom of Hawaii ended, and Hawaii annexed by the United States in 1898.  

Hawaii Becomes the 50th State

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Hawaii was actually the Territory of Hawaii (not an official state) for more than 60 years before it joined the United States as the 50th state in the nation in 1959. Hawaii became the Territory of Hawaii after its annexation in 1898, and during the next few decades saw a territorial governor appointed by U.S. President William McKinley, sugar plantation expansion continue, and even the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Hawaii Admission Act on March 18, 1959, opening the way for Hawaii to become the 50th state in the nation. The territory was officially admitted in August of the same year.

The Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement

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Is Hawaii currently a state under the federal governance of the United States? Yes. Does everyone accept this? No.

Annexation and statehood are still a touchy subject for a number of native Hawaiians, and there are groups that support the idea that the Hawaiian Islands were and are a territory taken by force, involuntarily joined to the United States, and deserves to be self-governed as an independent nation.

The Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement is a grassroots campaign supported by a number of different sovereignty groups that aims to shape what sovereignty could look like for the islands.