Kauai History

The history of Kauai Hawaii is shaped in large part by its geographic location as the westernmost of the islands in the main archipelago. This means that the first arrivals—voyagers from the Marquesas Islands who began appearing in about 300 to 450 A.D. and gave the islands the name Hawaii—landed here first and then moved further eastward to other islands. For several hundred years, more explorers and voyagers from the Society Islands, including Tahiti, Fiji, and other Polynesian islands, continued to come to Kauai.

While facts about Kauai indicate that Europeans made landfall prior to Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778, they did not accurately chart the islands or claim them. Captain Cook did, and events in Kauai history show that his first landfall also was on this westernmost island. This was on his third voyage, and the reason for Kauai landfall was that he, too, was coming from the South Pacific. He named the islands the Sandwich Islands, after one of his voyage sponsors, the Earl of Sandwich. His discovery is marked by a memorial statue in Hofgaard Park in Waimea, near the turnoff to reach the spectacular Waimea Canyon Lookout, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

Christian history of Kauai is chronicled in the opposite geographic direction. This is because the first missionaries came from the North American mainland, primarily from Massachusetts and other New England states. Therefore, they landed first on the easternmost islands, beginning with the Big Island of Hawaii. Kauai was the last island to receive Christian missionaries, and you can see this at the elegant little Hanalei Church, which plays an important part in Kauai history as the oldest church building on the island.

Another of the interesting facts about Kauai is that it is geologically the oldest of the islands. Nicknamed the Garden Isle, it is the least visited, least explored, and most rugged. This is one of the island’s attractions. Hiking into its pristine interior is an expedition, as is driving on the Hanalei roads and bridges.

Kauai was once home to a mysterious and perhaps mythical tribe called the Menehune, who were found on no other island. This tribe and the island’s isolation provide the foundation for the history of Kauai as an independent kingdom. During the era of Western discovery, King Kamehameha I of the Big Island unified all the Hawaiian Islands except for Kauai and its tiny neighbor Niihau, part of Kauai County. The latter, known as the Forbidden Isle, has been privately owned by a single family since 1864—more evidence of the independent streak of this westernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago.

King Kamehameha’s history of Kauai invasions were repelled by the King of Kauai (Kaumuali’I) in 1796 and again in 1803. These successes were undoubtedly bolstered by the severe weather that sank many of the invading ships during the first invasion attempt and by an outbreak of what was probably cholera during the second invasion, which was launched from Honolulu on Oahu Island. Kamehameha assembled a formidable armada in Waikiki in preparation for his third invasion in 1810. It appears that King Kaumuali’I was unwilling to risk the Kauai history of independence to try his luck a third time. Thus, he voluntarily ceded, and Kauai peacefully became part of the Hawaiian kingdom.

One of the most interesting facts about Kauai and the history of Hawaii as a whole is that the archipelago was one of only four independent countries before it became a U.S. state—joining the Republic of Texas, the Vermont Republic, and the California Republic.

Top image: HTA / Tor Johnson
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