Hawaii - History and Heritage | Travel | Smithsonian
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Hawaii - History and Heritage

Hawaii - History and Heritage

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The Hawaiian Islands were first settled as early as 400 C.E., when Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands, 2000 miles away, traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island in canoes. Highly skilled farmers and fishermen, Hawaiians lived in small communities ruled by chieftains who battled one another for territory.

The first European to set foot in Hawaii was Captain James Cook, who landed on the island of Kauai in 1778. Cook, who named the islands after the Earl of Sandwich, returned to a year later and was killed in a confrontation with Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay, on Hawaii's Big Island.

Between 1791 and 1810, King Kamehameha conquered other rulers and united the entire archipelago into one kingdom. Hawaii’s first king, who died in 1819, is still feted with floral parades every June 11, King Kamehameha Day.

In 1820, the first Christian missionaries arrived. Shortly afterward, Western traders and whalers came to the islands, bringing with them diseases that devastated the native Hawaiian population. Hawaiians had numbered about 300,000 when Cook arrived. By 1853, the native population was down to 70,000.

In 1893, American colonists controlled Hawaii’s sugar-based economy, and they easily overthrew the kingdom and established the Republic of Hawaii. With the agreement of the mostly American elite, the U.S. annexed Hawaii as a territory in 1898.

In the 1890s, the last Hawaiian ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed, imprisoned and forced to abdicate. The author of “Aloha Oe,” Hawaii’s signature song, she remains a Hawaiian heroine. Honolulu’s Iolani Palace, where he queen lived during her reign and where she was held captive after the coup, was restored to its late 19th-century appearance in the 1970s and is open to the public for tours and concerts.

December 7, 1941, still lives in infamy as the day more than 2,300 Americans were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu. The U.S.S. Arizona, which sank with 1,100 men aboard, was turned into a memorial in 1962. The attack forced U.S. involvement in World War II, which ended with an unconditional Japanese surrender, signed on September 2, 1945, on the U.S.S. Battleship Missouri. Today, World War II buffs can tour the Missouri, which is still anchored in Pearl Harbor.

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