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The tropical paradise we know as Hawaii evokes images of surf, sun and relaxation. But how did these alluring islands come to be discovered by outsiders in the first place? Who were the first foreign visitors to set foot on their sandy shores and gaze upon their emerald peaks?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The Polynesian people were the first to discover and settle the Hawaiian islands around 300-500 AD. Later European explorers like Captain James Cook visited Hawaii in 1778 and named the islands the Sandwich Islands.

The Original Hawaiian Settlers

The Polynesians Discover Hawaii

The first settlers of Hawaii were likely Polynesian voyagers who made the long journey from the Marquesas Islands around 300-500 AD. These early Hawaiians were skilled navigators who used the stars and ocean currents to sail across thousands of miles in outrigger canoes.

Archaeological evidence suggests they brought with them staple plants like taro, breadfruit, coconut, chickens, dogs, pigs, and more to establish themselves on the islands.

Why did they risk such a daring voyage over so many open ocean miles? Some historians believe overpopulation and scarce resources may have forced the Polynesians to seek out new lands. Their mastery of astronomy and ocean voyaging gave them the capability to discover the Hawaiian islands so distant from their original homelands.

The similar cultures and languages between Polynesians and Native Hawaiians underscores this ancestral connection across the seas.

Hawaiian Culture & Society Develops

Over the centuries, a thriving culture emerged on the Hawaiian islands. The society consisted of commoners and chiefs (aliʻi) who governed areas of land called ahupuaʻa. Their belief system centered around many Hawaiian gods and goddesses embodied in nature, like Pele the volcano goddess, and Lono the god of agriculture.

Oral histories gave the Native Hawaiians a rich tradition steeped in storytelling and myths about their origins. They performed the hula dance to express stories through fluid movement and celebrate momentous occasions.

Canoe building, farming, and aquaculture also became highly refined arts passed down through generations.

Around the 15th-16th centuries, a strict class system based on kapu laws further evolved to support a growing chiefdom. The aliʻi nui (high chiefs) ruled each island while lower district chiefs managed their portions of land.

The makaʻāinana (commoners) served the chiefs and tended the land while kahuna (priests/experts) provided wisdom and expertise in specialized skills.

This elaborate social order demonstrated how Hawaiian culture adapted to support more complex governance and social dynamics while preserving vital cultural cornerstones like the ancestral gods, oral histories, hula, artforms and more over hundreds of years of inhabiting the islands.

To learn more, see the interactive timeline on Hawaiian history at

European Explorers Arrive

Captain James Cook

The first documented European explorer to spot the Hawaiian Islands was British captain James Cook in 1778.

Captain Cook was an experienced explorer sailing under the British crown. In 1778, while searching for the rumored Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Cook stumbled upon the Hawaiian archipelago, which he dubbed the “Sandwich Islands” after one of his patrons, the Earl of Sandwich.

Initially, relations between Cook’s crew and the native Hawaiians were peaceful. However, after one of Cook’s longboats was stolen, conflict ensued. In a skirmish over the boat, Captain Cook himself was killed by the Hawaiians on February 14, 1779.

Impact of Europeans on Hawaii

After Cook’s voyages, news of the verdant Hawaiian Islands spread quickly among traders and merchants. Starting in the 1790s, a steady stream of Europeans and Americans began arriving on Hawaiians shores, profoundly altering the culture and ecosystems there.

These early visitors introduced the concept of private land ownership, irrevocably changing the traditional Hawaiian land management system. They also brought infectious diseases like smallpox and measles, leading to the death of many thousands of Native Hawaiians in just a few decades.

Besides disease and land issues, the influx of Westerners in the 1800s also wrought political changes in Hawaii. Leveraging their economic power and influence, American businessmen eventually overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, leading to U.S. annexation of Hawaiʻi in 1898.

Hawaii Gets Its Name

Cook Names The Islands

The first documented discovery of the Hawaiian Islands was in 1778 by British explorer Captain James Cook. Cook had originally set sail from England in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, but unexpectedly stumbled upon the Hawaiian island chain on January 18.

He named the islands the “Sandwich Islands” after the Earl of Sandwich, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time.

Over the next couple weeks, Cook explored several of the islands including Kauai, Oahu, and Hawaii Island. His crews made first contact with Native Hawaiians, and attempted to establish trade relations. However, there were some hostile skirmishes with Hawaiians which resulted in deaths on both sides.

After a month visiting Hawaii, Cook left to continue his voyage in search of the Northwest Passage.

The Origin of the Name “Hawaii”

The original name for the Hawaiian Islands was far different from the English name Captain Cook applied in 1778. Native Hawaiians referred to their home as “Hawaiʻi”, roughly pronounced “hah-vy-ee”. Linguistic experts believe the word’s origins derive from Proto-Polynesian language, descending over time into the Hawaiian language.

The leading translation is that Hawaiʻi means “place of the gods” or “homeland” in the Hawaiian language. The name references Hawaiki, considered to be the ancestral home of Polynesians including Native Hawaiians.

So Hawaiians called their islands Hawaiʻi, meaning this is our homeland passed down from the gods and our ancestors.

Over 50 years after Captain Cook, the islands began adopting the native name of Hawaiʻi. References to the “Sandwich Islands” gradually faded out over the 19th century. By 1898 when Hawaii became an official U.S. territory, only the name Hawaiʻi remained, reflecting the seminal role of Native Hawaiian language and culture even following Western contact.

Today, Hawaiʻi is universally known by this historical name imbued with cultural meaning. The descended word mirrors the descended people who have called these islands home for over a millennium, from their ancestors to present times.

Hawaii’s Strategic Importance Grows

Trade & Business Interests Emerge

In the early 1800s, Hawaii’s location in the central Pacific made it an ideal stopover point for merchant ships traveling between North America and Asia. Whaling ships in particular began using Hawaiian ports as a place to restock supplies and transfer cargo.

This brought an influx of Western businessmen and traders to the islands.

The establishment of trade ties with the United States, Britain, and other countries also introduced new technologies and economic opportunities to Hawaii. American missionaries brought Christianity and new agricultural techniques.

Sugar plantations and pineapple farms soon dotted the islands to export tropical goods abroad.

By the mid-1800s, the Hawaiian economy was increasingly dominated by American business interests. Treaties giving tax exemptions and land rights to US citizens led to further Western involvement. As business opportunities grew, Hawaii’s ports became even more vital for providing supplies, provisions, mail, and news from abroad.

Whaling Industry Takes Hold

The 1820s marked the start of the heyday of whaling in Hawaii. The islands’ central location made them an ideal spot for whaling ships to take on fresh water, food, and supplies as they hunted whales across the Pacific. By the 1840s, over 700 whaling ships were stopping in Hawaii annually.

Several prominent sea captains recognized Hawaii’s strategic value and set up shop on the islands. Frenchman Captain Alexander Adams helped Kamehameha I build up the port town of Honolulu. He assisted American traders like William French and Stephen Reynolds establish stores supplying whaling ships.

The influx of whaling crews also stimulated other businesses in Hawaii. Saloons, hotels, and brothels sprouted up near ports to entertain and service all the visiting sailors. This selling of vice and liquor to whalers proved extremely lucrative for local merchants and government officials who taxed the transactions.

Some estimates state that over $500,000 a year was being generated from the whaling industry and related businesses by the 1860s. This influx of Western capital helped transform Hawaii’s economy and accelerate the decline of the native Hawaiian social structure.

The Kingdom, Annexation and Statehood

King Kamehameha Unites the Islands

In the late 18th century, the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four kingdoms – Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai. Each was ruled by its own royal family. King Kamehameha the Great, ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii, launched a campaign in 1795 to conquer and unite the islands into a single kingdom.

After years of battles, Kamehameha succeeded in uniting all the major islands under his rule by 1810, establishing the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi with himself as monarch.

U.S. Annexation & the Territory of Hawaii

Over the 19th century, American business and plantation interests grew in influence. In 1893, American settlers and sugar planters, aided by the U.S. military, overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani in an illegal coup. They then established an oligarchical government and requested U.S. annexation.

President Cleveland opposed annexation, and temporarily restored Hawaiian independence. But in 1898, the islands were annexed as a U.S. territory during the Spanish–American War. The legislatures of both nations approved the Newlands Resolution which made Hawaii a U.S. territory under the management of a governor appointed by the President.

Honolulu became the territorial capital.

Hawaii Becomes the 50th State

In 1959, Congress approved statehood for Hawaii. A referendum held in June 1959 saw an overwhelming 93% of voters in favor. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th U.S. state. Hawaii’s unique history and culture, including native traditions and cuisine, make it one of the country’s most distinctive and fascinating states.

Today, tourism and agriculture drive Hawaii’s economy. Its scenic landscapes, beaches, volcanic mountains, and lively culture continue to draw millions of visitors each year.


As you can see, Hawaii has a long and storied history stretching far back before it became an dream island escape for travelers and honeymooners. The Hawaii we know today is thanks to the vision, culture and determination not just of modern developers and tourism authorities – but also of ancient Polynesian voyagers, warring Hawaiian aliʻi (chiefs), traders and missionaries.

Hawaii continues to captivate visitors from across the globe, drawn to its tropical beauty and welcoming spirit of aloha. So next time your toes sink into that Hawaiian beach, take a moment reflect on the islands’ rich past.

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