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Hawaii’s history is intricately intertwined with European and American colonialism. Join us on a journey through time as we explore the complex answer to a seemingly simple question: when was Hawaii made a state?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Hawaii officially became the 50th state in the United States of America on August 21, 1959.

In this comprehensive guide, you’ll learn about Hawaii’s origins, its complicated relationship with America, the fight for statehood, and finally the ultimate annexation that made it the 50th state.

Ancient Hawaii and the Origins of the Islands

Geological Formation

The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanic activity over a hot spot deep underneath the Pacific Ocean. As the Pacific tectonic plate moved slowly northwestward over millions of years, magma pushed up through the crust, creating volcanoes that eventually rose above sea level as islands.

The oldest islands are furthest northwest in the chain, with the youngest islands to the southeast still being formed from active volcanoes. This awe-inspiring natural process led to the creation of the breathtaking and lush Hawaiian archipelago.

Early Polynesian Settlement

The first settlers of Hawaii were Polynesian voyagers who made the daring journey across the Pacific Ocean in canoes sometime between 500-700 AD. These early settlers came from other Polynesian islands thousands of miles away, guided by the stars and ocean currents to discover the Hawaiian islands.

They brought with them their language, culture, religion, social structure, and agriculture. Early Hawaiian life revolved around subsistence farming and fishing, with their belief in many gods guiding their daily life.

The Rise of Ancient Hawaiian Civilization

Over the centuries, a uniquely Hawaiian culture arose on the islands. The people developed an advanced system of land division called Ahupua’a for managing resources, with aliʻi (chiefs) ruling each division. Three main gods – Kane, Ku, and Lono were primary deities.

Temples called heiau were central places of worship. The culture also valued the arts, with hula dancing and chanting important cultural expressions. Extensive trade between islands and communities provided abundant food.

By the early 19th century, the population was estimated to be nearly one million with stable, highly organized communities before encounters with Western civilizations.

European and American Contact Transforms Hawaii

Captain Cook Arrives

In 1778, the famous British explorer Captain James Cook became the first European to make contact with the Hawaiian Islands. When Cook arrived, he was welcomed by the Hawaiians who viewed him as a god. Cook named the islands the “Sandwich Islands” after one of his patrons, the Earl of Sandwich.

His encounters with the native Hawaiians were mainly peaceful, except for a skirmish in which Cook was killed by Hawaiians on the Big Island after an attempted kidnapping of chief went awry. Cook’s voyage opened the door for more extensive European and American contact with Hawaii in the coming decades.

The Sandalwood Trade

After Cook’s voyage, news of the Hawaiian islands and its valuable natural resources like sandalwood spread quickly. By the 1810s, merchants from China, Europe, and America began trading with the islands for the fragrant and rare sandalwood which was used for incense, carvings, and Chinese medicine.

Vast quantities of sandalwood were harvested and exported, depleting sandalwood forests and negatively impacting the native Hawaiian way of life. The sandalwood trade marked the beginning of major commercial activity in the Hawaiian economy.

Christian Missionaries

In 1820, the first company of American Christian missionaries arrived in Hawaii seeking to convert the native population to Christianity. Over the next 30 years, many Hawaiians adopted Christianity and Western ways, abandoning their native religious beliefs and traditions.

The missionaries also played a key role in developing the Hawaiian written language and spreading literacy, making it easier to communicate ideas. While the missionaries’ impact was substantial, some native customs managed to endure despite religious changes brought by the missionaries.

The Great Mahele Land Reforms

In 1848, King Kamehameha III instituted The Great Mahele which introduced private land ownership to Hawaii for the first time. Previously, all land was held communally and managed by chieftains. The reforms allowed commoners and foreigners to buy land which led to Hawaiians losing ownership of nearly all usable land by the 1860s.

Most historians view The Great Mahele as a well-intentioned but disastrous policy that permanently altered land ownership patterns in Hawaii and favored rich Westerners at the expense of native Hawaiians.

The Overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani and Annexation

The Bayonet Constitution

In 1887, American sugar plantation owners and missionaries, backed by the U.S. Minister to Hawaii and Marines from American ships, forced King Kalākaua to accept a new constitution that stripped him of much of his authority.

This constitution came to be known as the “Bayonet Constitution” due to the threat of force used to compel the king.

The Overthrow

In 1893, after Kalākaua died and his sister Liliʻuokalani ascended to the throne, the queen began drafting a new constitution to restore power to the monarchy. However, in January 1893, backed again by American troops, the Committee of Safety, a group of American and European businessmen and descendants of American missionaries, overthrew Liliʻuokalani in a nearly bloodless coup.

The queen temporarily yielded her authority to avoid bloodshed but protested to the U.S. government.

Failed Annexation Attempts

After the overthrow, the Committee of Safety proclaimed the Republic of Hawaii and sought annexation by the United States. U.S. President Grover Cleveland opposed annexation and sent a commissioner to investigate the overthrow, who found that the American troops’ presence bolstered the overthrow.

Cleveland agreed with Liliʻuokalani’s protest and worked to restore her to the throne until 1894 when Provisional Government forces on the islands refused to yield sovereignty.

U.S. Annexation in 1898

In 1898, the United States was at war with Spain. During this time, the strategic value of the Hawaiian Islands as a naval base became apparent. Americans living in Hawaii overthrew the Republic of Hawaii and created the Territory of Hawaii which they then offered their harbors and armed forces to the U.S.

This helped convince Congress to pass a resolution annexing Hawaii on July 7, 1898.

The Long Road to Statehood

Territorial Status 1900-1959

Hawaii spent nearly 60 years as a U.S. territory before being admitted as the 50th state in 1959. During this time, Hawaii was governed by territorial legislatures and governors appointed by the U.S. president.

There were ongoing efforts by local leaders to achieve full statehood rights during this period.

Previous Attempts at Statehood

Hawaii made several attempts to gain statehood earlier in the 20th century. Congress came close to passing a Hawaii statehood bill in 1947, but it ultimately failed. There was concern from some lawmakers that Hawaii’s non-white population might lead to it sending representatives that did not reflect traditional American values.

In 1950, Hawaii held a referendum where over 90% of voters approved statehood. But Congress did not act on this right away. Additional statehood bills were introduced throughout the 1950s by Hawaii’s territorial delegate Joseph Farrington, but faced considerable opposition in Congress.

Hawaii Joins as 50th State in 1959

With the backing of Hawaiian delegates such as Farrington and John A. Burns, as well as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Hawaii Admission Act finally passed both houses of Congress in early 1959. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii officially became the 50th state in the Union.

The reasons for Congress finally approving statehood were complex. Hawaii’s strategic location in the Pacific proved important during World War II and the early Cold War era. Statehood now ensured federal funding for the Hawaii National Guard.

Additionally, the non-white argument had less sway, as Alaska was admitted just prior to Hawaii, balancing the number of “southern” and “western” states.


As we’ve explored, Hawaii’s path to statehood was lengthy, complex, and fraught with controversy. After over 60 years as an official U.S. territory, Hawaii finally became the 50th state on August 21, 1959 after much struggle and debate.

The history provides vital context for understanding modern Hawaii at the intersection of Polynesian, Asian, and American heritage. We hope this guide gave you a comprehensive look at how and when Hawaii went from an ancient island kingdom to the Aloha State.

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