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The isolated Hawaiian islands saw a major shift in power dynamics when American businessmen and missionaries began arriving in the early 1800s. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to the question of who were the first Americans to become powerful in Hawaii: Merchants like John Jacob Astor established trade outposts, while missionaries such as Hiram Bingham converted Hawaiians to Christianity and held sway over successive Hawaiian monarchs.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the storied history of the first Americans who journeyed to Hawaii and examine how a small group of ambitious foreigners were able to gain economic, religious and political influence over the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Earliest American Arrivals and Trade

The China Trade and Hawaiian Harbor

The China Trade refers to the maritime trade routes between China and the United States in the 19th century. American ships would sail to China, exchanging spices, sandalwood, and furs for tea, porcelain, silk and other Chinese goods. This was extremely profitable for American merchants.

As more American ships made the voyage across the Pacific, they stopped in Hawaii to restock supplies. Lahaina harbor on Maui became an especially popular port of call. Soon Lahaina transformed into a bustling international seaport, with sailors from all around the world intermingling.

By the 1820s, around 60 American ships were sailing into Lahaina every year. The harbor became known as the “Wall Street of the Pacific.”

John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company

Wealthy American businessman John Jacob Astor also got involved in early trade with Hawaii. In 1810 he established the Pacific Fur Company to trade furs from the Pacific Northwest with China. Ships under Astor’s company stopped by Hawaii on their voyages for supplies and rest.

Astor later helped fund the first American Christian mission to Hawaii in 1819. While ostensibly spreading religion, the mission also furthered American economic and political interests on the islands.

Within just a few decades, American missionaries and merchants in Hawaii were wielding considerable influence.

The Pioneering Missionaries

Hiram Bingham and the First Company of Missionaries

In 1819, the first group of American Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii, led by Hiram Bingham. They were sent by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), an organization eager to spread Christianity to indigenous peoples around the world.

Bingham and his small band of missionaries were ambitious, believing they could rapidly convert Native Hawaiians to Christianity while also reforming their society.

The missionaries arrived at an opportune time in Hawaiian history. The indigenous religion had been abolished, leaving an opening for Christianity to fill the void. Native Hawaiians were also grappling with the disastrous effects of foreign disease outbreaks and major social changes brought about by increased Western contact and trade starting in the late 18th century.

Bingham and his fellow missionaries quickly set up schools and began preaching. They were aided by the conversion of Hawaiian royalty, including Queen Kaʻahumanu. Her conversion gave the missionaries access to the common people and conferred legitimacy on Christianity and missionary efforts to reform traditional Hawaiian culture and society.

Within a few years, tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians abandoned their ancestral beliefs and converted to Christianity.

Rapid Spread of Christianity Among Native Hawaiians

The missionaries introduced sweeping changes in Hawaiian society as Christian beliefs took hold. They established an alphabet for the Hawaiian language, taught reading and writing, started Hawaii’s first printing press in 1822, and began publishing newspapers and translations of the Bible and other texts.

Missionaries also wielded significant political influence. They convinced Hawaiian royalty to enact laws based on Christian morality, including bans on cultural practices like hula dancing, polygamy, gambling, and alcohol consumption.

Over time, many traditional aspects of Native Hawaiian culture were suppressed.

Yet most Native Hawaiians willingly accepted Christianity and missionary-led reforms. Only a few voices spoke out questioning the rapid changes. Native Hawaiians saw literacy and education as empowering.

Christianity brought order and meaning to lives disrupted by demographic collapse from introduced diseases and profound social changes in the early 1800s. Within a few decades of Hiram Bingham’s arrival, Hawaii was widely considered the most literate, Christianized, and “civilized” society in the Pacific.*

Increasing American Political Control

Special Advisor Roles to Hawaiian Royals

In the mid-1800s, American businessmen and missionaries became increasingly influential in Hawaii. Several served as special advisors to Hawaiian royals, using their positions to push for policies favorable to American economic and political interests.

For example, in 1874 David Kalākaua was elected king with the help of American advisers who expected concessions in return. Once in power, Kalākaua was persuaded to sign a treaty giving the US exclusive rights to a naval base at Pearl Harbor in return for duty-free trade of Hawaiian sugar.

The Bayonet Constitution and Overthrow Plans

In 1887, American settlers and sugar planters, with support from US Marines, forced Kalākaua to accept the “Bayonet Constitution” which stripped the king of most of his authority, giving more power to the settlers.

In 1891, a group called the Hawaiian League, composed of Euro-American businessmen, lawyers, and politicians, sought to form a Republic and overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. They had support from the US Minister to Hawaii, John L. Stevens.

Their initial coup attempt failed, but in 1893 their second attempt succeeded. Queen Liliʻuokalani surrendered under protest to avoid bloodshed, ending the Hawaiian monarchy.


In conclusion, the early American merchants, missionaries and political advisors who ventured across the Pacific were instrumental in transferring power away from the native monarchy and people in the Hawaiian islands.

By establishing trade and religious footholds and later usurping governmental functions, they set the stage for the eventual overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii at the end of the 19th century and paved the way for Hawaii’s statehood as part of the United States in 1959.

The first Americans in Hawaii recognized opportunity in the remote archipelago and swiftly amassed outsized economic, religious and political influence. Their early ambitions presaged America’s imperial designs on the strategically located islands in the middle of the Pacific.

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