Hawaii, one of the most isolated populated land masses on the planet, was the last state to join the union, is the only state that is comprised of islands, the only state with a royal palace, and the only state that has never had a white majority population.
Yet Hawaii, home to about 1.3 million people, still has much in common with many sister states. Its governing structure is modeled after the federal government, it relies on a few key industries such as tourism, the military and government, it is multicultural and religiously diverse, it is part of American popular culture, and it has an indigenous population.
Hawaii also shares the challenges confronting many states, including a high cost of living, an aging population, poverty, inequality, crime, urban decay, environmental degradation and overdevelopment. In short, Hawaii and its people are part of the American experience in representative democracy.
Hawaii is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Eight main islands support a population of about 1.3 million people. To learn more about the land of Hawaii, see the Land page.
Until the arrival of English explorers in the late 18th century, Hawaii’s indigenous population dominated the islands. The arrival of foreigners brought diseases such as smallpox, measles and venereal diseases that decimated the Hawaiian population. The number of Native Hawaiians fell from estimates of between 300,000 and 700,000 people at the time of Kamehameha I, to as little as 40,000 a century later. The Hawaiian population has since rebounded and today numbers about 400,000, with the highest concentrations in Hawaii — about 60 percent — and the western United States. Only a small percentage of full-blooded Hawaiians remain, as Hawaiians have intermarried with other races in high numbers.
The farming of sugarcane, beginning on Kauai in 1840 and spreading to other major islands, and pineapple required a large, inexpensive labor force. Large numbers of Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese and other nationalities were brought in to work the plantations, which were owned by white landowners. The earliest Chinese immigrants began arriving in the late 18th century, while others came later to work on the plantations.
The Big Five was the name given to five sugarcane and other companies — Alexander & Baldwin, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (now called Amfac), and Theo H. Davies & Co. — that wielded tremendous power in Hawaii beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing through the territorial period from 1900 until statehood in 1959. The Big Five were closely connected with Hawaii’s Republican Party.
The mixture of the races on and off the plantations was culturally rich and diverse, but also marked by harsh discrimination. The history includes the development of a creole language, Hawaiian Pidgin English, that helped form bonds between immigrant groups and build solidarity against the white landowners. This solidarity would help lead to the rise of labor unions and Hawaii’s Democratic Party, gradually altering the political landscape.
Today, Hawaii’s population is among the most diverse in the United States, with no single ethnic group constituting a majority. While the single-largest racial group is Asian, the group includes Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese and others. Many are recent immigrants, and English is not always the first language used at home. And, while current Census numbers on Native Hawaiians are grouped with other Pacific Islanders, many Hawaiians — like many people in Hawaii — claim multiple ancestries.
There is also a sizable U.S. military presence in Hawaii, particularly on Oahu, which is home to a number of military bases. The military’s presence in Hawaii dates back well over a century. Since the Empire of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the U.S. Department of Defense has had a large, influential, and near-permanent place in Hawaii history. Military personnel and their dependents include not only whites but many African Americans and Latinos, contributing to Hawaii’s diversity but also sometimes creating tensions between newcomers and locals.
The exact date Hawaii was settled by Polynesians is unknown. Archeological evidence suggests that the first Polynesian settlers arrived between 800-1000 A.D., though some scholars estimate it may have been as early as 400 A.D. The Polynesian Voyaging Society say first arrival was “around 400 A.D. or earlier.” The settlers traveled in double-hulled sailing canoes, using constellations to navigate 2,400 miles from the Marquesas to the Hawaiian Islands. Others sailed from Tahiti, Samoa and possibly Tonga. This form of transpacific voyaging was a risky, but common practice in Polynesia.
In January 1778, English explorer Captain James Cook became the first Westerner to visit Hawaii. He named Hawaii “The Sandwich Isles.” Cook and his crew landed in Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii, the largest and most southerly of all the Hawaiian Islands, during the makahiki season. Native Hawaiians believed Cook to be the god Lono. After a lengthy stay, Cook and his crew left Hawaii only to come back a month later with a broken mast and in need of supplies. His return to Kealakekua Bay would lead to Cook’s demise. After a series of events that included a stolen boat from Cook’s ship and a kidnapping of Hawaiian royalty, Cook was killed in a battle at Kealakekua Bay. During this battle with Cook and his men, a young chief named Kamehameha witnessed the precision of Western firearms.
Kamehameha hailed from Kohala on Hawaii, and would eventually use this technology to conquer Hawaii. After a long and violent campaign that started on Hawaii and went north to Kauai, Kamehameha became the first to unite the Hawaiian Islands under one ruler. For this accomplishment he became known as Kamehameha The Great. He established diplomacy with Westerners, employing stranded sailors John Young and Isaac Davis to train his warriors in the use of firearms. Young and Davis fought alongside Kamehameha and his warriors, and were eventually made high chiefs. Kamehameha the Great is still widely regarded as Hawaii’s greatest monarch and is an icon of Hawaiian culture.
The sandalwood trade and the whaling industry brought more Westerners to Hawaii, but the coming of Protestant missionaries would be much more influential. The first group arrived in Hawaii from Boston on the SS Thaddeus in the spring of 1820. Their most noteworthy contribution was establishing of a written form of Hawaiian.
Hawaii’s governing structure has evolved from disconnected tribes to a monarchy to a republic to a U.S. territory to a state.
A series of rebellions against white control of the monarchy started in 1888. Twelve years later the U. S. government annexed Hawaii and ended the Kamehameha dynasty. The last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was sentenced for treason and imprisoned in her own home.
During World War II, it was also under martial law. That evolution can be traced through a series of governing documents and key events. Learn more on the Hawaii State Government page.
Federal Government in Hawaii
The federal government has a significant presence in Hawaii, in part because of its relative size to a small state like Hawaii but especially because of Hawaii’s military history and strategic presence for the United States.
Additional Facts and Figures
Nickname: Aloha State
State Song: Hawaii Ponoi
State Seal and Motto: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness)