On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department accused Elena Branson, a dual U.S. and Russian citizen, with acting as a secret agent of the Russian government to influence policy decisions related to Kauai’s Russian Fort Elisabeth.

Restoring the historic 19th century fort from its modern dilapidated state is a joint goal of a growing contingent of government officials and scholars from both Hawaii and Russia.

But there’s a controversy over what the site should be called and what version of history it should tell.

This aerial view of the site shows the star pattern that the rock walls originally outlined. Mike Coots/Civil Beat/2018

Local scholars say Russian presence at the site was minimal — and any plan to rebuild it should focus on the fort’s place in Native Hawaiian history.

A local groundswell to rename the site Pa ʻulaʻula to reflect its Hawaiian heritage, however, has been met with opposition from some Russians who want to brand the site as their own.

A footnote in Branson’s 36-page federal indictment contains an incorrect account of the site’s history: “Fort Elizabeth is the last remaining formerly Russian fort in the Hawaiian Islands,” reads an excerpt on page 17.

But Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii Hilo who has studied the fort extensively, said the site was built primarily by King Kaumualii, Kauai’s last independent chief, and his people.

Constructed by hundreds of Native Hawaiian laborers, including some of Kaumualii’s wives, the 1817 fort was built next to Kaumualii’s royal compound and used by royal Hawaiians for more than 40 years.

Russians never garrisoned the fort. They didn’t built it, either. Technically, it was a Bavarian doctor working for a fur-trading company partially controlled by the Russian government who gave the fort its most Russian contributions: Its name and its Italian-style design.

But the footnote is wrong for another reason: The remains of Fort Alexander — which was Russian-built and occupied — still exist in Princeville on Kauai’s North Shore.

“To have Paʻulaʻula repeatedly presented as the ‘last remaining formerly Russian fort’ in the news cycle is a step backwards,” Mills said in an email, “so Iʻm doing what I can to correct the sound-bite narratives.”

The false historical account is problematic because it coincides with a grassroots movement to correct misunderstandings about the old fort’s history. A growing number on Kauai want to compel Hawaii State Parks officials to rename Kauai’s Russian Fort Elisabeth, sometimes spelled Elizabeth, to Paʻulaʻula, the name that Hawaiians have long used for the site.

This movement, however, was undermined by Branson, who tried to sway Hawaii government and community leaders against renaming the site, according to the indictment.

The leader of several pro-Russian organizations, Branson fled the country in 2020 after the FBI raided her New York City condo. Authorities say she is still at large.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author