The Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources on Thursday voted unanimously to rename Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park, a widely misunderstood 19th century landmark that has become a flashpoint in recent years among scholars and government officials from Russia and Hawaii.

Graffiti defaces the entrance sign to Russian Fort Elizabeth, a Hawaii State Park with a problematic name that perpetuates an inaccurate account of the park’s origin story. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

The park has been rechristened Paʻulaʻula State Historic Site to emphasize its role in Native Hawaiian history after years of attempts by Russians and Russian-Americans, including a woman accused of acting as a secret Russian agent on U.S. soil, to brand the site as their own.

State Parks Assistant Administrator Alan Carpenter told the BLNR that the new name isn’t just about changing the park’s signage. It’s about correcting the version of history that the site tells.

“This change, frankly, it’s kind of embarrassingly late,” Carpenter said, adding that the state has been telling “the wrong story” of the site’s significance for the last 50 years.

The name change, he said, should come with an apology to generations of Hawaiian families who grew up driving by the residence of Hawaiian royalty yet had to read a name on the park entrance and highway signs that instead celebrated a foreign power.

“We need to acknowledge our own shortcomings,” Carpenter said.

Native Hawaiians built the fort, and it became a home to Hawaiian royalty, including Kauai’s last independent chief King Kaumualii, for more than 40 years. Although local scholars say Russian presence at the fort was minimal — the fort’s Italian-style design was provided by a passenger on a Russian-American fur-trading company vessel — the site took on the name Russian Fort Elizabeth, also sometimes spelled Elisabeth, in 1970 when it became a Hawaii State Park.

Paʻulaʻula, the site’s Hawaiian name, evokes Waimea’s red dirt.

Peter Mills, an archaeologist at the University of Hawaii Hilo who documented the fort’s complicated 200-year history in the book “Hawaii’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History,” has said that he’s often been astonished by the amount of money and focus that Russians and Russian-Americans have given the fort, which today amounts to little more than a pile of rubble.

Prior to the name change, Carpenter said the site had been the only state park on Kauai that did not reflect its Hawaiian place name. On Oahu, there’s at least one prominent state park similarly that does not carry its Hawaiian name: Diamond Head State Monument. Leahi is the volcanic crater’s Hawaiian name.

Carpenter told the BLNR that it may want to consider renaming Diamond Head to Leahi to better reflect its Hawaiian heritage.

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