History of Hawaii for Kids

One of my favorite places to visit is a chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Hawaii. I grew up in Arizona, which is a desert and a very dry place. I love Arizona, but visiting a tropical place like Hawaii was very exciting. I had never seen so much green and so much ocean! And every island on Hawaii has so many different sites to see and adventures to offer. Most of my visits have been to the islands Oahu and Maui. Oahu is home to the beautiful north shore and gigantic waves, a favorite destination for surfers all around the world. It also is home to Pearl Harbor and the big city of Honolulu. In Maui my wife and I drove to the top of a former volcano, up above the cloud, and were able to see the sunrise from very high. We also hiked through jungles and snorkeled in crystal clear, warm water and saw fish of so many different colors. The beaches are beautiful and whales pass by the islands while migrating north and south through the Pacific Ocean. So this week I was very excited to dig into the history of Hawaii and figure out how the beautiful islands came to be and the history and culture of the Hawaiian people.

First, let’s go back 40 million years to when the Hawaiian islands first began form on top of a hot spot. A hot spot is a place where hot molten rock is pushed to the surface of the earth and creates a volcano. But Hawaii was different because its volcanos were coming up from the middle of the ocean. So if you can imagine hot lava pushing up through a hole in the ocean and up to the surface, then cooling and hardening over millions of years, this is how the Hawaiian islands were formed. Magma is the burning hot rock that then turns into lava and then cools and then becomes rock once again. It took a VERY long time for the lava to cool and then harden little by little until these gigantic islands were formed and reached the surface of the water. 

Over millions of years the volcanos and hardening lava became 8 main islands. The biggest islands are named Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Molokai, and Kauia. In addition to the big islands there are 130 smaller islands that make up the Hawaiian chain of islands! But interestingly, the Hawaiian islands are not done forming. It has 3 active volcanos, which mean volcanos that still have hot lava flowing from them and slowly making the island larger. If you visit these islands today you can see actual lava pouring from their volcanos!

After the lava cooled and became solid ground, eventually seeds drifted to Hawaii on the water and the wind and the soil was very fertile, which means it was good for growing plants. Over time plants sprouted and began to grow across Hawaii making it very lush and green. The climate is tropical, so many places on the islands look like a jungle and some of the islands like Kaui get lots of rainfall and are very wet. Other places on Hawaii are very dry, so it’s geography is very diverse. But one reason Hawaii is such a favorite place to visit is that the weather is usually very nice and cool all year around, perfect for people to visit for a vacation.

Animal life also eventually made its way to Hawaii and over time the species there became very unique. Among the unique species are the monk seal, the nay-nay, also known as the Hawaiian goose, and the hoary bat. Along with these are many birds special to Hawaii, many of which have become endangered.

For thousands and thousands of years the Hawaiian islands only had plants and animals on them, no people, until around 300 AD, about 1700 years ago when people from different islands found it by boat. These people were Polynesian, which means they had lived on islands in the Pacific Ocean for hundreds of years. But the journey from where they probably lived to Hawaii was very far, around 3,000 miles, which you can imagine would take a very long time and be very dangerous in a small boat in the ocean. We’re not exactly sure when more Polyensians arrived in Hawaii, but over time more and more people arrived and settled the many islands. With them they brought new plants and animals, such as chickens and dogs, coconuts and bananas. Over time these groups settled into chiefdoms ruled by local chiefs, which ruled the settlements, created laws, and often competed with each other for food and land. They fished and planted farms and built homes and temples to their gods. They believed the gods gave them power, which they called mana

For hundreds of years the tribes of the different islands were divided until the 1780s and 90s when a chief named Kamehameha rose to power. Kamehameha was the son of a chief and at his birth it was said a bright star appeared, a prophesy that he would someday become a great king and rule all of the islands of Hawaii. Many believe this is the same time Haley’s Comet appeared in the sky in 1758. 

With all his heart, Kamehameha believed this prophecy about himself and was determined to defeat all of the other chiefs and rule Hawaii as one nation. Over time Kamehameha built up a strong army and one by one, went about fighting the other chiefs on each of the islands, conquering their tribes and making them his own. With each victory, Kamehameha and his people believed his mana, or divine power, increased. 

During Kamehameha’s rise to power, in 1778, the first known European explorer, Captain James Cook, reached Hawaii. The relationship between Europeans and Hawaiians was off and on, but Kamehameha saw their large ships and powerful weapons, such as cannons and guns that fired using gunpowder and looked for ways to use them in his own quest for power. In 1789 after British ships fired on Hawaiian locals, Kamehameha took two of them captive and gave them the choice to join his kingdom or be executed. They chose to join his kingdom and became his counselors showing his soldiers how to fire a cannon and guns and sail ships. Kamahameha had been using his wealth to buy guns, ships, and gunpowder from the European traders, so he could continue to conquer all of the Hawaiian islands and unite them under one ruler.

In 1795 Kamehemaha set off for the islands of Maui and Oahu with 960 war canoes and 10,000 soldiers. After defeating his final enemies, Kamehameha became supreme ruler of the Hawaiian islands. As king, he changed the laws so they were the same across the islands and did everything he could to keep them united. His wife, Ka-ah-humanoo was one of his advisors and became one of Hawaii’s most powerful leaders. 

After Kamehameha’s death, his son became the new King of Hawaii. During his reign, Christian missionaries began visiting the island and teaching about the religion of Jesus and the Bible. Many Hawaiians took interest in the religion. Eventually the leaders of Hawaii became Christian, too. Over time more and more Europeans and Americans moved to Hawaii. With this came a change in their native Hawaiian culture. The newcomers wanted the native people to speak English and change their traditions. They also were interested in using Hawaiian lands to plant sugar cane and sell it. Sugar cane is used to make sugar, which was a very desirable item across the world, because everyone loves sugar! Soon sugar cane plantations became a major business in Hawaii because of the weather and soil.

The children of the people who moved to Hawaii wanted more control over the government, so they could make decisions that helped their sugar cane businesses. At first they were just advisors to the Kings and Queens of Hawaii, but slowly they took more and more power to themselves. 

In 1891 a woman named Lili-oo-kalani became the first and last queen of Hawaii. She was born in Honololu on the island of Oahu and was raised up to be Hawaiian royalty. She loved the Hawaiian people and wanted them to be in control of their country rather than the foreigners who had come to power through their powerful sugar plantations and other businesses. She spent her time and energy helping to educate her people and feed the hungry. She was a talented songwriter and played the guitar, piano, ukulele (a small Hawaiian guitar) and sang. 

Even though she desperately wanted her people to stay in power, she was forced out of her position as queen by the powerful business people who were also aided by the American military who came to Hawaii with ships to back the powerful businessmen. At the time, the President of the United States and his advisors were interested in growing the United State’s overseas power and didn’t do anything to stop the forceful takeover of the Hawaiian government. The Hawaiian people peacefully protested, but it did little good. Queen Lily-oo-kalani was arrested and forced to stay in her home while she was replaced as ruler of Hawaii. It was there that she wrote the most famous Hawaiian song, “Aloha Oe.” 

Later, Lily-oo-kalani travelled to the United States to speak to the President and demand that her country be in control of the Hawaiian people again. He agreed, but other government leaders did not. Later, Hawaii became a territory of the United States and in 1859 an official state. During the years after Lily-oo-kalani was Queen there was pressure to do away with Hawaiian language and culture, but fortunately, in recent years there has been a return to an appreciation for the beauty of native Hawaiian traditions and many schools teach their native language again.

Today, Hawaii has become one of the top tourist destinations for people all around the world. 10 million people visited Hawaii in 2019 to sightsee, hike, surf, snorkel, whale watch, golf, and relax on its beautiful beaches.

Hawaii has a rich history and culture, and with it the “Aloha Spirit” and these principles: kindness, unity, humility, pleasantness and perseverance. And I wanted to end with these inspiring words by the last Queen of Hawaii, Lily-oo-kalani:  

“Never cease to act because you fear you may fail. The true secret is to know your own worth.” 

To echo her own words, know your own worth as a human being and the unique gifts you bring to the world. You can take courage and act and use your gifts to better the life of others!