This story is part of our Curious Idaho series, where you vote on questions submitted by readers, and then we investigate the winning question for a story.
Michael Quinlan, of Boise, asked this question: What happened to the Hawaiians who lived in the area that came to be named the Owyhees (after Hawaiians)? Did they move away?
It might seem strange that Hawaiians played a significant part in the history on Idaho and the Northwest because much of that history has been forgotten, except for a historic land marker on the western crest of Owyhee County.
“The name applied to these mountains and the whole surrounding region is an outdated spelling of the word ‘Hawaii,’” the sign reads. Owyhee is pronounced like “Hawaii” but without the “H.”
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The word is such a part of the Idaho vernacular that it’s hard to imagine the southern part of the state without it.
How the Hawaiians came to Idaho
It started with explorer James Cook — yes, the European explorer who visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. That same year, Cook headed to what is now the Oregon Coast, where he spent the better part of a year seeking the fabled Northwest Passage and mapping the coast. He brought at least one Hawaiian crew member on the voyage, according to OregonEncyclopedia.org.
In 1779, Cook was killed by Hawaiians when his ship returned to the islands. But Cook had created a pathway, and expeditions that followed his maps stopped on the islands, often picking up Hawaiians as crew, before heading north. In 1789, Hawaiian Chief Atooi was aboard the American sailing vessel Columbia Rediviva when explorer Capt. Robert Gray reached the Columbia River more than a decade before Lewis and Clark laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean.
But it was the British-and Canadian-run fur-trapping industry that brought many Hawaiians to Idaho in the first half of the 19th century. They became mainstays for the expeditions that Hudson’s Bay and North West companies trappers Donald Mackenzie, Peter Skene Ogden and David Thompson led through present-day Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and British Columbia.
A Hawaiian named Naukane, also known as John Coxe, made the North American continental trek from Fort George, in Astoria, Oregon, to Fort William, Ontario, on Lake Superior in 1811 with Thompson and spent that winter at the Spokane River. The first Hawaiian islander to visit the Inland Northwest, Coxe later settled near Fort Vancouver on the lower Columbia River.
Mackenzie established Fort Nez Percés near Walla Walla, Washington, and explored the Snake River from 1818-20. His party included 25 Canadians, 32 Hawaiians and 38 Iroquois.
Up until the time the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898, it’s believed that well over 1,000 native Hawaiians, sometimes called Sandwich Islanders, traversed the Pacific Ocean to the northern Washington coast.
Why they came
Hawaiians left their island homeland because of social upheaval, and to seek economic opportunity and explore.
They were often known as Kanakas, Hawaiian for “person,” a term used to mean worker or laborer, or sometimes Owyhees, derived from the island’s name.
The Hudson’s Bay Co. depended on Hawaiians for labor in the Northwest. Outposts from Alaska to Oregon saw Hawaiians working as trappers, farmers and lumbermen. They usually signed on for three-year stints with trading companies. Though many returned to Hawaii after their contracts expired, others chose to remain in their new home.
During the 1820s, many Hawaiians settled at Kanaka Flat, near Salt Springs Island in British Columbia. By the 1830s, nearly half of the population of Fort Vancouver (Washington) was from the islands, and almost the entire complement of Old Fort Boise were Hawaiians.
Kanaka Bay on Washington’s San Juan Island was named after Hawaiian farmers who tended pigs and became the flash point of the 1859 “Pig War” between England and the United States — a 12-year tussle over the Puget Sound and the water boundary between the United States and Canada.
Where did the Hawaiians go?
Part of the Northwest Hawaiians’ legacy is in Idaho and Oregon. In 1819, three Hawaiians trappers were sent into the interior of the mountain range in Idaho and never returned. Search parties were sent to find them, and there was much speculation about what happened. Did they return to Hawaii? Were they killed by Native Americans? Did they die of other causes? And though their fate was never discovered, the mystery inspired people to name the county, river and mountains Owyhee.
Eventually, Hawaiians were forced out of the Oregon Territory through racist laws that barred them from becoming citizens were enacted after the United States took full possession of the area in 1846. Many Hawaiians returned home, but some immigrated to British Columbia and California.
Today, people who identify themselves as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander make up 0.2 percent of Idaho’s population, according to U.S. Census estimates for 2017. That’s a little more than 3,400 people.
Idaho historian Keith Petersen helped with this report based on a 2003 Readers View by John Rosapepe about Northwest history.