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August 2005


Forgotten Hawaiians: The Pacific Northwest

By James G.Y. Ho

On August 19th and 20th, the City of Kalama, Washington celebrates the 175th anniversary of its Hawaiian namesake, John Kalama from Kula, Maui. Below is a story that tells how many Hawaiians arrived in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s.

Hawaiians had a big impact in the early history of the Pacific Northwest. Have you heard of the Owyhee River in eastern Oregon, or the Owyhee Lake and the town of Owyhee in Nevada, or the river and town of Kalama and even the town of Friday Harbor? These were named after “Kanakas,” otherwise known as Sandwich Islanders, or Hawaiians.

In the voyages of discovery in the late 1700s and early 1800s, ship captains found the Sandwich (named by James Cook for his benefactor, the Earl of Sandwich) or Hawaiian Islands a great port of call and quickly found the value of the “Owyhees.” This is why many Hawaiians became regularly employed on both merchant and whaling ships.

The first Hawaiians were recruited in 1811 by the North West Company, twelve for ship deckhands and twelve to work in the fur trade brigades. Part of their value was in their canoeing and swimming skills. The French Voygeurs had great canoe handling skills but could not swim. When a canoe flipped, everything would be lost, often even the men. But with Owyhees along, there would be excellent swimmers to save men and recover goods from the bottom of rivers. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which merged with the rival North West Company, decided, as a “safety device,” to put an Owyhee in every canoe with the French Voyageurs.

During the fur trapping era, Hawaiians made many trips into the interior, to Fort Spokane and beyond to the Grand Tetons. This is how Owyhee and other Hawaiian names were attached to a number of interior geographic features such as rivers, lakes and even mountain ranges.

Among the first explorations of the Frazier River in Canada by HBC, the party of 42 included six Hawaiians. The Hudson ’s Bay Company also had several forts along the northwest coast: Fort Vancouver (rebuilt on site just east of the Columbia River Bridge into Portland ), Fort Nisqually (slightly north of Dupont, near Olympia and moved and recreated in Tacoma ’s Point Defiance Park ), Fort Victoria, and Fort Langley (located and recreated at Vancouver, BC .) They relied on Hawaiian employees at each of these sites.

Fort Nisqually, just north of Olympia, was a large farm the size of Pierce County which provided livestock for HBC use. There were up to ten Hawaiians working at the Fort at one time. “Keavehaccow,” “Cowie” and Kalama were often listed in the Fort journals as doing a variety of tasks such as building structures, pressing furs and wool for shipment, herding sheep, cutting hay, and repairing wagons and saddles.

John Kalama first worked at Fort Nisqually, then moved to the HBC Cowlitz farm to the south. The Kalama family once owned land where Fort Lewis now stands and the river and town of Kalama is named after him. Friday Harbor on San Juan Island was named for Joe Friday, whose original name was “Poalie.”

The Hawaiians also made a large impact on the Northwest Coast Indians. The early Hawaiian men working for HBC were encouraged to marry Indian women, which made them more likely to stay and renew their contracts. (They were also prevented by law from marrying white women in Washington and Oregon.) Apparently it was a status symbol among the Indians to marry a Hawaiian, and a number were married to chiefs’ daughters. Some of the Hawaiians and their descendants became leaders of various tribes. Statistics indicate that Hawaiians were among the top three contributors to the Northwest Coast Indian gene pool, and it was estimated by a French priest that there were 500 Hawaiians living on the NW coast in 1842.

After the boundary between the U.S. and Canada was determined, HBC eventually moved north of the border and many of its Hawaiian employees followed. Others who had married Indian women remained in the Puget Sound area. And this is how many of the coastal Indians today in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska have the bloodline of Hawaiians.

Reprinted with permission from Untold Fragments of Hawaii’s History by James G.Y. Ho, copyright 2003 (available at the Bishop Museum and Holland America.) Mr. Ho was a teacher and administrator in Hawai`i public schools and at the University of Hawaii. He was the first coordinator and supervisor for the Territory of Hawaii’s educational program “Knowing Hawaii” under the tutelage of Mary Pukui of the Bishop Museum, for which Alice Keaukealani L. Char was the overall territorial director and kumu Kaupena Wong the first instructor. In 1996, Mr. Ho founded the Hawaiian Chinese Multicultural Museum & Archives and continues to do research about the history of Hawai`i . He currently lectures about Hawaiian history aboard Holland America and is working on another book regarding Hawai`i’s involvement in World War II.

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