Portland State University. Department of History
Date of Award
Master of Arts (M.A.) in History
1 online resource (4, 142 leaves, 28 cm.)
Hawaiians -- United States, West (U.S.) -- History
Kanakas, Owhyees, Blue Men, were all names given to laborers from Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands, who contributed significantly to the economic, cultural, and political history of the United States territory west of the Mississippi River in the period 1750-1900.
The Sandwich Islands first entered the international economic scene in the latter eighteenth century when its excellent ports and favorable climate made the Islands an ideal winter harbor and stopover for merchant ships, whalers, and explorers' vessels who needed to replenish food and water supplies, or make necessary repairs. Just as frequently the crews of these vessels needed to be supplemented, and the Kanakas were eager to travel and to receive wages paid to seamen. Kanaka seamen sailed with William Douglas, Robert Gray and George Vancouver; and as seamen and land based laborers for the North West Company, Astor's expedition, the Russian-American Company, Hudson's Bay Company, and Nathaniel Wyeth's Columbia River Fur and Trading Company.
In 1834 the first American missionaries arrived in the Northwest, and they immediately made demands on the Islanders for labor supply. Both the Methodists and the ABCFM missionaries hired Kanakas for building, kitchen chores, farm labor, blacksmithing, and as herders. When the Oregon country began to attract annual emigrations from the East, the Kanakas found their skills also in demand by these new settlers. They were hired to work in the sawmills or as farm and house servants.
Their seamanship opened doors all over the world for them, and involved the Islanders in various foreign intrigues. In Japan they were among deserters imprisoned and mistreated by the Oriental isolationists. During the American Civil War many were taken prisoner by Confederate ships. They also played a role in the movement to improve the lot of sailors by appearing before the British admiralty courts seeking redress for poor treatment aboard British ships.
Those Kanakas who remained on the American mainland wanted to become citizens of the United States with their white neighbors. Their petition to the territorial government of Oregon, however, was refused. Restrictions were placed upon their continued immigration into the Northwest area, they were ignored by the 1849 Oregon census, the U.S. Consul in California received instructions from the Secretary of State barring the Kanakas from assistance or protection in California ports, and a long verbal battle ensued in the U.S. Congress over excluding them from the Donation Land Act.
But the Kanakas were still recognized as excellent seamen and this occupation took them north to Kamchatka and south to California, Mexico, and around the tip of South America to ports of the eastern U.S. Those who left the sea worked in California gold fields, preached to Digger Indians, became part of the Mormon movement in Utah, or continued to serve the Hudson's Bay Company, Puget's Sound Agricultural Company, and the Russian-American Company.
Throughout their historical journey in western America, they remained loyal, inconspicuous, and hardworking. But they also had dark skins and were foreign in origin. Once they threatened white superiority and white acquisition of land titles they became the targets of discrimination. They were not slaves so they could not be emancipated, but the white, Protestant ruling hierarchy could not allow them to become citizens and thereby free to settle land and demand the protection of American laws. They therefore found themselves classed with the Negro, Chinese, and Indians as undesirable elements in America's 'Manifest Destiny.'
By 1900 most Kanakas had chosen to return to their homeland rather than recede into the shadows of American life, but their contributions to western American deserve recognition.
Duncan, Janice K., "Minority without a champion: the Kanaka contribution to the western United States, 1750-1900" (1972). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 964.