It’s time to set the record straight. I join the long list of folks who have misunderstood and unknowingly have repeated the wrong information about a fort at Waimea, Kauai.
When I was DLNR Chair, and to today, the State Park is called “Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park”. The State has it wrong.
The National Park Service notes, “Russian Fort, located in Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park, in Waimea on the Island of Kauai, was built by the Russian American Company (RAC) in 1817.”
“The purpose of the fort was to establish a foothold for Russia in Hawaii by creating a fueling station in the Pacific Ocean and establishing a stable trading location for the shipping company.”
“The fort is a reminder of the short Russian venture into Hawaii between 1815 and 1817.” The feds have it wrong.
Yes, there was a Russian Fort on Kauai, but it was Fort Alexander at what is now known as Princeville on Kauai’s north shore.
Thanks to Peter Mills (Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo who has studied the fort extensively) we learn the true story of the “Russian Fort”.
Mills notes that what we call “Russian Fort” was actually built by Hawaiians for Hawaiians … not the Russians; “it was just a part of Kaumualiʻi’s own residential compound.”
“The construction was largely under Kaumualiʻi’s direction, and the labor force involved in constructing it was overwhelmingly Native Hawaiian (there is no record that Russians lifted a single stone to build it), with some designs supplied by Schaffer.”
“The Hawaiian name for the fort (pāpū) was Pāʻulaʻula and can be seen in Native Testimony provided by one of the Hawaiian commandants who was stationed there (Paele 6589 NT).”
“It was not completed while the Russians were there, and there is no evidence that Russians ever garrisoned it, while Hawaiians kept a garrison there for over 40 years.”
“If Hawaiians built it, and Hawaiians garrisoned it, then why on earth do people continue to say it is a ‘Russian Fort’ built by Russians? It was a Hawaiian Fort.” (Peter Mills)
The fort, originally with walls 20 feet high and built in an irregular octagon shape (in the shape of a star,) was fortified with several cannons.
“When Russian Fort Elisabeth became a state park in 1970, it was in a state of disrepair. The state outfit the site with some minimal signage, but the historical interpretation reflected on those signs was based on false history perpetuated by a troublesome 1885 map.” (Brittany Lyte)
“Drawn up by a Hawaiian government surveyor, the fort on the map includes dubious features, such as redwood buildings, glass-paned windows and a trading house. These labels amount to little more than fanciful guesswork, according to Mills.” (Brittany Lyte)
“The surveyor drew the fort as he imagined it looked at the time the Russians were there, which, of course, is an event that never happened,” said Mills, whose book “Hawaii’s Russian Adventure: A New Look at Old History” is an editor’s note to history misinterpreted. (Lyte)
The story about Russians on Kauai begins when the Russian ship ‘Bering’ became stranded on the shores of Kauai’s Waimea Bay on January 31, 1815. The ship’s cargo and the sailors’ possessions were confiscated by Kauai’s ruler, Kaumuali‘i.
The Russian-American Company (the owner of the ship and its cargo) sent Bavarian Georg Anton Schäffer to the Hawaiian Islands to retrieve the cargo or seek appropriate payment.
Later that year, Schäffer arrived in Honolulu. There, Kamehameha granted him permission to build a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor.
But, instead, Schäffer began building a fort and raised the Russian flag – that was in Honolulu. When Kamehameha discovered this, he sent several of his men to remove the Russians from O‘ahu, by force, if necessary. The Russians judiciously chose to sail for Kauai, instead of risking bloodshed.
Once on Kauai, Schäffer gained the confidence of King Kaumuali‘i, when he promised the king that the Russian Tsar would help him to break free of Kamehameha’s rule.
Although Kaumuali‘i had ceded Kauai to Kamehameha in 1810, he generally maintained de facto independence and control of the island, following his agreement with Kamehameha.
It is believed that Kaumuali‘i considered it possible for him to claim rule over Kauai, Ni‘ihau, O`ahu, Maui, Molokai and Lāna‘i, if he had Russian support. The Russians meanwhile were searching compensation for lost trade goods, as well as expanded trading opportunities.
Kaumuali‘i and Schäffer had several agreements to bring Kauai under the protection of Russia, as well as weapons and ammunition from Schäffer, in exchange for trade in sandalwood.
On May 21, 1816, and without the knowledge or approval of Czar Alexander Pavlovich, Kaumuali‘i signed a document that put Kauai under the protection of the Russian Empire.
In return, Schäffer promised Kaumuali‘i protection and an armed Russian warship to lead an attack on Kamehameha’s forces. (Baranoff later informed Schäffer that he was not authorized to make such agreements.)
On July 1, 1816, Schäffer and Kaumuali‘i entered into a secret agreement to use Schäffer’s purported Russian authority to reclaim Kauai from King Kamehameha I, and also to launch expeditions against other islands that Kaumuali‘i felt he had a hereditary right to rule.
Kaumuali‘i had thoughts of conquering Maui, Lānaʻi, Molokai and O‘ahu, which he felt to be his right based on lineage.
Subsequently, Kaumuali‘i gave Schäffer Hanalei valley and two or three other valuable pieces of land. Schaffer went to Hanalei on September 30 and renamed the valley Schäffertal (Schäffer’s Valley.)
In 1817, however, it was discovered that Schäffer did not have the support of the Russian Tsar. He was forced to leave Hawaii, and Captain Alexander Adams, a Scotsman who served in the navy of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, raised the Kingdom of Hawai‘i flag over the fort in October 1817.