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“The name applied to these mountains and the whole surrounding region is an outdated spelling of the word ‘Hawaii,’” the sign reads.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.” (Idaho Statesman)
It started with explorer James Cook — In 1768, when Captain Cook set sail on the first of three voyages to the South Seas, he carried with him secret orders from the British Admiralty to seek ‘a Continent or Land of great extent’ and to take possession of that country ‘in the Name of the King of Great Britain’.
While each of his three journeys had its own aim and yielded its own discoveries, it was this confidential agenda that would transform the way Europeans viewed the Pacific Ocean and its lands.
Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) of discovery was an attempt to locate a North-West Passage, an ice-free sea route which linked the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Cook commanded the Resolution while Charles Clerke commanded Discovery. (State Library, New South Wales)
After leaving Christmas Island, they headed north, then, “having fine weather, and a gentle breeze at east, and east-south-east, till we got into the latitude of 7° 45′ N. and the longitude of 205″ E., where we had one calm day.”
“This was succeeded by a north-east by east, and east-north-east wind. At first it blew faint, but freshened as we advanced to the north.”
“We continued to see birds every day, of the sorts last mentioned; sometimes in greater numbers than others; and between the latitude of 10° and 11° we saw several turtle. All these are looked upon as signs of the vicinity of land.”
“However, we discovered none till day-break, in the morning of the 18th [January 1778], when an island made its appearance, bearing northeast by east; and, soon after, we saw more land bearing north, and entirely detached from the former.” His two ships were kept at bay by the weather until the next day when they approached Kauai’s southeast coast.
On the afternoon of January 19, native Hawaiians in canoes paddled out to meet Cook’s ships, and so began Hawai’i’s contact with Westerners. The first Hawaiians to greet Cook were from the Kōloa south shore.
The Hawaiians traded fish and sweet potatoes for pieces of iron and brass that were lowered down from Cook’s ships to the Hawaiians’ canoes.
The Islands “were named by Captain Cook the Sandwich Islands, in honour of the Earl of Sandwich, under whose administration he had enriched geography with so many splendid and important discoveries.” (Captain King’s Journal; Kerr)
Hawaiian lives changed with sudden and lasting impact, when western contact changed the course of history for Hawai’i.
At the time of Cook’s arrival (1778-1779), the Hawaiian Islands were divided into four kingdoms: (1) the island of Hawaiʻi under the rule of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who also had possession of the Hāna district of east Maui; (2) Maui (except the Hāna district,) Molokai, Lanai and Kahoʻolawe, ruled by Kahekili; (3) Oʻahu, under the rule of Kahahana; and at (4) Kauai and Niʻihau, Kamakahelei was ruler.
Throughout their stay, the ships were supplied with fresh provisions which were paid for mainly with iron, much of it in the form of long iron daggers made by the ships’ blacksmiths on the pattern of the wooden pāhoa used by the Hawaiians. After a month’s stay, Cook got under sail again to resume his exploration of the Northern Pacific.
In March 1778, Cook’s Journal noted, “At four in the afternoon we saw the land, which, at six, extended from north-east half east, to south-east by south, about eight leagues distant. In this situation we tacked and sounded ; but a line of a hundred and sixty fathoms did not reach the ground. I stood off till midnight, then stood in again ; and at half past six, we were within three leagues of the land …”
Moving along what we now call the Oregon coast, “Each extreme of the land that was now before us, seemed to shoot out into a point. The northern one was the same which we had first seen on the 7th ; and on that account I called it Cape Perpetua, It lies in the latitude of 44° 6′ N., and in the longitude of 235° 52′ E.”
“The southern extreme before us, I named Cape Gregory, Its latitude is 43° 80′, and its longitude 235° 57’ E. It is a remarkable point ; the land of it rising almost directly from the sea to a tolerable height, while that on each side of it is low.”
“I continued standing off till one in the afternoon. Then I tacked, and stood in, hoping to have the wind off from the land in the night. But in this I was mistaken ; for at five o’clock it began to veer to the west and south west; which obliged me, once more, to stand out to sea. …”
“I continued to stand to the north with a fine breeze at west, and west north-west, till near seven o’clock in the evening, when I tacked to wait for day-light.”
“At this time we were in forty-eight fathoms’ water, and about four leagues from the land, which extended from north to south east half east, and a small round hill, which had the appearance of being an island, bore north three quarters east, distant six or seven leagues, as I guessed ; it appears to be of a tolerable height, and was but just to be seen from the deck.”
“Between this island or rock, and the northern extreme of the land, there appeared to be a small opening, which flattered us with the hopes of finding an harbour. These hopes lessened as we drew nearer ; and, at last, we had some reason to think, that the opening was closed by low land. On this account I called the point of land to the north of it Cape Flattery.”
“It lies in the latitude of 48° 15′ north, and in the longitude of 235° 3′ east. There is a round hill of a moderate height over it ; and all the land upon this part of the coast is of a moderate and pretty equal height, well covered with wood, and hau a very pleasant and fertile appearance.”
“It is in this very latitude where we now were, that geographers have placed the pretended strait of Juan de Fuca. We saw nothing like it ; nor is there the least probability that ever any such thing existed. …” (Cook’s Journal, March 1778)
Cook had created a pathway, and expeditions that followed his maps stopped on the islands, often picking up Hawaiians as crew, before heading north.
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. (Idaho Statesman)
Three of the Hawaiians (“Owyhees”) joined Donald MacKenzie’s Snake expedition, which went out annually into the Snake country for the North West Company – a Montreal organization of Canadian fur traders.
Unluckily, those three Owyhees left the main party during the winter of 1819-1820; they set out to explore the then unknown terrain of what since has been called the Owyhee River and mountains, and have not been heard from since. Because of their disappearance, the British fur trappers started to call the region “Owyhee,” and the name stuck. (Idaho State Historical Society)
Just at the time the Owyhees disappeared into the Owyhee country, American missionaries came to the Sandwich Islands and worked out an alphabet for the native language in order to print the Bible and other missionary literature. In the alphabet they adopted, the word “Owyhee” turned out to be “Hawaii.”
But in Idaho, the older form survived.
Many of the fur traders’ Idaho place names were lost in later years, but some – including “Owyhee” for a mountain range and river – were retained. That may result in part from the fact that Owyhees remained active in the Idaho fur trade right down to the last years of its decline.
As late as 1850, Fort Boise (located on the Snake River just below the mouth of the Owyhee) was staffed by James Craggie and fourteen Owyhees. When the Owyhee mines were discovered in 1863, the name still was in use, and the mines brought permanent settlement which preserved the name ever since that time. (Idaho State Historical Society)