In June 1872, Secretary of War William Belknap gave US Army Major-General John McAllister Schofield confidential instructions to investigate the strategic potential of having a presence in the Hawaiian Islands, and to examine its ports.
They “ascertained the defensive capabilities of their different ports, examined into their commercial facilities, and collected all the information in our power on other subjects in reference to which we ought to be informed in the event of a war with a powerful maritime nation”.
Schofield and Brevet Brig. Gen. BS Alexander left San Francisco on December 30, 1872 aboard the USS California and arrived in Honolulu on January 15, 1873. After having an audience with new King Lunalilo, the men examined the islands.
In Schofield and Alexander’s May 8, 1873 report, they found that, “There are many other so-called harbors, or places for anchorage, but they are mostly open roadsteads affording shelter only from certain winds, and they are all entirely incapable of being defended by shore batteries.”
“Even the harbor of Honolulu itself can not be defended from the shore. It is a small harbor lying seaward from the land and only protected from the sea by outlying coral reefs. “
“An enemy could take up his position outside of the entrance to the harbor and command the entire anchorage, as well as the town of Honolulu itself. This harbor would therefore be of no use to us as a harbor of refuge in a war with a powerful maritime nation.”
“With one exception there is no harbor on the islands that can be made to satisfy all the conditions necessary for a harbor of refuge in time of war.”
“This is the harbor of ‘Ewa,’ or ‘Pearl River,’ situated on the island of Oahu, about 7 miles west of Honolulu.” They went on to recommend that the US obtain a cession of Pearl Harbor, together with its shore for four miles back.
“From our examinations we are of the opinion that this island and the adjacent shore to the north and west of it afford the most advantageous location for a naval depot of supplies and equipment in all these waters. But there is not sufficient water at present for heavy vessels to enter this Pearl River harbor.”
“At the entrance to the harbor is a coral reef some 250 to 300 yards in width, with a depth of water of only 2 to 3 fathoms on the reef at low water.”
“This reef appears to extend around the island, being broken only at the entrance to Honolulu Harbor, and in fact we are informed that a platform of coral reefs fringe most of the shores of all the islands of the Hawaiian group, broken only in few places. “
“This coral found at the entrance to Pearl River is ‘dead;’ that is, it is not growing, and the reef is therefore not increasing in size. This ridge of coral forms a barrier or bar across the entrance to this harbor about 300 yards wide, measuring perpendicularly to the shore.”
“It is comparatively level on the top, from 2 to 3 fathoms of water over it at low tide. Its sides are vertical, or nearly so, the depth of water increasing in a few feet to 4 or 5 fathoms.”
“The outer, or sea side, then is found to be steeper than the inner, or shore side. At the distance of half a mile outside of the reef there is a depth of 15 fathoms, while at the same distance inside the reef the depth is only 8 fathoms.”
“If this coral barrier were removed Pearl River Harbor would seem to have all or nearly all the necessary properties to enable it to be converted into a good harbor of refuge.”
“It could be completely defended by inexpensive batteries on either or both shores, firing across a narrow channel of entrance. Its waters are deep enough for the largest vessels of war, and its ‘locks,’ particularly around Rabbit Island, are spacious enough for a large number of vessels to ride at anchor in perfect security against all storms.”
“Its shores are suitable for building proper establishments for sheltering the necessary supplies for a naval establishment, such as magazines of ammunition, provisions, coral, spars, rigging, etc., while the island of Oahu, upon which it is situated, could furnish fresh provisions, meats, fruits, and vegetables in large quantities.”
The report noted that while eager to open a free market for their sugar, the Hawaiian government and native Hawaiians were not interested in the US annexing the islands at that time.
They stated, “The cession of Pearl River could probably be obtained by the United States in consideration of the repeal of the duty on Sandwich Island sugar.”
“Indeed, the sugar-planters are so anxious for a reciprocity treaty, or so anxious rather for free trade in sugar with the United States, that many of them openly proclaim themselves in favor of annexation of these islands to the United States.”
“The members of the present Government of the Hawaiian Islands seem fully alive to the necessity of relieving their principal industry from the heavy burden under which it now suffers, and no other mode of relief seems possible but annexation or reciprocity.” (Schofield and Alexander, 1873)
In February 1873 the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce, representing the interests of the plantation owners among the Islands, petitioned King Lunalilo to negotiate a reciprocal treaty with the US mainland.
The suggestion was to offer to cede the Pearl River “lagoon” to the US as an inducement for reduced tariffs for Hawai‘i’s agricultural products. In July the American Minister notified Washington D.C. that the King had offered to negotiate a treaty on this basis.
However, four months later a notice appeared in the Hawaiian Gazette to the effect that the King was satisfied that “a treaty carrying with it the cessation of Pearl Harbor would not receive the legislative approval required by the Constitution of the Kingdom,” and hence the offer was withdrawn.
Apparently there was contention over the issue of “cessation” versus “lease” regarding access to Pearl Harbor. King Lunalilo died in February of the following year without an heir. At this point, politicians in Hawai‘i courted popularity with the masses by opposing any possible cession of territory to foreign powers. (Van Tilburg)
In 1875 the US signed a treaty with the Hawaiian government allowing the US free access to sugar and other Hawaiian products in return for land that eventually became the Pearl Harbor naval base.
The US later obtained exclusive use of the inlet and the right to maintain a repair and coaling station for ships. After the US annexed Hawaii in 1898, the US established a naval station at Pearl Harbor and began to build a naval ship yard.
John McAllister Schofield was a lieutenant general during the US Civil War who led his troops during such battles as Franklin and Nashville. After the war, Schofield served as Secretary of War under President Andrew Johnson and later served as Commanding General of the United States Army from 1888 to 1895.
After serving as Secretary of War, Schofield was promoted to major general in the Army, and then commander of the Military Division of the Pacific.
In 1908, Schofield Barracks was established next to the town of Wahiawā to provide defense of Pearl Harbor and the island of Oahu. Named in honor of John McAllister Schofield, it covers over 17,000 acres and is the largest Army post in Hawaii. Since 1941 it has been home to the 25th Infantry Division, known as the Tropic Lightning. (National Archives)