Big Island history goes back to when the first of the Hawaiian Islands broke through the surface of the ocean about 70 million years ago from a hot spot in the Earth’s crust. There are several tectonic plates that slowly drift and change the surface of the earth, and as the Hawaiian islands are sitting on the crux of the drifting Pacific plate, they are actively volcanic, and the first of the islands have long since returned to their beginnings below the sea while new, active volcanic islands have replaced them. Today, we see the eight youngest of the islands. A new one is forming and making its way to the surface to become an island, helping to create another chapter in the history of the Big Island and of Hawaii. This new seamount is called Loihi, but it will be thousands of years before it emerges.
Some of the most interesting facts about the Big Island are related to its human history. Between 400 and 800 AD, it is believed that the first islanders arrived on the Big Island in dugout canoes from the nearby Marquesas Islands. Hundreds of years later, adding to the cultural history of the Big Island, natives from Tahiti arrived, calling the group of islands Havaii, meaning ancient homeland. The Polynesians also introduced some of the animal and plant life on the island that visitors enjoy today, including breadfruit, bananas, sugarcane, coconuts, and canoe plants.
Captain James Cook, a British explorer, plays an important part in Big Island history, as he stumbled across the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 while searching for the legendary Northwest Passage that would lead across North America. He called them the Sandwich Islands after his benefactor, the Earl of Sandwich. One year later, he returned to the islands and was greeted as the god Lono during the special makahiki (New Year) celebration. After leaving the islands, he returned to repair storm damages to one of his ships. This time, he was greeted with hostility and died in the skirmish that took place. A monument stands in Cook’s honor, marking the place of his death.
Another piece of important history of the Big Island is its discovery by the rest of the world. A ten-year war took place within the islands in which a young warrior of the Big Island of Hawaii, named Kamehameha, conquered the islands of Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Oahu. Fourteen years later, he took control of the island of Kauai as well. His son, Liholiho, took the reigns of the kingdom after Kamehameha’s death in 1819, doing away with the feudal system. This act provided an opportunity for missionaries, traders, and other foreigners to flood the gates of Hawaii. By the early 1840s, Great Britain, France, and the United States all had their eyes on the islands.
Sugarcane became a commercial industry, and laborers immigrated from several of the surrounding countries, creating what is now the Hawaiian melting pot. Among the lesser-known facts about the Big Island is the origin of a popular musical instrument. As immigrants were pouring in, Mexican cowboys followed and introduced a small guitar we now know as the popular Hawaiian ukulele.
In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was done away with, and in 1898, Hawaii became a territory of the United States. Of all the facts about the Big Island and the United States, one of the most important is Hawaii’s transition to statehood. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the major role it played in World War II, Hawaii was admitted into the United States as the fiftieth state in 1959. While Hawaii remains a tropical paradise vacation spot, Big Island history continues to fascinate and inspire visitors.