Most folks don’t realize Oregon was originally settled by Hawaiians. For decades following Lewis and Clark’s trip down the Columbia River, Hawaiians made up most of the non-Native workforce in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. They built the first forts and villages along the Columbia River, and journeyed thousands of miles inland as part of exploratory surveys. They left their mark in unlikely places, like the high arid rangelands of Eastern Oregon. The Owyhee River is named after three Hawaiians who disappeared there in the winter of 1819-1820. (“Owyhee” was a common spelling of “Hawai’i” back then.)
European, American, and Asian trading ships regularly sailed into port on the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s. Many Hawaiians took the opportunity to explore the far reaches of the Pacific by signing on with companies competing for the North American fur trade. These islanders possessed all the maritime skills needed for survival in the Pacific: navigation, boat building, fishing, and swimming. Swimming might seem like an essential skill for any sailor, but in the early 1800s most Europeans and Americans didn’t know how to swim. As a precaution, at least one Hawaiian was assigned to every boat, ready to rescue any person or cargo that went overboard.
If a Hawaiian wanted to go to sea, they requested permission from their ruling monarch. The Aliʻi generally set limits on the length of employment and specified the compensation. And he expected his subjects to return to the islands. Many survivors did return with fabulous stories they retold for the rest of their lives. Others came back to visit but were anchored to the mainland by marriages with native people or, occasionally, European and American settlers. Many Indian families in Oregon Territory still have Hawaiian names.
This congenial mixing of Pacific Rim people encountered resistance when American settlers arriving overland from the East began to outnumber the people who were already here. Among this influx of Easterners was Samuel Thurston. He was described by one biographer as “young, brilliant, handsome, splendidly educated, with an indomitable will, and almost insanely ambitious.” One of Thurston’s self-appointed goals was to exclude African Americans and Hawaiians from Oregon Territory. As the territory’s Congressional delegate in 1850, he won passage of a land grant act that legally closed the door on anyone who wasn’t white or a half-white/Native American mix. Thurston described Hawaiians as “a race of men as black as your negroes of the South, and a race, too, that we do not desire to settle in Oregon.” After Thurston and his ilk had their way, Hawaiians could not own land, become citizens, vote, purchase liquor or testify against “whites” in court. The territory at that time included the future states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Some of Oregon’s racists laws remained on the books for more than a hundred years.
Many Hawaiian families in the Oregon Territory moved to Canada where they were welcomed as full-fledged citizens; some hid out with their native families on Indian reservations protected by the tribes’ sovereign status. But some stayed right where they were, as revealed by newspapers published on the islands. An article from Ka Lau Oliva, December, 1874, told of a Hawaiian woman who gathered Hawaiian language newspapers and books and sent them through a friend to Hawaiians living in Oregon. To express their gratitude, the Oregonians sent her a barrel of kāmano (salmon), “along with our warm aloha.”
And what would people on the islands do with a barrel of salted salmon? Make the popular luau dish, lomi-lomi salmon, of course! You see, everything just naturally flows together and no one can kill Oregon’s aloha spirit.
Photo: Sisters Luau, Sisters, Oregon, 2015, Jerry Baldock photographer.