The Role of Hawaiians in the California Gold Rush

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Two years before the mast is a memoir by Richard Henry Dana that gives intricate details of the journey he took from Boston to California in 1830. This book is among the most famous books that accurately describe life at sea. Additionally,  the book outlines the early life of California and the Hawaiians making it a central interest for most historians.

The presence of the Hawaiians in the United States started back in 1800 especially on the Pacific Coast of North America (Okihiro, 2014). Most of the Hawaiians who had signed up for the Yankees vessels abandoned the ships to join a workforce for the Canadian Northwest Fur Company. Okihiro (2014) posits that their existence in the Northwest Fur trade was as a result of their participation in the hide and tallow trade in California. In the book Two Years Before The Mast, Dana shows that the Hawaiians were part and parcel of the Americans around the Pacific. According to Dana’s narration, it was not absurd to experience Hawaii and the Hawaiian culture in California. In the course of his voyage, Dana states that he met the Hawaiians at the hide shipping port in San Diego during the spring season in 1835 (Dana, 2009).  This statement confirms that they were really in the hide and tallow trade and the reason why they decided to settle on the coast of California. Dana asserts that most of the Hawaiians would ship to California through various vessels. Sometimes the vessels they used were of the smugglers which would land them in trouble with the Spanish authorities. However, the Hawaiian men who landed in California were not signed by any men.  This led them to become hands men and in most cases, they just negotiated their jobs on a daily basis.

In addition, Dana’s journals also point out that the other reasons Hawaiians settled in California were due to the missionaries and trade opportunities.  He states that the Pacific islanders felt that the discovery of the Pacific islands by the Europeans was a curse to them, trade between them had led to the growth of diseases and vices in the community.  They were also doomed as everywhere they went people called them Christians (Dana, 2009). According to Kester (2013), the Hawaiian government allowed changes in the island which was from the missionaries. In 1850, most of the Hawaiians had already converted to Mormonism under the guidance of the Mormon missionaries. Conversely, during the period that most of the Native Hawaiians converted to Christianity, the island was facing a protestant prosecution, Political and economic changes. These factors drove them to Christianity and the fact that they were experiencing radical change within their faith as well. The missionaries who were present in the Pacific island also promised a gathering in Zion for many converts to help them understand their experiences and comprehension in the new faith. The missionaries also promised the new converts a gathering in Utah to meet other saints who had converted to the new faith. This made of meeting other saints as an ultimate act of faith in the new religion led to an exodus of many Christian from the Pacific island. In 1851 many Hawaiians moved to the United States to take part in the gathering. These are some of the factors that led to the mass exodus of Hawaiians from the Pacific island to the shores of California.

Kester (2013) emphasize that most of the Hawaiians had settled in the North American from San Diego up to the coasts of Vancouver by 1840. A report released by the minister of interior to the king in 1846, confirmed that approximately 650 Native Hawaiians had left the island in that year. Close to three thousand Hawaiians that are males between the age of 14 to their were already working abroad on ships. The narration of Richard dana on the California coast confirms that many Hawaiian natives lived in colonies at the kanaka and worked on the ships between the year 1835 and 1836. 

The discovery of gold in California that was announced globally leading to a massive migration of people from the Pacific and other parts of the world. The discovery also led to massive opportune travel channels to California that assisted in the massive growth of individuals in the gold haven. Similar to the whaling industry gold discovery seemed to attract a huge number of Hawaiians at the foothills of east California (Kester, 2013). The massive migration was recorded and the Hawaiian newspapers in October 1848 reported that close to three hundred Hawaiians had left the island for California. The Hawaiians seized the opportunity and become the major supplier of coffee, potatoes, and sugar at the mine in California. This trade of good between Hawaii and California encouraged the development of a multi-directional migration. During the winters most of the miners from California chose to spend the season in Hawaii while the Islanders chose to go to California (Okihiro, 2014).

The Manifest Destiny was also a principal contributor to the relationship that existed between the Hawaiians and the city of California (Rosenthal, 2018). The manifest destiny force probed the start of negotiations of American annexation of the island. Moreover, both Hawaii and the United States feared that France would take over the island. King Kamehameha contemplated to hand over the island to the Americans if France would have resorted to hostile measures. People in California were in favour of the annexation plans since they believed that Hawaii was an advantage when it came to trade and the defence it had against other powers in the Pacific ocean. However, when King Kamehameha died the negotiation came to an end since the succeeding king did not delve much into the annexation details. The commercial expansion that allowed for the acquirement of the Pacific coast in 1800, also surged to the Hawaiian territory. Thus it was evident that Hawaii was part of Oregon and California that not limiting the migration between the two entities.

 The civil war that took place in the united states led to the strengthening of the bond between the united states and Hawaii. In 1861, Louisiana was no longer part of the union thus Hawaii took over to become the major sugar export to the mainland via the San Fransico Bay and refiners.  The sugar business led to the strong bond between California and Hawaii and most of the businessmen in the United States were quite eager to hear news of new developments on the island (Rosenthal, 2018).

Many ships that docked in the Pacific coast, put up small paid duties for people in the area to sell their merchants ashore. Since they did not have permanent ground stores the ships worked the coast as floating department stores for the goods.  In a bid to set up booming trade the small boats had frequent visits between California and Hawaii to get more stocks for sale.  As the boats went for more stock they came back to California with Hawaiians who worked as sailors and merchants ashore (Rice, Bullough, Orsi, & Irwin, 2017) Dana states that the ships with floating department stores contained an array of goods which included coffee, tea, Jewellery, furniture, clothes, tinware, cutlery, and hardware.

Evidently, the Hawaiians seem to be people who love close association and interaction with others. Richard narration centres in the La Playa which was one of the Hawaiian colonies in California. Richard  (2017) elucidates that the La Playa was a community situated on the beach in the San Diego Bay. Many ships during that time had the habit of anchoring at La Playa. According to Dana, La Playa was full of harmony and happiness a place he felt at home. The Hawaiians lived a free life at the La Playa as documented in Richard’s journal of the sea life. Richard shared the beach with a dozen Mexicans, a dozen Hawaiians, a different number of English men and close to twenty Italians.

Conversely, Dana notes that the Hawaiians had a unique life from the rest of the residents at the beach.  First, they never signed any contracts regarding jobs at the beach thus were quite free from any command of ship captains. Second, they were also at liberty of negotiating their own jobs from day to day since they were not bound by any contract. Lastly, the Hawaiians were free to come and leave as they want, work with anyone they wanted and worked any time they saw fit to work. This culture ensured that the work the Hawaiians performed resulted in high productivity and they were quite content with whatever they did (Richard, 2017). Richard Dana attributes this practice to the scarcity of labour that existed in the Pacific at that time. Hawaiians had an upper hand and a significant bargaining power since they poseesd excellent seafaring skills (Kester, 2013). The other tactic the Hawaiians possessed was a collective system that ensured they got the terms of the bet for employment while some chose to remain unemployed (Rice, Bullough, Orsi, & Irwin, 2017).

 The free nature of their lifestyle at the La Playa, allowed the Hawaiians to form colonies since they were not obligated to be on any ship. The Hawaiians made their colonies at the Russian oven named the Oahu Coffe house or the Kanaka Hotel (Richard, 2017). Russian ship crew that docked on the beach decided to build a large oven on the ground. The main aim of the oven was to bake bread in large quantities in the preparation for long sea cruises. The Russians left and left a huge oven that was empty and the Hawaiians took advantage and settled in the Kanaka (Rosenthal, 2018). The setting up of colonies on the beaches indicate that the Hawaiian people are a collective community who do not love isolation.

Dana’s narration of his interaction with the Hawaiian people indicated that they were oppressed and subjected to racism.for example, during the last days of Richard in the La Playa beach hope got sick and Dana dedicated his time to care for him. he states that in any occasion other ship captains advised him against giving him medicine. Only one captain decide to help Dana by giving him the drugs the Hope needed to recover (Dana, 2009).  The gold rush that occurred in California brought with it new opportunities for the settlers, but also attracted racism with it. Royce states that when his family visited California they expected the normal religious aura that California offered. However, that far formed their expectation, for when they arrived there was a violent reaction anytime there was contact between them and the foreigners. Kester (2013) also confirms that most Hawaiians working at the mines faced a lot of racism and xenophobia directed towards them by the residents of California. 

Richard Dana also shares an experience about the culture of the Hawaiians during his voyage. The Hawaiians had excellent boating skills that made them quite relevant at the beach. They were also communal and loved to sing songs during their work. For example, Dana states that the Hawaiians in most occasions sung when working side to side and they would break into shouts and laughter (Dana, 2009).  Dana was an avid admirer of the skills that the Hawaiian people possessed. He states that he will never forget the beaching crew lesson that the Hawaiians showcased in one of the nights at Santa Barbara during a heavy autumn surf(Dana, 2009). 

In conclusion, there are many reasons that led to the present and settlement of Hawaiians in California. These include the Mormon missionaries who believed that the new converts need to congregate at Utah as the ultimate act of devotion to their new faith. The trade between the Pacific Islanders and the businessmen in the united states also led to their migration. The floating department stores increased the chances of work employment for many individuals. the Hawaiians were exceptionally skilled in sea matters thus increased their chance of landing jobs in the shoers of California. The sugar trade that started from the exit of Louisiana ensured that Hawai was a major export of sugar in the united states also strengthen the relationship between California and Hawaii. Richard Dana in his journal provides precise details of his encounters with the Hawaiians. Apart from being bold individuals, they were also friendly. Richard through his stay at the La Playa formed a great friendship with three Hawaiians who taught him about the friendly nature of the Hawaiian people. in his observation, he demonstrates how the Hawaiians were accustomed to a collective and communal way of life. They lived in colonies at the bays in Calfornia, they negotiated their work term in a group that is why they managed to secure jobs in a foreign land. They were also collectively responsible for these that dod not works and had a spokesperson who communicated about all heir problems and wants in the foreign land. The book Two years before the mast is a significant book in history as it contains first-hand information about the sandwich islanders, from a prehistoric time to the time their interaction with the world and other people from civilised countries. Dana'ss book is an important work of art in history and acts as a confirmation to through the first-hand information provided about the history of the Hawaiians in California.


Dana Jr, R. H. (2009). Two years before the mast: A personal narrative of life at sea. Modern library.

Kester, M. (2013). Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West. Oxford University Press.

Okihiro, G. Y. (2014). Margins and mainstreams: Asians in American history and culture. University of Washington Press.

Rice, R. B., Bullough, W. A., Orsi, R. J., & Irwin, M. A. (2017). The elusive Eden: A new history of California. Waveland Press.

Richard A Wells. (2017). California Dreaming: Society and Culture in the Golden State. United States: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Rosenthal, G. (2018). Beyond Hawai'i: Native Labor in the Pacific World. Univ of California Press.

December 12, 2023


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