How Indigenous Hawaiians Helped Build the Pacific Northwest Economy

Hawaiian Labor Migrations

In the nineteenth century, Kānaka Maoli, or Indigenous Hawaiians, were intricately entangled within the lumber and salmon industries at key sites across the Pacific Northwest. They would prove integral to the environmental histories of the region as participants in trans-Pacific networks of commerce and a broader Pacific world of labor that included a maritime fur trade and later a land-based fur trade. Hawaiians in the Columbia District—and, later, in the British Columbia colony—worked in concert with British commercial colonialism in the Pacific Northwest through their involvement in the region’s early extractive and productive industries: timber, fishing and small-scale agriculture.

The trade that would develop between the Pacific Northwest and the Hawaiian islands from 1829 to 1859 saw native Hawaiians employed on forts and throughout the Pacific Northwest for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). In effect, a circular trade that brought lumber cut and salmon caught and cured in the Pacific Northwest to Hawaii also saw the islands provide products for consumers on the coast. The HBC employed indigenous Hawaiian laborers as part of its growing presence throughout the Pacific Northwest in the nineteenth century. The existing historical literature on Hawaiian overseas migration often details stories of male servants and migrants, many of whom would ultimately become a part of late-nineteenth-century settler society in early colonies like British Columbia. Still, there was no “straightforward shift” to settler colonialism; if anything, the story of Hawaiians within this longer narrative sat for a long time along the colony’s “ragged” margins.

Hawaiian Entanglements in the Pacific Northwest

Tianna or Ka’iana, A Male Kaua’i Chief who was among the first known Hawaiians to Travel to the Northwest Coast. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

During the decades when the HBC was active in Oregon County and British Columbia, the Company was key to the opening of the region. In addition to their service early on for the Pacific Fur Company, Hawaiians were important to the success of the HBC as part of the company’s engagé (or hired servants) workforce. In the Columbia District, Hawaiians who voyaged on ships like the Tonquin to present-day Oregon soon took up tasks like gardening at fur trade posts, minding animals brought on board, as well as fishing, foraging and hunting for provisions. Historians Jean Barman and Bruce Watson have meticulously compiled a list of over 800 Hawaiians, primarily men, who “left paradise” to pursue laboring jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Some of these men ultimately returned to the islands, while others stayed on in North America as settlers, intermarrying with indigenous wives and forming families.

In 1821, the HBC inherited large numbers of Hawaiian workers from another trade company, Northwest Company, so Hawaiians begin appearing in HBC company records from 1825 on. For Governor George Simpson, Hawaiians were deemed more industrious than Amerindians, and they were often set to the task of manning fur trade posts from external dangers as guards. In the 1820s, Fort Vancouver expanded to include a flour mill, sawmill, and large farm, providing new occupations for Hawaiians stationed there. In fact it was “post farming” that, for Simpson, held promise to provide for its residents. Company Factor John McLoughlin would implement the expansion of post-based agriculture in 1827 from Fort Vancouver, which “opened the largest farm” with grain and peas enough to “serve all our demands for 2 years.” Fort Vancouver emerged as “the hub of HBC operations on the Columbia, impressing visitors with its grandness, bustle, neatness, productivity…” and in 1845 its wheat surplus was exported to both the Russian settlement at Sitka and to the Sandwich Islands/Hawai’i.

A History of Hawaiians Abroad

The mobility of Indigenous Hawaiians to the Pacific Northwest coast was also set within a broader network of trans-Pacific commercial exchange originating from London. In the 1830s the HBC’s trading operations in Honolulu underwent expansion. Under King Kamehameha III the exchange of Hawaiian men into HBC service, while maintained, also now required higher levels of negotiation over terms of yearly remuneration, because there was a concern that too many islanders were leaving home to the detriment of family structures and productive activities taking place in the islands. Hawaiian laborers also worked on the marine island landscapes of the U.S. guano islands of Baker, Jarvis and Howland in Polynesia. While they worked there, intercultural rifts formed with the potential for violence. In 1865 a riot broke out on Baker Island when one Hawaiian phosphate laborer, Heanu, was called a “kanaka” by his luna (overseer), triggering anger for being labelled a beast of burden.

In 1833, the HBC opened its Honolulu store, and Columbia products like salmon, lumber, potatoes, and flour grown in the Pacific Northwest were sold. Indeed, both Governor Simpson and Factor McLoughlin had been behind this effort to find Pacific markets for products sourced in the Columbia Department. Products generated by the HBC were traded regularly between Fort Vancouver and Honolulu. In 1845, 720 barrels of flour were unloaded by the vessel Cowlitz and sold in Honolulu at “fair prices.” Governor Simpson, in charge of the vast area known as Rupert’s Land, led the company’s fur trading and Hawaiian operations from Winnipeg and Lachine. After 1821, its operations shifted more actively toward the Pacific Northwest region, with Fort Vancouver becoming the primary Pacific depot. Between 1829 and 1859 the HBC was active in merchant shipping, starting with an initial shipment of lumber transported by the Cadboro in 1829. Thirty years later James Bissett, a senior company clerk, announced the company’s ultimate withdrawal from the islands.

The Salmon and Lumber Trade to Honolulu

By 1829 Honolulu was a significant Pacific entrepôt. Islanders as well as whalers consumed the goods that were traded and sold there, and a total of 85 vessels from London and the Pacific Northwest coast docked at Honolulu between 1829 and 1850. By the late 1840s, the HBC outlet in Honolulu had become overstocked with goods of all sorts, spurring its agents to shift to California in 1848 as the primary market for its English manufactures. Beyond the trade from the Pacific Northwest (Columbia Produce) additional goods imported to Honolulu consisted of “European Manufactures.” Still, lumber and salmon served as the “backbone” of the materials arriving to the islands from the Northwest coast. Columbia salmon was prized for its size and quality. Lumber cut at Fort Vancouver and destined for Hawai’i was mainly Douglas fir cut from forests that “covered much of western Oregon” and named for David Douglas who visited the fort during his botanical explorations in the region from 1825 to 1827. In 1841 alone, Hawaiians cut over 2,500 feet of lumber a day, and between 200,000 to 300,000 feet of lumber were shipped each year to the islands during the 1840s.

Fort Langley 1862

A view of Fort Langley, a Hudson’s Bay Company Post in British Columbia, in 1862. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Raw products grown or collected on the islands also traveled to posts on the Northwest coast. These goods consisted mainly of island products like sugar, coffee, salt, and molasses. Goods sourced in China and the Philippines (like baskets, matting, and rope) also often made their way to the Northwest coast via Honolulu. The salt trade from the islands to the coast was of particular importance, since salt was used primarily in the business of salmon curing, which in turn supplied Hawai’i with a consistent supply of cured salmon from the Pacific Northwest. In places like Fort Langley, Hawaiians in service of the HBC often also performed the work of coopering: one Joseph, son of the Hawaiian servant Peeopeeoh, a long-time HBC employer, apprenticed for the company as a cooper alongside an Orkney Islander and two other Hawaiians, crafting kegs, barrels and vats for salt salmon.

Life as an HBC servant did not constitute labor alone, and the range of tasks performed was often diverse. Still, Hawaiian labor generally fell into the category of “drudgery”: hauling pelts, loading and unloading goods, gardening, and involvement in trapping expeditions in eastern Oregon. Hawaiians were drawn into the Snake River basin at mid-century where a fur-trade was carried out in the Nez Perce and Shoshone territory. Here, HBC trappers increasingly competed with American ones, the company initially sending trappers into the region in 1819. This region would be ultimately annexed to the United States, and by that time the HBC’s extensive activities in the Snake River watershed had nearly led to the beaver’s eradication.

While the Snake River pelt trade was comparatively small, constituting only about 10 percent of the Columbia’s pelts, it still represented a component of contest to control of Oregon territory, which would become an increasingly precarious one for the company as the 1840s wore on. At this point, the story of Hawaiians as company servants largely fades into a story of their experiences as “settlers” within the British Columbia colony, many of whom would settle on islands off the coast like Salt Spring. The remainder of this story, recollected primarily through family histories, still sits at the margins of national memory, both in Canada and the United States. As social and environmental historians we can do more to revive both countries’ Pacific connections with the past.

Featured image: Fort Vancouver, 1827. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Naomi Alisa Calnitsky completed a Master of Arts in History as a Commonwealth Scholar in 2008 at the University of Otago and a PhD in Canadian and Mexican History at Carleton University in 2017. She is currently working on a book-length project on seasonal labor migration stories from North America and the Pacific titled Seasonal Lives: Twenty-First Century Approaches and a second book dealing with histories of Mexican farm labour migration to Canada in the 20th and 21st centuries, titled The Fields Are Dressed in the Spring: The Mexican Farm Worker in the Canadian Imagination, forthcoming with UBC Press. WebsiteContact.

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