A Little History
In some ways, Kauai's old culture is distinct from that of the other islands. Some of the artifacts, like unique kinds of stone poi pounders, aren't found elsewhere. When the early European explorers arrived at Kauai, they recorded a different spoken dialect. This is not surprising. Kauai is physically separated from the other islands by distance and also by a rough channel about 60 miles wide, making travel difficult in canoes. As a result, the Kauaians successfully maintained their political sovereignty from the other islands, and as such, it is sometimes referred to as “the separate kingdom.” (The nearby island of Niihau was considered within Kauai's domain.)
One of the most intriguing aspects of old Kauai culture are the tales of a mysterious people called the menehune. They were said to have been short and strong and capable of great building feats, especially with stone. A few constructions survive that are attributed to the menehune, including the remains of an irrigation canal with sophisticated stone masonry. Many scholars aren't sure what to make of these stories, and some suggest that the menehune were a class of common workers.
The legends of the menehune say that they worked only at night and finished their impressive projects in a one-evening session. Modern Hawaiian culture has popularized the menehune, and today they are portrayed in story and song as cute, industrious elves.
Ancient Kauai was ruled by its own line of hereditary chiefs whose royal center was in the area of Wailua. Like the other islands, it was divided up into various districts. The valleys and plains were agriculturally productive, and the Kauaians could grow lots of taro, sweet potatoes, and other useful crops.
Captain Cook first spied the Hawaiian Islands on January 18, 1778, and within a couple of days, he was anchored off Waimea on Kauai's southeast coast, where he was greeted by islanders in canoes. It was a great place to load up on food and water, and in less than a decade more ships would arrive. Kauai would soon be visited by a growing stream of foreign visitors as word of the islands spread.
The Island Loses Independence
In 1795, the great chief of the island of Hawaii, Kamehameha I, was successful in conquering all of the major islands except Kauai and Niihau. Not to be thwarted in his goal of ruling all, he set out twice to capture these islands. In 1796, he led a massive invasion force from Oahu that is said to have included more than 1,000 canoes and 10,000 warriors. Rough conditions in the channel separating the islands proved disastrous, and the forces never reached Kauai. A second attempt in 1804 likewise failed when the assembled forces were struck down by disease. Kauai would eventually be ceded to the Hawaiian Kingdom without a battle when the island's ruling chief, Kaumuali'i, swore allegiance to Kamehameha in 1810.
In the early 1800s, the islands attracted the eyes of European fur and sandalwood traders seeking a foothold for their enterprises. One of the more bizarre episodes in Hawaiian history involves an attempt to set up a major Russian presence on Kauai. In 1816, Georg Scheffer, a representative of the Russian American Company, negotiated with the island's ruling chief Kaumuali'i. In exchange for significant rights, privileges, land, and powers on the island, Scheffer promised Russian help in freeing Kauai from the rule of Kamehameha and conquering the rest of the islands as well. Scheffer built forts at Waimea and Hanalei, but it wasn't long before the Russians were kicked out of the islands when it was learned that Scheffer was not an official representative of the Russian government.
Georg Scheffer had great plans for the transformation of Kauai into a Russian foothold in the Pacific. Some name changes, for example, were to take place. The Hanapepe River was to be henceforth called the Don, after the famous Russian river, and the lovely area of Hanalei would be renamed Scheffertal. Fortunately, those names only survive in footnotes and travel-guide sidebars.
In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries arrived on Kauai. The following year, King Liholiho of the Hawaiian Kingdom essentially kidnapped ruling chief Kaumuali'i. Kaumuali'i was kept on Oahu and was forced to marry the widowed favorite wife of Kamehameha I. The great Kauai chief died in 1824.