The U.S. Navy in Hawaii, 1826-1945: An Administrative History

Pearl Harbor: Its Origin and Administrative History Through World War II

Pearl Harbor, as it is now known, is mentioned in the accounts of early Pacific voyages as "Wai-Momi"--literally, the "Water of the Pearl" or "Pearl Water." It is also mentioned in early accounts as "Pearl River" and "Pearl Lochs."

The earliest discoverers, explorers, and traders who wrote accounts of their visits to the Sandwich Islands, seem to have given the most of their attention to the Islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. The first published description of Pearl Harbor appears to be the one mentioned in Captain Nathaniel Portlock's journal, printed in 1789, of his experiences on a voyage if discovery in command of the British vessels King George and Queen Charlotte.

From 1786 until the publication in 1845 of the record of Commodore Wilkes' visit with the U.S. exploring expedition there is only casual mention of Pearl Harbor by those who left accounts of their visits to the islands. Captain George Vancouver, reporting on the visit which he made on the HMS Discovery between 1792 and 1794, records the fact that he started to make a survey of "Oporoak," as he called Pearl Harbor; but on finding that the entrance was navigable only for small craft, the survey was discontinued.

Captain John Kendrich in command of the Lady Washington, an armed merchantman operating before the founding of the American Navy, is reported to have assisted the King of Oahu in a victorious battle in the Pearl Harbor region late in 1794, operating with his crew both ashore and from small boats in the lagoon. This might properly be called America's first military activity in Pearl Harbor.

Captain Archibald Campbell in his A Voyage Around the World from 1806 to 1812, gives quite an accurate description of a reconnaissance of the shoreline and waters of Pearl Harbor, which he called "Wyumme," with a description of Ford Island, which was then known as "Rabbit Island."

Peter Corney, one of the earliest settlers of European ancestry of Oahu, reported in 1818 that the depth of the water at Pearl Harbor was "not more than 15 feet of water on the bar or reef at high water and inside from 6 to 18 fathoms mud and sand." Corney also stated that there were many divers employed in diving for pearl oysters and that he had saved them much trouble by presenting the King with an oyster dredge. So far as can be ascertained, this is the first use of dredge in these islands.

In 1824, Great Britain sent the bodies of Kamehameha II and his Queen, who had died in London of the measles, back to Hawaii on the HMS Blonde, under the command of Lord Byron. The British Government took advantage of this opportunity to acquire more detailed information concerning the islands; and to that end, included in the personnel of the ship a party of scientists. Among these was a Lieut. Charles R. Malden, a surveyor, who during the stay of the ship, made a comprehensive and extensive survey of several harbors and roadsteads. One of these surveys was a fairly complete charting of the whole of Pearl Harbor, with soundings taken throughout the entrance channel and the three main lochs. The chart resulting from this survey was printed in 1841 by the British Hydrographic Office. This coast line map shows the whole of Pearl Harbor and tributary country and indicates the existence of extensive fields in cultivation in its vicinity. What is known as the "Shark Pen" at the narrows in the inner entrance to the harbor is marked "Fish Weon Point."

In connection with this same expedition, Andrew Bloxom reported that on 17 May 1825 a party went in the launch on an expedition to the Pearl River or lochs and often describing the hazards of navigating the narrow entrance through the coral reefs, stated that but for the treacherous approach "it would form a most excellent harbor as inside there is plenty of water to float the largest ship and room enough for the entire Navy of England."

In 1840, fifteen years after the British survey had been made, but a year prior to the publication of the Malden Chart, Commodore Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, under orders to chart the islands of the Pacific for the U.S. Government, called at Oahu. During his visit, Kamehameha III requested him to make a survey of Pearl Harbor. The chart resulting from his work represents the first technical work by the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor. It is interesting to note that this survey was limited to sounding across the bar and through the channel only as far as Bishop's Point or just within the land-locked area. Some of the landmarks noted on this chart still stand, but the Hawaiian Dredging Company's camp at Watertown occupies the location marked as a "Poi Village."

In referring to Pearl Harbor, Commodore Wilkes stated that "the inlet has somewhat the appearance of a lagoon that has been partly filled up by alluvial deposits" and expressed the opinion that "if the water upon the bar should be deepened, which I doubt not can be effected, it would afford the best and most capacious harbor in the Pacific."

As a result of the gesture of Lord George Paulet to annex the islands to Great Britain in 1843, Dr. C.P. Judd, the Hawaiian Minister of Foreign Affairs took advantage of the presence of the U.S. Frigate Constitution in Hawaiian waters in 1845 and requested Lieut. F.W. Curtis, a young American Marine Officer, to survey the situation and make some recommendations as to the best practicable method of fortifying Honolulu against further foreign aggression. This investigation was made secretly and Lieut. Curtis communicated his conclusions to Dr. Judd after the departure of the Constitution in the form of a letter written from Mazatlan, Mexico on 21 February 1846. His report makes the first reference to the military potentiality of Pearl Harbor as offering "perfect security."

For more than 25 years after this suggestion concerning the importance of Pearl Harbor as a factor in connection with the military defense of the islands, there is practically nothing with reference to the harbor to be found in the published records of the large number of American ships whose visits overlapped in their length of stay. This may possibly be accounted for by the fact that religious, social and other internal troubles were occupying the minds not only of the residents but of the visitors and explorers during that period.

In 1873, the USS California, with Rear Admiral A.M. Pennock, brought to the islands a military commission consisting of Major General J.M. Schofield and Brevet Brigadier General B.S. Alexander. This commission proceeded, under secret instructions form the Secretary of War, William W. Belknap, to examine the different ports of the Hawaiian Islands with reference to their defensive capabilities and their commercial facilities.

"Its shores are suitable for building proper establishments for sheltering the necessary supplies for a naval establishment such as magazines for ammunition, provisions, coal, spars, rigging, etc. while the Island of Oahu upon which it is situated could furnish fresh provisions, meats, fruits, and vegetables in large quantities."

King Lunalilo was petitioned by the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce in February 1873 to negotiate a reciprocal treaty with the U.S., and in this resolution the suggestion was made that the Pearl River lagoon be offered to the U.S. as an inducement. After due consideration, The King conveyed to the U.S. Minister resident at Honolulu, through his Minister of Foreign Affairs, the original treaty proposal in which was included the cession of the Pearl River lagoon; and on 7 July 1873, the American Minister notified his government at Washington that the King had offered to negotiate a treaty on that basis. Four months later, the Hawaiian Gazette of 14 November 1873 printed a "By Authority" notice to the effect that the King was satisfied that a treaty carrying with it the cession of Pearl Harbor would not receive the legislative approval required by the Constitution of the Kingdom and hence had withdraw that feature of his offer. The editorial appearing in the Hawaiian Gazette of that date endeavors to explain that the original Pearl Harbor proposal had been for a lease and not a cession of territory. Much capital was made of the proposal to excite the Hawaiians to opposition.

After the death of Lunalilo and the election of Kalakaua as king, he proceeded to Washington, and there, it is conceded by some writers of the time, it was the King's personality which was largely responsible for the final consummation of the original reciprocity treaty in 1875. The financial benefits of this treaty to the agricultural interests of the islands were so great that the best interests in Hawaii were keenly alive to the importance of securing an extension of the treaty beyond its definite term of seven years. Due to opposition on the mainland, this extension was not secured for a number of years; but finally, on 20 January 1887, the U.S. Senate in secret session modified the convention providing for the extension of the treaty, after adding an amendment as clause II, providing that "His Majesty the King of the Hawaiian Islands, grants to the Government of the U.S. the exclusive right to enter the harbor of Pearl River, in the Island of Oahu, and to establish and maintain there a coaling and repair station for the use of vessels of the U.S. and to that end the U.S may improve the entrance to said harbor and do all things useful to the purpose aforesaid." This treaty was ratified by the Hawaiian Senate and signed by the King on 29 October 1887.

The treaty had scarcely been proclaimed when a note was handed to the Secretary of State in Washington by the British Ambassador in which the attention of the U.S. Government was called to the Franco-English Compact of 1843 by which those two nations agreed never to take possession of the Hawaiian Island "either directly or under the title of a protectorate;" and suggesting a triple compact in which the U.S. should join, guaranteeing the neutrality and equal accessibility of the islands and their harbors to the ships of all nations, without preference. The British Commissioner at Honolulu simultaneously delivered a note of formal protest against a grant to the U.S. of the exclusive use of Pearl Harbor as a coaling and repair station.

While this treaty continued in force until August 1898, no advantage was taken by the U.S. Government of the opportunity to fortify or use Pearl Harbor as a naval base. The shallow entrance constituted a formidable barrier against the use of the deep protected waters of the inner harbor as definitely in the nineties as in the thirties.


Table of Contents image of anchor Next Section