Looking back at Hawaiians in California, 1954

Islanders in the Gold Rush

By Richard H. Dillon

This article tells of a little-known facet of Hawaiiana—the emigration of Hawaiians to California with Captain John Sutter, at the outset of the Gold Rush.

For some 20 years, small Hawaiian and Polyesian communities dotted the Mother Lode area east of Sacramento.

Today, no trace remains—except place-names like Kanaka Bar and Kanaka Glade . . . and even historians know little of their story.

IT WAS IN 1839 when Captain John Sutter reached California and was soon engaged in building his dream-empire of New Helvetia where California’s Capitol now  stands. With Sutter were 10 Kanakas—as all Hawaiians and Polynesians were then called—and a bulldog from Honolulu.

For another 20 years, Hawaiians came to California to settle in small colonies, lured by the hope of great riches from the gold mines. When the returns from the Mother Lode mines began to thin out, the Hawaiians stopped emigrating to the Golden State and those already there began to disperse throughout the state or returned to the Hawaiian Islands.

For a brief two decaes, small Kanaka communities were an interesting part of the California scene. Today, not race remains of their stay except for a few place-names on the map— like Kanaka Bar and Kanaka Galde—and even historians know little about  their story.

THE AMAZING thing about these Hawaiian groups is that they were actively Christians in a most irreligious time and place. Not only did they hold services themselves and try to lead good lives but they also took upon their shoulders the burden of the conversion of the heathen Indians of California, the Diggers.

The California tribes were all lumped together by the uneducated miners as Diggers. (They should have been dubbed Gleaners, for they were seed and acorn gatherers rather than root diggers as the American’s derisive term would indicate.) These poor, often stark naked folk were treated far worse by  the miners than were the dogs or pack mules.

For some reason, perhaps the scantiness in numbers of the clergy, no one among the whites tried to help the natives, left to starve or drink themselves to death. They were truly “lost souls.”

It was the Hawaiian people in California—themselves the object of discrimination—who took them in hand.

A CORRESPONDENT for an Eastern paper was most lavish in his praise of the missionary work of the Kanakas among the California Indians.

He wrote:

“In various parts of the State are thronged the lowest class of American Indians, upon whom the whites, aided by the largesses of the State and the general Government, have made frequent wars (they might as well talk of wars with rabbis) while churches have done absolutely nothing for their salvation. Yet is the good work done by  certain Kanakas, who came over here from the Sandwich Islands in 1849–1850, have settled near them, intermarried with them,and taught them the way of life.”

When the Reverend Samuel C. Damon of Honolulu visited the Sierra mines in 1949 [1849], he found a little mining community on the American River, 20 miles above Sacramento. He was delighted to find Christian Hawaiians there who gathered about him in a way he vowed he’d never forget, pressing bags of gold dust on him for relatives and friends in the “Sandwich Islands.”

When a trader came to the camp, laden with liquor to tempt the hardworking Kanakas and to relieve them of their gold, Damon became very indignant and wrote: “Yes, the rum seller was an educated man, and American! It is not often that we tell such a man to his face what we think of his trade, but we did on that occasion. The idea that a man educated in Christian America should descend so low as to peddle rum to Kanakas was one degree of degradation lower than we had imagined a man could go.”

He added, in a bit of doggerol—

“I’d sooner black by visage o’er,
And put de shine on boot and shoe
Than stand within a rum-shop door
And tempt Kanakas to my store”

ONE OF several Hawaiians sent to the American Board of Foreign Missions School in Cornwall, Connecticut, was William Kanui. He and his friend Thomas Hopu had been trained as missionaries there and had returned to the Islands in 1820. When the gold fever hit Honolulu they started for the California mines and were eventually successful. Samuel Damon met Kanui on his 1849 visit when the latter was temporarily keeping a small restaurant at Sutter’s Fort. Hopu also lived in Sacramento.

The Reverend Albert WIlliams, founder of the First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, and the Reverend Joseph Rowell discovered Kanui in 1861, living in San Francisco. The two ministers rescued him from a down-hill plunge his life was beginning to take after the $6,000 he had made in the mines was wiped out by a bank failure.

Men like Hopu and Kanui were the exception to  the rule in living in the large centers of population: most of the Hawaiian emigres preferred the country life. Damon described a happy little settlement he visited, at Irish Creek, El Dorado County, where he found 24 Kanaka men, mostly Hawaiians, with two Hawaiian women, three Digger women, and four half-Indian children.

All of the squaws dressed neatly and were busy sewing, cutting, washing and ironing the family clothes. One of them could read well and was busy with the Hawaiian Bible. An 8-year-old girl could also read the Bible in Hawaiian. The…

That little pit could hold a literal fortune in gold. No wonder the crudely-drawn Chinese miners wildly dispute their respective rights to the claim. California’s Chinese colony got its start during the Gold Rush and the subsequent construction of the Central Pacific (now Southern Pacific) Railroad. Many of the Hawaiians retruned to the Isles. (Drawing by Frank Marryat, 1855, courtesy New York Historical Society, New York City.)

…Digger women took part in all the prayer meetings in the big religious house which was floored and had backless benches for the tiny congregation. At one end was a table for the speaker.

Religious meetings were held early morning and evening every weekday, every Sunday, and a special mid-afternoon meeting on Thursdays. At the time of Damon’s visit, they added an afternoon hymn singing session to their schedule!

THE CHIEF OF the Irish Creek Kanakas was Kenao, perhaps the most important Hawaiian in California. He lived in a neat clapboard house which he had built himself. As the head of the little colony, he had a certain amount of prestige to maintain, and his house was freshly painted inside and out, with two of the rooms papered.

Kenao had put a stop to drunkenness and crime in the community by banishing those who were tempted to drink or steal. The devout little colony, after deliberating, voted to raise $500 to build a new church by the end of the year. They also voted to take up contributions at their concerts for missionary purposes.

T. W. Gulick [L. H. Gulick] of Honolulu stayed in this village at the time of a smallpox epidemic. This dread disease, which was a plague to the Diggers, did not spare their Sandwich Island friends. The wailing of Kenao’s wife made known her grief as first her stepson, and then Kenao himself, died.

The saddened Gulick wrote: “God’s hand is heavy upon us. Four have already died of smallpox ou of this small community within a month.”

THE HAWAIIANS were dealt a blow in 1849 when the State Legislature passed a law requiring all foreigners to pay a license fee of $20 for the right to work in the mines.

When the officer came to collect these fees and grant licenses at Kanaka Dam, on the North Fork of the Yuba River, he came, in reality, to jump the claims of the Kanakas. He swore that it was too late to receive the license money since he had collected a posse. The claims were taken from the Hawaiians and given to the members of the official’s posse, many of whom were foreigners themselves.

Captain Coxe, the head of the colony, told the man that his license ws still good, but he was ignored. Later, the agent tried to cometoan agreement with Coxe but the latter would have none of it since his men had been driven off by this time.

SOME OF THE Hawaiian settlements were fishing villages rather than mining camps. A reporter from  the Sacra-…

Richard H. Dillon, author of this article, has done considerable research on the role Hawaiians played in California’s Gold Rush. He is Sutro Branch Librarian of the California State Library in San Francisco.

Illustrations made 100 years ago unfortunately fail to depict the Islanders, who then were known as”Kanakas” to fellow miners.

Dillon’s research indicates that the Hawaiians “would probably wear exactly the same clothes as the mining garb of the Anglo-Saxons depicted in the illustrations. They might be barefoot, perhaps bare-chested and with long straight hair, but half of the white miners looked exactly like this anyway!”

We wonder if any descendants of those Hawaiians who emigrated to  California and presumably came back two decades later have any information on which families participated in the Gold Rush. If so, please write to Hawaiian Life Magazine in care of The Star-Bulletin.

(Star-Bulletin, 9/18/1954, “Hawaiian Life,” p. 4)


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Volume LIX, Number 19349, Hawaiian Life, p. 4. September 18, 1954.

…mento Transcript visited one such camp at about the same time taht the posse was dispossessing the miners of their claims at Kanaka Dam.

On the banks of the American River, only a mile or two from the city of Sacramento, he found a dozen rude huts and some tents, with short fences of willows made into wicker-work. There was a larger central building for meeting and religious services.

Grouped around the fire before the large structure were a group of Sandwich Islanders speaking in animated conversation which he could not understand, not knowing any Hawaiian.

He noticed a tea pot, containing a pint or so of water, hanging over the fire. While one of the natives raised steam in it for tea, another busied himself placing fresh fish in a frying pan.

The reporter claimed the fish “seemed for all the world to be alive and flourishing” as they were popped into the pan, and ended his brief report by saying “we were indebted, doubtless, in a great measure to these folks for the fresh fish which abound in our market, as we observed a large seine hard by, with which they capture the finny tribe.”

A CONGREGATIONAL missionary from Hawaii; the Reverend J. F. Pogue, was touring California in 1868 when he heard of a school for Digger Indians near Colfax. Inquiring further, he found that John Makani was the teacher. Makani was an Indian who had been educated in the Sandwich Islands and sent back to California by the Hawaiian Missionary Board to teach Christianity to his countrymen.

An Indian boy guided Pogue to Makani’s house where he found him in the yard, cultivating his squashes. Outside the yard were a number of Indian women preparing supper from acorns. Makani informe him that he had several schools at different locations and that he held prayer meetings with the Indians, though they were pakiki loa (very difficult). He had hopes of making some of them into good Christians, however.

The earnest teacher told Pogue of a settlement of his countrymen at Fremont, on the Sacramento River at the mouth of the Feather River. Pogue arranged with Makani to meet him in Sacramento later. They met at the appointed time and boarded an upriver steamer. When they arrived, the discovered that the Hawaiians had shifted their village across to the east side of…

In addition to Hawaiians, many Chinese brought to California’s famed Mother Lode country in the boom days of the Gold Rush. Here typical miners and gold town characters barter over a horse at Sonora, not far from Yosemite Valley. Drawing was made in 1855. (Reproduced courtesy of the New York Historical Society, New York City.)

…the Sacramento River at Vernon.

At Vernon, Pogue found only eight Hawaiian men, one women and three children, plus an Indian squaw who was the wife of one of the men. They were relatively well-off, however, from the sale of their fish in Sacramento and Kapuu, the head-man gave him $25 as a contribution toward his travel expenses. The fishermen were overjoyed to see him and gave him a good supper topped off with excellent blackberries.

Staying from Thursday evening through Sunday, Pogue was able to go out with them to see their method of catching fish. He had “a nicer sail in a skiff” while they were catching 125 pike and some sturgeon. He spent much of his time answering their many questions about the Islands.

ON THE SABBATH, Pogue led a Bible class at Kapua’s home, and at 11 o’clock preached in the school house. The colonists were very pleased with his ministrations even though they confessed they had grown palaka (neglectful of their obligations) and were not holding meetings themselves. Pogue was distressed to find them”living just like the haoles, without God and without hope.” One of the men wished to marry the Digger woman and asked Pogue to perform the ceremony but the prospective bridegroom had no marriage license. The minister sent off to the Clerk of the Court for a license and the native promised to marry the Indian woman as soon as it should arrive.

The Vernon Kanaka told Pogue of a larger settlement at La Grange in the Mother Lode. After a long roundabout journey he reached this spot only to find that all the men were gone, digging gold. The women of the town gave him…

This is Kanaka Creek, in California’s Gold Rush country of just a century ago, where a number of Hawaiians sought their fortune, lured by the hope of great riches from the gold mines. (Ancient plate by William Mcllvaine Jr. (1850) is courtesy of the New York Historical Society, New York City.)

…something to eat and he waited under a tree for the return of the miners in the cool of the evening.

Before nightfall, 21 of the 40 or so kanakas in the area had gathered with the missionary. The others were scattered far and wide on gold claims during the Summer and only came to the La Grange colony during the Winter layoff.

These people at La Grange were not so well off as those of Vernon. They were not getting very large returns from  their gold placers and when Pogue accompanied them to see their manner of working the gold-bearing sands, they had but few grains to show at the end of the day for all their effort.

Some of the American miners of the area thought that the Hawaiians had money hidden but the Kanakas told Pogue they were poor. However, when he asked them if they did not want to go home to Hawaii, where they would be better off than in the Sierra foothills, they indicated that they did not want to return, though they claimed it was because they had no money for the passage.

The missionary found only one “professor” of religion among them and was disappointed that they did not hold regular meetings. They preferred to live like the Whites, though not drinking to excess as the ’49ers so often did.

THE WHITES spoke well of them, saying they were quiet and inoffensive people whose only fault seemed to be a reluctance to pay their debts on time. Pogue could not conceal his sadness at finding how this colony had wandered away from Christian living: “Gold is their god, as it is the god of many a White man.”

Not all of the Hawaiian colonies had lost their way, however, and the newspaper The Friend quoted the testimony of a reporter from an Eastern newspaper who praised the Kanakas as evangelists and summed it up by saying:

“It tells well for them, but ill for us, that the first (and he might well have said the last, as well) effort for the salvation of our heathen has been made by these foregoing converted heathen.”

During the last decades of the 19th Century, the Hawaiians had become assimilated in the population and the colonies had dispersed. Today, no trace of their interesting stay meets the eye except the interesting place-names still to be found on the maps of rural California.

(Star-Bulletin, “Hawaiian Life,” 9/18/1954, p. 5)


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Volume LIX, Number 19349, Hawaiian Life, p. 5. September 18, 1954.


Smallpox—Mai Puupuu Liilii—Hebela, 1862.

Small Pox [Mai Puupuu Liilii],

On the 25th of April, was the day I arrived here, and Small Pox [Hebela] had spread amongst the people here. Four people were cured, and one person named Kipouno Mangsia died. And when I arrived, there were three sick at that time.

By the loving request of the people here, I felt pleased and my heart was happy to stay for awhile with them here. After staying here for one week, there were many sick; seven new cases, totaling ten. Continue reading

Rev. L. H. Gulick, 1862.

We learn that Rev. L. H. Gulick [? Orramel H. Gulick], late missionary at Micronesia, has been called by the Protestant Church at Kau, Hawaii, to preside over that church, vice Rev. W. C. Shipman, deceased. Whether the call will be accepted or not we have not learnt, Mr. Gulick being now in California.

(Polynesian, 2/8/1862,  p. 2)


Polynesian, Volume XVIII, Number 41, Page 2. February 8, 1862.

So many Hawaiians living in California! 1863.

Hawaiians in California.

O Kamaaina of my dear land of birth; Aloha oukou:—I was just in California, and came back. I had much interaction with Hawaiians living there, and I saw most of them who are living in that large land; and by asking, I obtained the names of some who I have not seen. You maybe want me to tell you those who I came across there? You all answer, “Yes, that is a good thing indeed; we will find there brethren that were lost to us, who we mistakenly thought were dead; come to find out they are living in California.” Continue reading

More on Kaheleiki trial: “Something not to be forgotten.” 1863.

Voyage of the Hawaiian Chiefs to San Francisco.

This past Wednesday morning [4/15/1863], the Honorable C. Gordon Hopkins [Hapakini], John Ii [Ioane Ii], Kaisara Kapaakea [Caesar Kapaakea], and J. Koii Unauna, along with the one who is involved in the dispute for whom they went to testify for, namely Harry Kaheleiki, came to shore riding aboard the ship, Yankee; and we are pleased to report the public that they are in good health.

During the trial of Harry Kaheleiki in San Francisco, there were many witnesses strongly against him; however, with the arrival of the alii mentioned above, there was true testimony in favor of the accused, and the error of those who testified against him was clear. The newspapers of San Francisco were filled with thoughts of appreciation for this Nation sending witnesses at much expense to have one of its citizens wrongly charged in a foreign land set free; according to one of the papers, this is a benevolent act not done by the enlightened Nations of the world, and so the Hawaiian Nation has taken the lead in this fine action. This is truly an act of aloha, and it is something not to be forgotten for all times.

The reason it was heard that a Hawaiian was being imprisoned in San Francisco was because of Doctor Gulick [Gulika], the one who was previously living in the islands of Micronesia, and due to weakening health, arrived in California. While he was in San Francisco several months ago, he heard that there was a Hawaiian man being held in one of the Jails there on the charge of murder; he therefore went quickly to meet with the man, and when he got there, he spoke with the aforementioned Kaheleiki, and though this conversation, it was clear in Doctor Gulick’s mind that the accused was innocent. And because Kaheleiki asked him if they could wait until witnesses were sent for from Hawaii for him, there would be many who would testify that he was innocent of the charges against him. So Doctor Gulick immediately went to the office of the Hawaiian Consul, Mr. Hitchcock [Kanikela Hawaii o Mr. Hikikoki], and told him about the circumstances of Kaheleiki and how he was certain that Kaheleiki was innocent of the charges. When the Hawaiian Consul heard of this, he went at once to meet with the accused, and upon seeing his demeanor and what he had to say, he knew for himself that Kaheleiki was innocent. He then went quickly to see the Judge to ask that the trial of Kaheleiki be postponed until he heard from here; for he had witnesses here for him. And that is how time was given to send his witnesses, and that is how he was freed. And when he sent for witnesses here, along with a letter from Doctor Gulick, and when His Highness L. Kamehameha heard of this, he along with Sheriff W. C. Parke put great effort into finding appropriate witnesses to testify for Kaheleiki, the one who was falsely charged. We are filled with appreciation for the Royal One, His Highness, and the Sheriff.

We must thank Doctor Gulick, and we are truly thankful for him in the name of all who desire that the innocent who are persecuted be freed, and in the name of all who strive to find ways to free the innocent from the hands of those who oppose them, while they live in foreign lands. God shall free the righteous.

[There are countless stories like this in the Hawaiian-Language Newspapers that should be relearned and retold and retold again, so they are not forgotten!]

(Kuokoa, 4/18/1863, p. 3)

Ka Huakai a na 'Lii Hawaii i Kapalakiko.

Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, Buke II, Helu 16, Aoao 3. Aperila 18, 1863.

Mahalo to MAB for pointing to this article on the Kaheleiki trial, 1863.

“Better that Ten Guilty Should Escape, than that One Innocent should Suffer.”

One innocent Hawaiian, named Heleiki, came very nearly being hung in San Francisco, under the authority of the Supreme Court of the United States. The report of his trial and release have already been published, but the case is one which presents many interesting and important points of consideration for judges, lawyers, witnesses, philanthropists, and all who can employ the sentiment of the old Roman poet, Terence: “Whatever concerns humanity, concerns myself.”

In referring to this case, we shall allude to events which transpired even before the murder of Capt. Hussey, of the William Penn, off Strong’s Island, on the 6th of November, 1852. In October of that year the schooner Glencoe was cut off and burnt, and every man killed, at Ebon, one of the Marshall Islands. The natives disposed of some of their plunder and money taken from the Glencoe, to Capt. Hussey. A few days subsequently, Capt. H. was killed by a native of Oahu, one of his sailors. By referring to the Friend of July, 1853, we there find published a letter written by Dr. Gulick, and dated “Ascension, Feb. 19, 1853,” and from this communication we quote as follows:

“It is reported that a California schooner has been cut off in the Radack Range, at Boston or Coville (Ebon is the native name) Island, and a whaleboat’s crew who arrived, too weak to walk, were also killed, as they crawled up the beach. * * * Several whaleships have since taken from that island considerable sums of money. Capt. Hussey, it is said, received over a thousand dollars. It was for this money that one of his crew, a Oahu native, killed him. That native has since been killed on Simpson’s Island, by one, it is said, whom he himself was about to shoot. Thus do ‘the dead bury their dead,’ and murderers execute murderers.”

Now, after nearly ten years have rolled away, certain persons belonging to the William Penn inform against the innocent Heleiki, and he is thrown into prison in San Francisco. Most providentially for the interests of justice, and the fate of Heleiki, Dr. Gulick was passing through San Francisco, soon after the man’s arrest. He visited him in prison, and became throughly convinced of his innocence. He now set to work with the spirit of a Howard. But we cannot go into a full detail of particulars, although they deserve to be collected and put into some permanent form for preservation. We hope when Dr. Gulick returns, that he will do it. Suffice it to say, that through the courtesy of United States Judges, the ability of able lawyers, the correspondence of consuls, the collecting of evidence, and, finally, the visit of a deputation of witnesses, sent to San Francisco by the Hawaiian Government, the man Heleiki is fortunate enough to escape without being hung and has returned to Honolulu.

This case is most interesting and important for several reasons:

1. The man’s life is saved, and the innocent escapes a felon’s doom, on the evidence of men belonging to a copper-colored race! Mark you, there are some parts of the professedly civilized world, where the testimony of His Honor Judge Ii would not have been admitted. It is only recently that his evidence would have been admitted in the State Courts of California; but to the honor of the U. S. Court, there was no question upon this point.

2. The Hawaiian Government has shown a magnanimity and zeal in behalf of one of its humblest subjects, when falsely accused in a foreign land, worthy the most enlightened, most civilized, and most Christian nation on earth. We feel proud to dwell under its broad Ægis. Here let us remark, that while citizens of the United States may feel proud of their Supreme Court, and Englishmen may feel proud of their high Courts, so may Hawaiians be equally proud of their Supreme Court, presided over by such judges as Chief Justice Allen, Judge Roberson, and Judge Ii—the latter having just returned from his most honorable mission to California.

3. This is a case which cheers the heart of the missionary and philanthropist.

4. This is a case which should teach witnesses that they ought to be very cautious how they swear as to the identity of a man, after ten years have elapsed.

[See earlier article: Government officials to go to California to defend a Hawaiian citizen. 1863.]

(Friend, 5/1/1863, p. 33)

"Better that Ten Guilty Should Escape, than that One Innocent should Suffer."

The Friend, New Series, Volume 12, Number 5, Page 33. May 1, 1863.