What does the Owhyee River in southeastern Oregon and Kanaka Flat near Jacksonville, Oregon have in common? Both place names refer to the Hawaiians that lived in Oregon in the 1800’s.
In 1811, Jacob Astor hired the first Owyhees, an older spelling of Hawaii, to work in the fur trade. A post was established in Astoria, Oregon and was later turned over to the Montreal-based North West Company. The fort was eventually renamed Fort George and it was moved to another location.
How did Hawaiians get to the mainland? Captain James Cook discovered the Hawaiian islands in 1778 and named them the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich. Ships stopped in Hawaii for provisions and since the native people were well known for their maritime expertise, they were hired as replacement workers. They were also known to excel in swimming, fishing, hunting, and in the construction of posts and forts.
After the war of 1812 ended in 1817, the border between Canada and the United States had still not been established. Fort Vancouver, in present day Vancouver, Washington, was built in 1824 since it was thought the Columbia River would become the border. Hawaiians continued to work in the fur trade and were often referred to as Kanaka, the Hawaiian word for human being. Many Hawaiians moved to the fort and part of the site was referred to as Kanaka Village.
In 1819, three Owyhees working for the North West Company were trapping on a river in southeastern Oregon. They were exploring uncharted territory and disappeared and were never seen again. They were likely killed by members of the Bannock tribe. The river and surrounding areas were named after these men. The Owhyhee River is 280 miles long and winds through parts of Nevada, Oregon, and Idaho.
The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) took over the North West Company in 1821. HBC began to trade other items with the Hawaiians including timber and salmon. The voyage to the islands took about three weeks. Oregon was still considered to be “off the beaten track” and much of its international news came from sources in Hawaii.
Beaver skin hats began to fall out of favor in the late 1840’s and the fur market collapsed when the Gold Rush began in 1858. Tensions mounted when Kanaka were denied basic citizenship rights. Many headed towards California in search of gold.
Some Hawaiians briefly settled in Kanaka Flat, about a mile west of Jacksonville, Oregon. Hawaiians, Native Americans, and Portuguese moved there to placer mine for gold. Though the area had a reputation as being a site where fights and murders took place, recent evidence suggests that it was primarily made up of single families. Newspaper articles of the time referred to the area as being “wild” but this may have been partially due to intolerance of the racially diverse population. Kanaka Flat was abandoned in the 1880’s.
Fast forward to today. We seem to have quite a connection with Hawaii. Maybe it’s partly because we also live in an area shadowed by volcanoes. Here in Bend, a city of about 80,000, we have two Hawaiian restaurants (owned by former residents of Hawaii), a Hawaiian food truck, and another mobile business with two locations that is well known for its colorful servings of Hawaiian shaved ice.
There is an annual gathering of ukulele players known as Uke U that is sold out months in advance. Students in our schools play ukuleles some of which have been donated by local manufacturer Outdoor Ukulele.
Hokule’a Ohana Dancers are based in Redmond, Oregon and they specialize in Polynesian dancing. They can be seen performing the graceful hula at area events. Here is a link to a short performance at one of our local resorts. You can also take dance lessons at their studio.
Faith, Hope, and Charity Vineyards, Sunriver Resort, and the Bend Spay and Neuter Project have all put on luaus in the summer. These events feature traditional Hawaiian food, song, and dance.
There is a Big Wave Challenge on Mt. Bachelor where snowboarders compete on a course that includes wave-like features. They are judged as if they were in a big surf competition. Of course there is a luau after the event and it has featured local Hawaiian musician, Bill Keale. I will leave you with a video of him. Aloha!