Historical Overview

Early History

“A sea of branching crooked harbors is Pu’uloa”
Chant of Kuali’i

The Hawaiian people farmed and fished in the area known as Pu’uloa for over a thousand years. To the native inhabitants Pearl Harbor was known as Ke-awa-lau-o-pu’uloa or “the many harbors of Pu’uloa.” The word Pu’uloa itself means “Long Mountain.” The waters of this vast harbor were once abundant in fish, shellfish and oysters. The shorelines were marked by fishponds, while farther inland small floodplains contained irrigated fields of taro.


Shortly after Captain James Cook’s initial landing in the islands in 1778, European and American vessels began frequenting Hawaii, for the purpose of commerce and trade and as agents of official business and scientific research. Among these early visitors were the H.M.S. Blonde in 1825 and the ships of the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1840. From these expeditions, some of the earliest charts were drawn as Western eyes began taking a closer look at the waters of Pu’uloa.

“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.”
Commodore Charles Wilkes, 1840.


The whaling industry was Hawaii’s primary economic activity from the early 19th Century until the advent of the American Civil War. At its height in 1846 nearly 800 whaling vessels arrived in the islands, bringing with them the opportunity provided by well-worn ships in need of repair and re-provision, along with hungry Sailors in need of rest and recreation. Businesses, such as bakeries, laundries, carpenter shops, blacksmiths and boarding houses, sprung up in Honolulu and Lahaina, the two most prominent ports of call in the Hawaii. The overwhelming majority of the whalers flew the American flag, which eventually prompted the U.S. Navy to assign a regular patrol of the Hawaiian area to protect America’s commercial interests.

America Takes Center Stage

The discovery of oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859 and the decimation of the whaling fleet during the Civil War brought about the end of the whaling industry’s most productive years, but in an ironic twist of fate the Civil War also helped spur the growth of Hawaii’s new economic boom “King Sugar”. The United States was steadily growing more than casually interested in the fate of the Hawaiian Islands and their strategic position in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1873, the steamer USS California arrived in the islands with a military commission consisting of Major General J.M. Schofield and Brevet Brigadier General B.S. Alexander aboard. Generals Schofield and Alexander were on secret orders to examine the defensive capabilities and potential commercial facilities of the Hawaiian Islands. In reference to Pearl Harbor, General Schofield wrote, “With one exception there is no harbor on the islands that can be made to satisfy all the conditions necessary for a harbor of refuge. This exception is the harbor of the ‘Ewa’ or ‘Pearl River’…”
Under political pressure from the sugar industry in Hawaii, King Kalakaua negotiated a treaty with the United States in 1875, known as the Reciprocity Treaty, which allowed Hawaii’s agricultural products, namely sugar to be exported to the United States duty free in exchange for a promise from the Hawaiian government that the Pearl River inlet would not be leased to another government. The language would later be amended in 1887 to grant the United States exclusive rights to enter the harbor and establish a naval presence there. The U.S. could now firmly establish itself as the gatekeepers of commerce and diplomacy over vast portions of the Pacific region. It would be another twenty years before the naval outpost known as Pearl Harbor would be realized.

American Territory

Though the United States government did not act immediately upon its rights to the harbor, the aftermath of the Spanish American War led to the United States annexation of Hawaii in 1898. As the 20th Century dawned, the United States began to look more seriously at the need for an American military presence in the Pacific. By 1911 the channel to Pearl Harbor had been dredged sufficiently enough to allow access to large vessels, and the USS California became the first deep-draft vessel to enter the harbor on December 14, 1911. Before long, a coaling station, Navy Yard, ammunition magazine, hospital, submarine base, Marine barracks and Naval Air Station had become permanent fixtures of the once quiet inlet.

The Day of Infamy

By the 1940s, Pearl Harbor had grown considerably from its humble beginnings. America’s need for a forward military presence had grown, as well, with the emergence of the Japanese Empire as a credible threat to security in the Pacific. The Navy’s role in Pacific defense became centered in Hawaii and revolved around supporting the Pacific Fleet and defending the islands. Pearl Harbor took its place as the main naval element for the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”

The events of December 7, 1941 shattered hopes for peace in an increasingly dangerous world. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into the Second World War and changed America’s position in world affairs forever. On the Day of Infamy, 2,403 Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, Airman and civilians lost their lives in the opening salvo of a conflict that would rage for almost four years. From that point on, the American people vowed to continue the fight until their Axis enemies surrendered unconditionally.

Pearl Harbor’s role in the war would not end with its place as the opening act. Pearl’s facilities would go on to become the major supply and repair base in the Pacific war and the springboard by which the Pacific fleet would project American naval power toward Imperial Japan. The naval facilities were also instrumental in the equipping, provisioning, training and transporting of the troops that led the nation to victory.

Following the conclusion of World War Two, this strategic location would serve as a stepping off point in the both the Korean and Vietnam wars and would function as the central supply and repair base in the region, as Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines were once again called upon to defend freedom around the Pacific. In Korea and Vietnam, the Pacific Fleet responded by providing naval air strikes, river patrols, submarine and amphibious support.

Pacific Legacy

For over a century the United States Navy, based in Pearl Harbor, has maintained a vital presence in the world’s largest ocean, providing manpower and materials in the cause of America’s national defense, as well as supporting emergency and humanitarian efforts world wide.