Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Hawai`i Legal History: Timeline

A guide to materials that were formative in the legal history of Hawaii.

Timeline 1778-1941

Pre-1778 Prior to Western contact in Ka Pae ʻĀina o Hawaiʻi (the Hawaiian Islands), Hawaiian society was highly regulated by laws. Many kānāwai dictated the relationship between cultivators or harvesters and the natural environment. 

Circa 1400 The ʻAi Kapu (traditional religion) is brought to Hawaiʻi. While primarily viewed as religious restrictions, it contained kānāwai (laws) on daily conduct as well as interactions between the different classes (chief, priest, and commoner classes). Transgressions were sometimes punishable by death.

1778 British Captain James Cook arrives and the era of Western contact begins January 18. Cook names Hawaiʻi the "Sandwich Islands" after the Earl of Sandwich.

"Westerners Arrive in Hawaii" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

By the late 1770s about a dozen chiefs had risen to the level of supreme chief. Hawaiʻi was divided under these warriors when James Cook arrived in the islands. He was an insatiable explorer searching for a northwest passage. Cook's crew members brought many deadly diseases to the islands that decimated the Hawaiian population, including tuberculosis, syphilis, and gonorrhea. 

1779 Cook is killed at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaiʻi on February 14.

1819 Kamehameha I dies and Liholiho, Kamehameha II, becomes king. Ka'ahumanu, wife of Kamehameha I, has equal power to the king as Kuhina Nui (Prime Minister).

"King Kamehameha's Final Act" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

In 1819 King Kamehameha falls ill. On his death bed he follows the British monarchy's lead and names his eldest son as his heir. He names his favorite wife prime minister.

"Foundation of Hawaiian Law Destroyed" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

After King Kamehameha's death, Kamehameha II abandons the traditional religion. All religious images are burned and the temples destroyed.

1820 Congregational Church missionaries from New England arrive to fill the void left by the ʻAi Kapu.

"Missionaries Arrive in Hawaii" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

Pioneer missionaries left New England without any knowledge of the death of King Kamehameha or the overthrow of the traditional religious system. The party is led by Hiram Bingham and Reverend Thurston.

1822 Ka'ahumanu has the first laws printed by Elisha Loomis, the missionary printer. There are two and they are labeled "Notices." Available at page 128.

"Unintended Effect of Western Education" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

Queen Ka'ahumanu writes new laws based on the Ten Commandments. She heeds the demands of the missionaries that the traditional Hawaiian way of life be abolished. All traditional forms of passing on history, including hula, are outlawed.

1823 Kamehameha II (Liholiho) and Queen Kamāmalu contract measles in England and die. Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, is a minor, but becomes king with Ka'ahumanu as Kuhina Nui.

1825 Hereditary holding of land becomes part of the Hawaiian legal system. Prior to this, all land belonged to the Akua (gods) and was administered by the mōʻī (high chief).

1826 First Hawaiian/U.S. treaty of "friendship, commerce, and navigation."

1827 Law against adultery passed. Other, missionary-inspired laws like the prohibition against hula are passed.

1832 Ka'ahumanu dies. Kamehameha III repeals all recent Christian laws.

1833-36 Kamehameha III revives hula and other cultural practices once prohibited.

1836 Nahi'ena'ena, sister of Kamehameha III, dies. Kamehameha III converts to Christianity. Kina'u, half-sister of Kamehameha III, becomes Kuhina Nui (Prime Minister).

1839 Bill of Rights - King Kamehameha III secures protection to "all the people, together with their lands, their building lots, and all their property."

1840 Constitution - King Kamehameha III and Kuhina Nui continue to share executive authority; four kiaʻāina (governors) appointed with subordinate executive powers; elected bicameral legislature created; supreme court created; land now belongs to the chiefs and people with the king as trustee for all.

1841 New law allows Governors to enter into 50-year leases with foreigners.

1842 The "Tyler Doctrine" - the U.S. holds a greater interest in Hawaiʻi than any other nation; no other power will be allowed to seek exclusive commercial privileges in Hawaiʻi.

1843 Kamehameha III cedes the islands to Great Britain on Feb. 25 under force.

The Paulet Episode (Feb. 25 to July 31, 1843) - Hawaiʻi under British rule; commission headed by Lord George Paulet, commander of the British ship, Carysfort.

Great Britain eventually reinstates Kamehameha III as ruler of Hawaiʻi.

1845 With growing fears of a foreign takeover of Hawaiʻi and its land, the Board of Commissioners to Quiet Land Titles (Land Commission) is established. An act authorized the sale of Government Lands to foreigners.

1848 The "Great Māhele" - Kamehameha III's land distribution

A process, rather than a one time event, the Māhele begins the division of land between the king and chiefs. The lands retained by the king are divided into his personal lands and government lands. All awards are subject to the rights of the native tenants of the land. 

"Western Land Law in Hawaii" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

King Kamehameha III fills his cabinet with foreign ministers. Not everyone is pleased with the growing influence of missionaries.

"Annexationist Element in Hawaii" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

It is a new era of prosperity for missionary families. They start sugar and pineapple plantations. With wealth comes a desire for greater political control.

1849 Second Hawaiian/U.S. treaty of "friendship, commerce, and navigation."

1850 The "Kuleana Act" - makaʻāinana (commoners) are allowed to apply for an individual kuleana (land parcel) but are required to "prove" their claim by 1854 and pay survey costs. Commoners receive fewer than 30,000 acres as a result. Many reasons why makaʻāinana did not secure more kuleana parcels. One is that many did not understand the procedures for making a claim. Legislative passes an act in 1850 allowing any Hawaiʻi resident, regardless of citizenship, to convey and own land.

1852 New Constitution

1854 Kamehameha III dies; Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho) becomes king.

1856 Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho) marries Emma Kaleleonālani Naʻea Rooke, great-grandniece of Kamehameha I, grand-daughter of John Young.

1863 Kamehameha IV dies intestate (15 months after the death of his only son, Albert); Prince Lot (Lota Kapuaiwa), Kamehameha V, becomes king and calls for a new constitution.

1864 Constitutional convention deadlocks on Aug. 13 and Kamehameha V dissolves the Convention and declares a new Constitution reasserting the powers of the Mōʻī (King). The 1864 Constitution increases the power of the King and changes the way the kingdom's legislature works. It also requires voters born after 1840 to pass a literacy test and meet certain property requirements, later repealed in 1874.

1865 Act passes designating all of the King's lands as "Crown Lands" and declaring them inalienable to address the issue created by Kamehameha V's death.

1872 Kamehameha V dies. No successor is named. William Lunalilo is first elected king by popular vote. 

1873 Lunalilo takes the throne Jan. 12.

1874 Lunalilo dies on Feb. 5 without naming a successor. Kalākaua defeats Queen Emma, widow of Kamehameha IV, and is elected by the Legislative Assembly to become king.

"Treaty of Reciprocity of 1876" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

In 1874 the last Hawaiian king related by blood to the Kamehameha family (Lunalilo) died without leaving an heir. Two members of the royal family claimed title. A king who supported economic transformation is chosen. The U.S. has its eye on Pearl Harbor.

1887  King Kalākaua, a believer in the absolute right of kings, signs the "Bayonet Constitution" on July 6. This Constitution is drafted by a group from the Hawaiian League including Lorrin Thurston, Sanford Dole, William Ansel Kinney, William Owen Smith, George Norton Wilcox, and Edward Griffin Hitchcock, who threaten to use force if King Kalākaua refuses to sign it. Despite arguments over the scope of the changes to the Constitution that severely limit the monarch's powers Kalākaua signs it.

1891 Kalākaua dies in San Francisco on Jan. 20. His sister, Lili'uokalani becomes queen (Jan. 29).

"Beginning of the End" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

Hawaii's king dies while on a trip to California. His sister Princess Lili'uokalani becomes the next and last queen. 

1892 Native Hawaiians ask Queen Lili'uokalani for a new Constitution. Lili'uokalani signs bills licensing the sale of opium and granting a franchise to establish a lottery. The Committee of Thirteen plans a coup d'etat.

1893 The Committee of Thirteen renames itself the "Committee on Public Safety" and declares the throne vacant on Jan. 15. The U.S. overthrows the Hawaiian monarchy and Sanford Dole, a missionary descendant, negotiates an annexation treaty with the Harrison Administration. The treaty is not ratified before the Harrison Administration is replaced by the Cleveland Administration. President Cleveland delivers a message to Dole asking for his resignation and to restore "the legitimate government of Hawaii" to power. Dole refuses.

"Annexing Hawaii" in America Becomes a World Power. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Id=36214.

In the 1800s Americans established missions and built huge plantations, railways, docks, and hotels in Hawaii. Queen Liliʻuokalani opposes U.S. influence but surrenders her throne after a revolt by plantation owners, pressure from ambassador John L. Stevens, and the arrival of an American battleship. President Cleveland opposes annexation of the sovereign nation but Hawaiʻi is annexed in 1898 after William McKinley takes office.

"Hawaiian Monarchy Overthrown" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

On January 16, 1893 the independent kingdom of Hawaiʻi is illegally overthrown. Supporting the efforts of the Committee of Safety is the U.S. minister to Hawaiʻi.

"Overthrow of the Monarchy" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

On January 16, 1893 the Committee of Safety asks U.S. troops to protect Americans as they brought down the Hawaiian monarchy by force. Queen LIliʻuokalani yields her thrown believing that the legitimate U.S. government would do the right thing and reinstate her.

1894 The Dole government declares itself the "Republic of Hawaii."

"Attempt to Restore the Monarchy" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

July 4, 1894 the provisional government declares itself the Republic of Hawaiʻi. Queen Lili'uokalani is powerless but still has supporters. Rebels targeted for retribution and the queen is imprisoned in her own palace.

1896 William McKinley is elected president of the U.S. and is receptive to the annexation of Hawaiʻi proposed by Dole.

"End of the Hawaiian People" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

Queen Lili'uokalani abdicates to save the lives of her people. She is allowed to return home but is denied reinstatement of her monarchy. McKinley wants Pearl Harbor and brings the question of annexation before Congress.

1898 Through a joint resolution of Congress Hawaiʻi is annexed (the Newlands Resolution) on July 7. All Hawaiian Crown Lands are ceded to the U.S.

"Truth About Annexation" in Conquest of Hawaii. Films Media Group, 2003. Films On Demand. Item Number: 43044

June 11, 1898, Theobold Otjen of Wisconsin, speech on the annexation of Hawaii.  31 Cong. Rec. 496-502.  Available via Heinonline.

June 15, 1898, House debate on the Annexation of Hawaii.  31 Cong. Rec. 5967-6019. Available via Heinonline.

July 7, 1898, Joint Resolution (no. 55) to Provide for Annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States. 30 Stat. 750-51. Available via Heinonline.

On August 12, 1898 the Hawaiian flag is lowered and disrepectfully shredded. President of the Hawaiian Republic, Sanford Dole, presides over the ceremony. Many remain loyal to the former queen who questions the legality of the joint resolution.

Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen is published. It is freely available at

See also:  The Morgan Report

April 30, 1900  President McKinley signs the Organic Act making Hawaiʻi a territory. Sanford Dole is appointed the first governor. The Organic Act requires all voters to be citizens, over 21 years of age, reside in the territory at least one year before they can vote, and speak and read either English or Hawaiian. Once on the roll books, a voter's name stays there unless he fails to vote. 

1917 Queen Lili'uokalani dies.

1931-32 The Massie Case.

Dec. 7, 1941 Japan strikes Pearl Harbor.  Martial Law is declared.

1959 Hawaiʻi becomes a state.