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Territorial Years

The Territory of Hawaii was created on July 7, 1898, when Congress passed the Newlands Resolution annexing Hawai'i to the United States. The formal ceremony took place in Honolulu on August 12, 1898. The Newlands Resolution created a commission to study what laws were necessary to govern Hawai'i, but in the interim the laws of the Republic of Hawaii were to remain in effect unless they were contrary to the U.S. Constitution.

President McKinley appointed five commissioners to report on what laws Congress should pass for Hawaii. They were U.S. Senators Cullom and Morgan, Congressman Hitt, and President Dole and Justice Frear of Hawaii. Their report was debated by Congress for over a year because of a fear that it would lead to admission of Hawaii as a State. The objection to statehood was that the population was not European in origin.


In 1900 Congress passed An Act to Provide a Government for the Territory of Hawaii (alternate link). This law is referred to as the Organic Act, and established the form of government of the Territory of Hawaii.

The Territorial economy was based upon sugar and pineapple. The plantations employed about 36,000 unskilled agricultural laborers, most of whom were Japanese or Chinese. Of an additional 2,000 skilled laborers on the plantations, most were European. Wages and living accommodations depended upon your job, and your race. Europeans got paid more and got better quarters. You should read the report of Secretary of the Bureau of Immigration in Hawaii to get a flavor of how labor was viewed in Hawaii in 1900.

The biggest event in the history of the Territory of Hawaii was the attack on Pearl Harbor, and World War II. Governor Poindexter declared martial law, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, closed the local courts, and turned over the powers of government to the military. President Roosevelt approved this action, and the military ruled Hawaii until October 24, 1944. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this declaration of martial law, and trial of civilians by military courts, was invalid.

Those of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the United States were interned during World War II as a threat to national security. The tragedy of the Japanese 'relocation' is fully explored in various online sources. I recommend the National Archives Documents and Photographs Related to Japanese Relocation During World War II. Over 117,000 people of Japanese descent were relocated away from the coast to inland internment camps. 70,000 of these people were native born citizens of the United States. The United States eventually apologized and provided some reparations to those relocated.

In Hawaii, the Japanese were not relocated or interned. The usual explanation is that we knew our Japanese neighbors better than did the people on the mainland. The real answer is probably they were needed on the plantations, and the plantations had political pull. A very few prominent Japanese were interned, but nowhere near the complete relocation undertaken on the mainland.

The economy and government of the Territory of Hawaii had largely been controlled by the Big Five corporations or plantations, and Hawaii was solidly Republican. After World War II, the returning Japanese-American service men felt they should be able to participate in the government they just fought to defend. They were generally ignored by the Big Five and the Republican Party. The Democratic Party had no such silly prejudices, and Hawaii has been solidly Democratic since the 1950s.

These returning veterans also were not content to go back to the old life on the plantation.

"But the grip of the Big Five control over Hawai'i would continue until the fifties. By the late forties labor had achieved a considerable degree of solidarity forged in a number of key strikes that aimed to establish the principle of wage parity in the islands. Employers had always paid local workers less than the standard wage paid to workers on the West Coast of the United States. The 1949 Longshore Strike that lasted six months and crippled the Territory's economy was the greatest single battle in that campaign. The employers and their spokesmen in the media seized upon the popular fears of the day and tried to portray the unionists as communists. And an anti-union organization called IMUA was formed to stir up the community against the strikers.

"Five years later not only had wage parity been achieved, but the political domination of the Big Five was ended and a newly elected Democratic majority commanded both houses of the territorial legislature.

- UH Center for Labor Education & Research,
A Brief History of Labor in Hawai'i

Next: Statehood

About the Author:  Brian N. Durham is currently editor of My Hawaii News, a publication of The 'Ohana Network.  A retired Coast Guard officer with 22 years of service, Brian is a member of the Hawaii Bar and has worked for the Hawaii State Legislature and the Linda Lingle Campaign Committee.

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