1940 image of boy at Rowher cemeterey and Rowher cemetery circa 2000
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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Russian Fort
Island of Kaua'i, Hawaii
 
The Russian American Company flag at Russian Fort
Photograph by Hey Skinny, Flickr

Russian Fort, located in Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park, in Waimea on the Island of Kauai, was built by the Russian American Company (RAC) in 1817. The purpose of the fort was to establish a foothold for Russia in Hawaii by creating a fueling station in the Pacific Ocean and establishing a stable trading location for the shipping company. The fort is a reminder of the short Russian venture into Hawaii between 1815 and 1817.

The governor of the Russian Trading Company, located in Sitka, Alaska, wanted to procure food from Hawaii for the Alaska settlements and to resupply RAC ships on longer voyages across the Pacific Ocean. In 1815, the RAC ship Bering wrecked near Waimea, and Kaumualiʻi, ali'i 'ai moku (paramount chief) of Kauai, seized the ship's cargo. The following year Dr. Georg Anton Schäffer of Germany, a physician and agent of the RAC, was sent by the company to Hawaii to retrieve the remaining contents of the ship and seek compensation for any lost cargo.

Dr. Schäffer's orders were to first befriend King Kamehameha I, who had united all of the Hawaiian Islands into the Kingdom of Hawai'i, and then to gain his support in recovering the seized cargo from Kamehameha's rival Kaumualiʻi. If successful, Schäffer was directed to ask for compensation in sandalwood for the remaining value of the Bering's cargo. After that he was to discuss a sandalwood monopoly trade agreement between the RAC and the Kingdom of Hawai'i. Either way, with or without Kamehameha's help, Schäffer was ordered to retrieve whatever remained of the Bering's cargo and to recover the cost from Kaumualiʻi for whatever had been lost.

Schäffer attempted to carry out his orders and even treated Kamehameha and one of his wives for medical ailments, which gained Kamehameha's respect. Kamehameha chose to progress slowly in trade negotiations, however, and also declined to help the doctor in his dealings with Kaumualiʻi. Schäffer became frustrated with the speed of the negotiations, and decided to travel to the island of Kauai on his own.

Stone wall on the ocean side of Russian Fort
Photograph by Miss Kelly, Flickr

Schäffer's visit to Kauai quickly deviated from his original orders. He worked to befriend Kaumuali'i and instead of merely obtaining compensation from him for the Bering and establishing trade relations, Schäffer went further. He negotiated for return of the Bering's cargo and compensation plus an agreement for the RAC that involved becoming the protectorate of all of the islands Kaumuali'i claimed as his—Kauai, Niihau, Oahu, and Maui—in exchange for helping Kaumuali'i acquire additional islands and territories. The agreement also included a sandalwood monopoly for the RAC and a commitment by the Russians to assist Kaumuali'i with any conflicts he had with Kamehameha. While Kaumualiʻi had pledged allegiance to Kamehameha in 1810 and seemingly accepted his rule over all of the islands, he never really intended to give up Kauai and believed he could reclaim and expand his own kingdom with Russia's help. Dr. Schäffer agreed to this treaty and quickly sent word to both the RAC office and the Russian government in St. Petersburg about his diplomatic success.

While notification of his accomplishments and a response traveled to and from St. Petersburg, Russia, Dr. Schäffer constructed a fortified complex on the east bank of the Waimea River with residential buildings for 30 people, a garden, a trading complex, and a fort that flew the Russian flag. Known as Fort Elizabeth, it was a blend of European military architecture and Hawaiian building materials. The fort was constructed with star-like projections common in early 19th-century European forts and was built under the direction of Kaumualiʻi who used rocks from a former heiau (place of worship) in the construction of the walls. The fort's shape was an uneven octagon 300 feet by 400 feet, with 20-foot high walls that varied in width from 25 to 40 feet. The fort included a magazine, barracks, a Russian Orthodox Church, and additional buildings.

Plan of Fort Elizabeth (Russian Fort) c. 1885
Plan drawn by Capt. George Jackson
Courtesy of Peter T Young, Ho'okuleana

While the fort was still under construction, Dr. Schäffer received news that the Russian government rejected the treaty he had negotiated with Kaumuali'i. The Russians did not want to defend the islands controlled by Kaumuali'i from both Kamehameha and the American sailors and missionaries who had established a favorable relationship with the King and his government. Instead, the Russian government informed Dr. Schäffer that he had overstepped his responsibilities. This news spread quickly forcing Schäffer to flee the island before being attacked. He made his way to Russia where he was removed from his job and sent back to Germany.

Kaumuali'i's troops took over the fort after it had been abandoned by the Russians. One notable event for the fort after 1817 was the 21-gun salute fired from it in 1820 when Kaumaull'i's son returned home on the American Brig Thaddeus from school in the U.S. The fort was eventually acquired by the Hawaiian government for its military, but was dismantled in 1864.

The Russian Fort is a reminder of the brief Russian presence in Hawaii. The outer stacked stonewalls of the fort remain and on the inside are the foundations of the magazine, barracks and other buildings. Visitors can enjoy the seascape views, a walking tour, and use images at the site to imagine what the complex looked like in the 19th century.

Plan your visit

Russian Fort, a National Historic Landmark, is located on the Island of Kauai in Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park, Waimea, Kauai, HI. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The park is one mile southeast of the town of Waimea on the bluffs above the mouth of the Waimea River and can be reached from Hawaii Route 50 (Kaumuali'i Highway). The site is open daily during daylight hours. There is no admission fee. For more information, visit the Hawaii State Parks website or call 808-274-3444.

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