The Island of Kauai's historic Waimea River is famous as the initial landing site of Captain James Cook, the first European explorer to establish western contact with the Hawaiian Islands. While many visitors come to Waimea to swim and surf in the waters of Waimea Bay at the mouth of the Waimea River, others come to ponder its important history. Prior to Captain Cook's discovery, the Hawaiian Islands existed in virtual isolation, which allowed the native population to develop a unique culture. Once exposed to European influences, the population of the Hawaiian Islands underwent rapid social and economic change. Captain Cook's Landing Site at the mouth of the Waimea River serves as a reminder of the explorer's lasting impact on the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1776, Captain Cook and his crew departed England for his third and final voyage of Pacific exploration. Tasked with finding the Northwest Passage, Cook and his crew sailed on two ships - HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery - around the Horn of Africa and through the Indian Ocean south of Australia before turning north towards the Northwest Coast of America. On January 18, 1778, the crew sighted an unknown mountainous island in the distance, later identified as the Island of Oahu. Shortly thereafter, crew-members spotted another island toward the north, later identified as the Island of Kauai. Owing to the strength of the prevailing winds, Cook decided to head toward Kauai.
On January 20, 1778, near the mouth of the Waimea River, Cook spotted a potential anchoring site. He sent Lieutenant John Williamson ashore with three smaller boats to find a landing place and fresh water. Several hours later, Williamson returned with a report of an anchorage area on a beach located near a village next to a lagoon of fresh water. Cook anchored a mile off the beach and went ashore with three armed boats. After establishing friendly relations with the villagers and local ali'i (chiefs), Cook visited the fresh water lagoon and determined that the water was acceptable for drinking. The next day, he made an excursion up the Island's valley, taking note of the village, Indigenous peoples, temples, cultivated trees, and crops. Cook eventually left the island to continue his search for the Northwest Passage.
Roughly a year later in early January of 1779, Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands (then called the Sandwich Islands), this time visiting the Island of Hawai'i's Kealakekua Bay. His arrival coincided with the four-month religious festival known as Makahiki, which marked the return of the Hawaiian god Lono. Once again the islanders welcomed Cook and his crew, gifting the men with food and other offerings. Within a short time, several disputes, along with the exhaustion of native resources due to both the ships' needs and the Makahiki, strained relations between Cook and the islanders, forcing Cook to leave the island on February 4, 1779.
Shortly after departing, the ships ran into rough seas and swells, which damaged the foremast of HMS Resolution, forcing them to return to Kealakekua Bay a week later. This time, however, Indigenous people did not welcome the crew's return. They took items from the ships, including pieces of iron and a longboat from HMS Discovery. Cook had experience dealing with this, as the practice of stealing from ships was common in Tahiti and other islands across the Pacific. On February 14, Cook went ashore with nine Marines to force the return of the stolen items. They attempted to take one of the Island's most powerful ali'i, Kalaniopu'u, hostage until the stolen items were returned. Several thousand outraged Indigenous people prevented this, forcing Cook and his men to retreat to the beach. Cook and four Marines were killed while trying to launch the boats off the beach and the remaining crew-members retreated to the waiting ships.
Captain Charles Clerke, commander of HMS Discovery, took over the expedition after Cook's death. Clerke died after launching a failed attempt to pass the Bering Strait, leaving the ships under the command of Captain James King, a Royal Navy officer, and John Gore, a veteran of Cook's first voyage. King and Gore oversaw the end of the voyage in October of 1780, as the HMS Resolution and the HMS Discovery returned home to England.
The Cook Landing Site at the mouth of the Waimea River across from Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historic Park, recognizes Captain Cook's role in Hawaiian history. As the first European to have extensive contact with the native Hawaiian people, Cook opened up the Hawaiian Islands to external social, economic, political, and cultural influences. At the same time, his extensive records regarding the ecology of the Hawaiian Islands and its people helped preserve important Hawaiian history. Due to the tides, sand deposits, and ever-changing environmental conditions, the precise spot of Cook's landing is unknown. A stone wall and a breakwater at the west entrance of the site also contribute to the changed appearance of the beach. While these physical changes are important to acknowledge, they do not detract from the significance of the historical event that occurred at the site.