The Incredible Story of John Young

Stranded in the Sandwich Islands

In 1790, a 46 year old British sailor from Liverpool, England, named John Young, became stranded on Hawai‘i Island. He had been serving as a boatswain aboard the Elenora, the first American ship to visit Hawai‘i, when, through a series of events, he was prevented from returning to his ship. While on shore leave at Kealakekua Bay, the powerful chief Kamehameha is said to have decreed that it was kapu (forbidden) for anyone to enter the water. Because the Elenora was anchored just offshore, John was unable to return to his ship, as the punishment for violating the chief’s command was immediate death. After several days of anxious waiting, John’s ship finally left to continue its voyage to China. Noticing his plight, and potential usefulness, Kamehameha brought John Young to Kawaihae, where he was building the massive temple, Pu‘ukoholā Heiau.

The Foreign Advisors

For the next several years, John Young, and another British sailor, Isaac Davis, went on to assist Kamehameha in his unification of the Hawaiian Islands. Because of his knowledge of European warfare, John is said to have trained Kamehameha and his men in the use of such weapons as muskets and cannons. As well, both John Young and Isaac Davis fought alongside Kamehameha in his many battles. John was instrumental in building fortifications throughout the Islands, which included the conversion of Mailekini Heiau into a fort, which he armed with as many as 21 ship cannons. Because of his common practice of yelling “All Hands!” during battle and training, the Hawaiians came to know John by the name Olohana, a corruption of this English phrase. John also served as a negotiator for the king, securing various trade and political agreements with some of the foreigners that visited the Islands. When Captain George Vancouver visited Hawai‘i Island in 1793, he observed that both Young and Davis,

“are in his [Kamehameha's] most perfect confidence, attend him in all his excursions of business or pleasure, or expeditions of war or enterprise; and are in the habit of daily experiencing from him the greatest respect, and the highest degree of esteem and regard.”

Although this might seem ideal, John Young admitted to a visiting Captain in 1816,

“We were by no means sleeping on beds of roses, for our situation was most arduous, responsible, and trying, but we were under many obligations to the king, whom we resolved to defend with all our might. If honesty is the best policy, gratitude for past favors ought never to be obliterated from the mind.”

The Elder Statesmen

John Young the sailor had become Olohana the high chief. From 1802 to 1812, John served as the royal governor of Hawai‘i Island, ruling the Island from his home in Kawaihae. During that time he was responsible for collecting taxes, attending royal business on other islands and meeting with the many foreigners that came to the Island.

When he met with foreign ships, John seemed to take pleasure in addressing his visitors’ curiosity about his unique position of authority. In his book Astoria, Washington Irving recounts the meeting of John Young with the crew of the Tonquin in February 1811,

“On coming to anchor [at Kawaihae] the captain went on shore…and paid a visit to the governor. This dignitary proved to be an old sailor, by the name of John Young; who, after being tossed about the seas like another Sinbad, had, by one of the whimsical freaks of fortune, been elevated to the government of a savage island.”

Though he was already nearly 70 years old when his governorship ended, his important role in Hawai‘i did not diminish in his last years.

In 1819, John was one of the few present at the death of Kamehameha and is said to have participated in the king’s secret burial. He then actively assisted Kamehameha II (Liholiho) in retaining his authority over the various factions that arose at his succession to the throne. John was present for the ending of the kapu system in 1819 and, a few months later, advised the new king to allow the first Protestant missionaries to settle in the Islands. Finally, in 1835, at the age of 93, John Young, statesman, high chief, friend and advisor to Kamehameha the Great, died at his daughter’s home on O‘ahu. Although he was dead, his legacy would continue to live on through his children and descendants.

A Lasting Legacy

Although very little is known about his first 46 years of life, it is known that during his life in Hawai‘i he married into the family of Kamehameha and had several children. John’s descendants went on to play significant roles in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. His son by his first wife, James Young Kane-hoa, served as the translator for the ill-fated trip of King Kamehameha to England in 1824. He then served as the governor of Kaua‘i and Maui. Another son, John Young II (Keoni Ana), served in important positions under Kamehameha III and served as the Minister of the Interior until 1857, during the reign of Kamehameha IV. The most influential and prominent of his descendants was his granddaughter, Queen Emma. Besides her most notable accomplishment, the founding of the Queen’s Hospital, which still serves the people of Hawai‘i, she gracefully represented the Kingdom throughout the world, making official visits to the White House and Buckingham Palace. John Young and his granddaughter Emma are buried at the Royal Mausoleum on O‘ahu, the final resting place of the high chiefs and royalty of the Kamehameha dynasty.

Today, the National Park Service continues to recount the fascinating story of John Young to visitors from around the world. Through protecting the remains of the Young Homestead, the birthplace of Queen Emma (Pelekane) and Mailekini Heiau, Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Site helps ensure that John Young’s legacy will continue for generations to come. As you visit these sites, please join the National Park Service in protecting these special places in our Nation’s history.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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Pu'ukohola Heiau National Historic Site
62-3601 Kawaihae Road

Kawaihae, HI 96743


(808) 882-7218 x1014

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