Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on the Russian Fort Elisabeth in Waimea, Kaua‘i’s Westside.
By Chris Cook
Interest is growing in the ruined rock walls and embankments of Russian Fort Elisabeth at Waimea. The years 2015 through 2017 will mark the bicentennial of the construction by Hawaiians and use by the Russian American Company.
Looking ahead, the West Kaua‘i Business and Professional Association began clearing overgrowth at the State Historical Park Russian Fort Elisabeth in 2006. Volunteers, in cooperation with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, cut back foliage creeping up the basalt rock walls, and removed trees threatening to undermine the historic basalt rock walls. To pull out invasive kiawe trees, a heavy-duty crane was brought to the fort to pull them out in order to avoid disturbing the 20-foot-high walls or causing the red dirt earth along the Waimea River side of the fort to collapse. The association’s work continues today looking ahead to the upcoming 200th anniversary of the 1815-1817 construction and manning of the historic 300-foot by 450-foot star-shaped fort.
Russian Fort Elisabeth is one of the few remaining historic sites in Hawai‘i from the era between Captain Cook’s opening up of Hawai‘i to the West in 1778 and the arrival of Protestant American missionaries in 1820, with Samuel Ruggles and Samuel Whitney arriving that summer with George Prince Kaumuali‘i, the son of King Kauamuali‘i whom they returned from New England.
Peter Mills, head of the anthropology department at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, provided a close look at the fort in his book “Hawaiʻi’s Russian Adventure,” including descriptions of the Pa‘Ula‘Ula Hipo heiau that underlies the fort.
A new monument with Kaua‘i ties to the Russian American Company’s far-flung adventures in the early 1800s is now open along the Hoh River in the West End of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The monument commemorates the Sv. (Saint) Nikolai schooner expedition and shipwreck.
The Russian American Company governor Alexander Baranov sent the Nikolai south from his island castle in Sitka, Alaska to seek a colonization site where he hoped to raise livestock and grow produce on a farm to supply his colony. The Russian American Company brought in enormous profits from sea otter fur hunting along a great stretch of the Pacific Northwest, but was encircled at their headquarters by hostile Indian tribes and often faced starvation.
Twenty-two crew members and passengers aboard the Sv. Nikolai wrecked north of the Quillayute River in the fall of 1808. All were taken into captivity by and divided among the Quileute, Hoh and Makah tribes whose homelands are located in the northwest tip of Washington State. Survivors were ransomed in 1810 by Captain Thomas Brown, an American with Hawai‘i ties.
Today, the hull of the Nikolai is believed to lie under the black sands of an Olympic Peninsula Pacific coast beach. If found, the hull would be a major artifact find from the early years of Kamehameha’s Kingdom of Hawai‘i. The 45-foot-or-so-long schooner was originally built along the shores of Waikiki by Kamehameha in building up his Kaua‘i invasion fleet in the early 1800s. The Nikolai’s wood hull, with a cooper sheathing below its water line, is likely made of various Hawaiian woods.
Anecdotal accounts have the hull spotted uncovered of beach sand by wandering picnickers prior to World War II, though no artifacts of the wreck are known to have been found except for caches of long strands of deep-blue trade beads.
To be continued Sunday