Polynesians, probably from the Marquesas Islands, settled in the Hawaiian Islands in the seventh or eighth century A.D. Polynesians from Tahiti came around 1200. These early settlers lived in the fertile valleys and on the lowlands. Europeans may have visited the islands in the 16th century, but the European discovery of the islands is usually credited to Captain James Cook, a British navigator who arrived in 1778. He named the island group the Sandwich Islands in honor of his patron, the Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the British Admiralty. On a second visit to the islands in 1779, Cook was killed by a native following a dispute over the theft of a boat.

At the time of European discovery, Hawaii consisted of several independent kingdoms, each with a feudal society. The population was about 240,000. Kamehameha I, “the Great,” came to the throne of one of the kingdoms in 1782. With firearms and foreign advisers, he succeeded in uniting the islands under his rule in 1810. He died in 1819, but his dynasty continued until 1872.

Congregational missionaries from New England arrived in 1820. They devised an alphabet for the language, founded schools, and converted many of the people. Roman Catholic priests came a few years later. During this period agriculture was developed, industry was begun, and foreign trade was expanded. In 1843 the United States recognized the islands as an independent kingdom. The kingdom of Hawaii had a constitution with some democratic features. Late in the 19th century many Asians were brought in to work on the plantations.