At the turn of the 18th century, the mighty Russian Empire was just beginning to extend its influence across the Bering Sea into their newly acquired territory on their third occupied continent: North America. Spearheading this expansion eastward was the Russian American Company, which had been tasked by Emperor Pavel I with a mission to built trading relationships with the native people and expand Russia’s colonial interests in the New World.
Pavlovsk (modern-day Kodiak, Alaska) and Novo Arkhangelsk (modern-day Sitka, Alaska) were established as the seats of governance in Russian America, and exploration missions into what is today the Pacific Northwest of the United States yielded bountiful—though oftentimes treacherous—trading opportunities. Russian influence would extend as far south as Fort Ross in California and eventually to the Hawaiian islands, if only for a short time.
In 1815, a party arrived in Hawai’i at the direction of the Russian American Company, hoping to establish a working relationship with the island leadership. Vessels traversing the Pacific on long voyages to and from Novo Arkhangelsk, mainland Russia or China, and Russian holdings in California needed a place to rest and restock. The Russian trading vessel Bering was dispatched to Hawai’i and proceeded to wreck off the coast of Waimea on the island of Kaua’i, prompting the Russian authorities to send Dr. Georg Anton Schäffer, a Russian American Company agent from Germany, the following year.
By 1816, Schäffer arrived with orders to befriend King Kamehameha and establish a working trading relationship with the sovereign Hawaiian nation, as well as retrieve compensation for the Bering’s wreckage from Kaumualiʻi, the Chief of Kaua’i. While his negotiations were mostly successful with Kamehameha, even befriending the king, Schäffer grew frustrated at the pace of negotiations and ventured on his own to negotiate with Kaumualiʻi directly. Schäffer and Kaumualiʻi hit it off right away, but much what Schäffer promised to Kaumualiʻi (such as support and protections against Kamehameha as well as American sailors via treaties and contracts) was rejected by the Russian government. Regardless, the construction of a Russian fort on Kaua’i had begun and a team of Hawaiian and Russian builders set out to create a proper fortification.
For a brief moment in history, from 1816 - 1817, the Russian flag flew above the Hawaiian Islands. Designed by Schäffer, Fort Elizabeth (Elizavetinskaya Krepost’, named in honor of Empress Elizaveta] was constructed with star-like projections common in early 19th-century European forts but constructed from Hawaiian materials including stones from an old heiau, a place of worship. The octagonal fort measured 300 feet by 400 feet, with 20-foot high walls that varied in width from 25 to 40 feet. Once the Russian government caught wind of Schäffer’s construction, they informed Schäffer that he had overstepped his responsibilities and ordered his immediate return. Fearing the news would spread and potentially lead to his harm, Schäffer fled Kaua’i, returning to Russia where is was discharged from his duties at the Russian American Company and promptly sent back to Germany.
Fort Elizabeth was used far into the 19th century by both Kaumuali’i’s forces and later the Kingdom of Hawai’i before eventually being dismantled in 1864. Today, Fort Elizabeth stands in ruins, but the outline of the walls of this geopolitical anomaly still stands to this day, along with a flag pole that once flew the Imperial tricolor of the Russian America Company at its center. Even the foundations of some of the fort’s structures remain as a reminder of the short-lived, but very present, Russian venture in Hawai’i.
Know Before You Go
From Lihue, take Highway 50 west (~30 minutes) towards Lawai. Keep heading west until you approach Waimea. The fort is located on the east side of the Waimea river, towards the coast from the highway.
There is no entrance fee and the site is open to the public 24/7.