I love to see new places, and so far I’ve managed to visit 23 of these 50 United States. Some of the visits were fleeting because I was just passing through on the way to somewhere else, but I’m counting them anyway. I’d like to see the remaining 27 states after we get over the current restrictions on mingling and as soon as I can make the time.
When I do get to travel, I have an idea where I’m going first. Right there, at the top of the list, is Hawaii, not because I’m that into beaches and sunbathing, but simply because I love history and exotic places, I like to get the longest journey over first and it’s the only state that’s an island.
To be accurate, it’s actually 137 islands, although only eight of them are considered to be the “main” islands, the rest are rather small and some of them are quite remote. Of the eight, I already know I won’t get to see Kaho’olawe. It’s uninhabited because during World War II and for many years afterwards, it was used by the navy and marines for training, earning it the nickname “Target Island.” Between 1997 and 2002, there was a project to remove unexploded ordnance from there, but some of it still remains, making it dangerous for the unwary visitor. The island now belongs to the State of Hawaii and has been designated an island reserve. Because of this, all commercial uses are strictly prohibited, and visitors are not allowed.
It also seems unlikely that I’ll get a chance to visit the seventh-largest island, called Ni’ihau. Although it does have a population, visitors are still not encouraged for rather a unique reason, the whole island, all 72 square miles of it, is privately owned by one family.
There are other private islands in the world, of course, but for the story of how this one came to be, we have to delve back into history.
Elizabeth McHutcheson, known as Eliza, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in April of the year 1800. Her parents were successful merchants and through them, she got to meet numerous ship’s officers. One of these men was Francis W. Sinclair, a respected Royal Navy Captain and, when Eliza was 24 years old, the pair married. Together they had six children, three boys and three girls.
It seems that the family had a taste for adventure and, when Eliza was 41, they packed their belongings and moved halfway around the world to New Zealand, settling in a place named Pigeon Bay and building a farm they called Craigforth. They were self-sufficient, employed no servants and prospered there for five years until, in 1846, Eliza’s husband and her eldest son took a ship to Wellington, the country’s capital. They carried with them all of the family’s money and that year’s produce and, somewhere on the way, the ship vanished.
Left a widow, Eliza struggled on as head of the family. It was hard at first, but they survived and began to prosper again. The children grew up, married and had children of their own. The clan was growing and by 1863, the estate at Pigeon Bay was no longer big enough for them. Eliza’s son, Francis, suggested they should move to North America and so, in June of that year, they sold their property and 13 of them set sail on a ship called the “Bessie” for Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The family’s aim was to repeat the success they’d enjoyed in New Zealand, but they were sadly disappointed. They found the land inhospitable, with thick forest that was almost impossible to clear because they had difficulty recruiting local labor to help with the task. Eliza decided they should not try and contemplated moving the family on to California. As luck would have it, they were friends with a man called Henry Rhodes who had a brother living in Honolulu. He extolled the virtues of what were then called the “Sandwich Islands” and persuaded the family to try there instead. Once more, they boarded the Bessie and, calling at San Francisco on the way, sailed to Honolulu.
They liked the islands and it seems the islanders liked them. The Sinclairs needed land on which they could settle and, after looking around for a while, were contemplating moving on, but the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha IV, wanted them to stay. As an incentive, he offered them several properties, including Ford Island, on Oahu. They still appeared to be thinking of leaving and so he offered to sell them the entire island of Ni’ihau instead. Eliza and her sons, James and Francis, went to look at it and offered the king $6,000 for it. He refused and asked for $10,000, or a yearly rent of $750. The brothers agreed to pay the $10,000 in gold.
King Kamehameha IV died before the transfer of ownership was completed but his brother, who succeeded him, honored the agreement and the Sinclairs moved in while at the same time also buying land on the nearby island of Kauai.
The family had brought merino sheep with them when they arrived and ten years after taking possession of the island, the inhabitants were listed as 350 people, including Hawaiian workers, and 20,000 sheep. Eliza Sinclair died on Kauai in October 1892, and in 1915, her grandson, Aubrey Robinson, as well as planting many thousands of trees, closed the island to visitors.
The U.S. Navy has had a small, unmanned installation on Ni’ihau for nearly a century, and today it is occasionally used for special operations training purposes. The island’s only other brush with warfare came in December 1941 when, during the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese fighter pilot crash landed on the island. Helped by three locals of Japanese descent, he was at large for a week before finally being killed by another local man and his wife.
Today the island is owned by Eliza Sinclair’s 2X-great-grandsons, Keith and Bruce Robinson. It is still closed to outsiders except for family members and their guests, and so, I guess I won’t be visiting there, but there are 135 other islands and I’d certainly like to see some of them sometime in the near future.