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You would think that in a discussion about how the states got their shapes that Hawaii would be a no brainer. – – – ocean surrounds a few chunks of land and like magic the shape is defined.
But even Hawaii has a couple of surprises.
Since the islands of Hawaii were first formed by, and continue to have volcanic activity, the shape of the Hawaiian islands is still evolving slowly over time. The southern coastline of the “big island” has been altered a bit with recent dramatic lava flow for example, and erosion is an ongoing process for all of the islands.
But even more interesting is that the state of Hawaii isn’t actually just made up of those eight islands we so frequently show in maps. Hawaii actually has hundreds of islands and spreads for more than 1500 miles. What, you say?
In the 1800’s ship captains discovered a long string of small uninhabited islands in northern Polynesia. Many were perfect for what they needed – storage depots for coal . These were steamships that often traveled far from civilized lands and they needed places to refuel. In time they also discovered another valuable resource that was plentiful on the islands – guano. Also known as bat poop. Guano turned out to be an extremely valuable fertilizer, high in phosphorous and nitrogen and low in odor.
As in anything of value, this string of tiny uninhabited islands and reefs were of immediate interest to the American government. Previous to this time America did not have a colony or presence in the Pacific and not only did these islands provide a convenient place for refueling for that vital Far East trade market, but the location in the Pacific gave them the ability to establish a naval base. At the time a naval base was deemed important to protect that trade market, but that military capability also served to be extremely valuable much later in World War II.
In the meantime, the royal rulers of Hawaii were establishing their own boundaries and by the end of the 19th century claimed 16 islands, including the eight main ones we recognize on maps today. American industrialists (such as the Dole family) had begun to lease land from Hawaii for their businesses and eventually managed to oust the royal family. Sometime after that the U.S. declared Hawaii and the entire chain of tiny islands a U.S. Territory and in 1959 made Hawaii the fiftieth state.