With the Mobile Vancouver Project underway, William or "Kanaka Billy's" story has begun to unfold. Who was this man and how did he come to the Pacific Northwest? More research into his earlier years needs to be done, but until then here is what we know:
In 1845, Dr. McLoughlin asked the Hudson’s Bay Company to send to Fort Vancouver, a Hawaiian who was educated, trustworthy and able to “read the scriptures and assemble his people for public worship.” McLoughlin was concerned about the drinking, gambling, fighting, and other “corruptions” among the Hawaiians in Kanaka Village.
The person selected to fill this position was William R. Kaulehelehe, well known in Fort Vancouver history as “Billy” or “Kanaka William” and his wife Mary S. Kaai. He was not an ordained minister--no Hawaiians had been ordained by that date though some had already been formally licensed to preach by the Protestant missionaries--but he was a man of good reputation. And, it should be noted, McLoughlin did not get him for £10 per annum--well below the prevailing scale for Hawaiian laborers--but placed him on the rolls as “teacher” at an annual salary of £40, a rate about equalling that for the top European craftsmen on the Columbia.
As Sunday was the only free day available for gardening, carpentry, or recreation which the inhabitants of the village were reluctant to give up. Hawaiians hoped that Kaulehelehe would address some of their complaints about the HBC.
“The Hawaiians have repeatedly and daily asked me to see about their trouble of being repeatedly abused by the white people without any cause. They thought I had come as an officer to settle their difficulties. I said no, I did not come to do those things. I had no instructions from the King and ministers of the government in Hawaii to do those things. All that I have come for was the word of God and school.”
Throughout the 1850s, Kaulehelehe was not listed as a minister on the HBC records, but as a teacher. He established a small church (Owyhee Church) within the stockade—the only Hawaiian to live within the compound. Kaulehelehe returned briefly to Hawaii in 1850 when he discovered his family’s land had been taken for a sugar plantation.
About 1851 or 1852 the old Owyhee Church building seems to have been vacated, being so dilapidated as to be considered unsafe. It was finally pulled down between 1855 and 1858 and Kaulehelehe returned to the Village.
In early 1860, the Hudson’s Bay Company relocated to Victoria, British Columbia and gave up the Fort to the Americans. Kaulehelehe and his wife lived there for a few months until the U.S. Army removed the windows and doors from his home, carried him out by force, and burned the house in March of 1860.
In 1862, Kaulehelehe went to Fort Victoria, Canada where he worked as a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk and translator. He and his wife lived on Humboldt Street, an area known as Kanaka Row which was located where the current Empress Hotel is located. He was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery in 1874.
Excavation of the site of Kaulehelehe's home will happen when the Barracks become part of Fort Vancouver National Trust and funding becomes available.