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  • The Private Sorrows of the Overthrow
  • Ralph Thomas Kam (bio)

“Thus are tragic private sorrows, and momentous public events closely intermingled.”

The Friend, 1893

While many are familiar with the public tragedy of the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani, far fewer know of the private, personal misfortune that affected the families of two of the key United States participants in the events of January 17, 1893. The public actions of John Leavitt Stevens, American minister, and Gilbert Conwall Wiltse, captain of the U.S.S. Boston, especially during the establishment of a U.S. Protectorate over the Provisional Government,1 helped assure the success of the revolution that toppled the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Nothing could protect their private lives, on the other hand, from death and sickness.

Death of the Daughter of John L. Stevens

Amidst the national turmoil, personal calamity would strike the American minister less than two weeks after the overthrow. On January 30, 1893, Grace Louise Stevens (Figure 1), the thirty-seven-year-old daughter of John L. Stevens (Figure 2), and Mary Lowell Stevens (née Smith) (Figure 3), drowned off Kūka‘iau Landing at Hāmākua, [End Page 91] Hawai‘i, while trying to board an inter-island steamer to return to O‘ahu. The Friend gave a detailed account of her final moments:

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Figure 1.

A photograph of Grace Stevens by Elizabeth Hall (Mrs. W.W. Hall) was taken days before her death, which Lili‘uokalani considered “a judgment from heaven.” The husband of the photographer, W.W. Hall, was a member of the Committee of Thirteen, which forced the Queen’s brother, King David Kalākaua, to sign the “Bayonet” Constitution of 1887. Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives [PP-79-2-005].

She had been safely lowered into the boat of the Kinau, which had also pushed out towards the ship, but owing to a misunderstanding turned back. A heavy roller capsized the boat, which was shattered upon the rocks. The native mate, a powerful man, seized Miss Stevens, but a second roller tore her from his grasp and flung her against the rocks. A second boat came in and rescued the five natives, who were good swimmers, and recovered the body of the unfortunate lady.2

Save for the overthrow, Grace Stevens may never have attempted to board the Kinau from the Hawai‘i Island landing in rough seas: “Hearing of the revolution in Honolulu, and of her father’s need of her wonted aid as his private secretary, she hastened to his help, heroically [End Page 92]

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Figure 2.

John Leavitt Stevens, American minister during the overthrow, lost his daughter less than two weeks after the end of the monarchy. Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives [PP-79-2-015].

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Figure 3.

Mary Lowell Smith, mother of Grace Stevens, married John L. Stevens in Hallowell, Maine, on May 10, 1845. She became his widow on February 8, 1895. Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives [PP-79-2-008].

[End Page 93]

encountering the somewhat perilous, yet rarely disastrous transit from the precipice to the ship, in order to expedite her coming.”3

The body of Grace Stevens was returned to Honolulu on January 31, 1893. That same day the Provisional Government had requested a U.S. protectorate of Hawai‘i. Sanford Ballard Dole and his ministers wrote to Stevens: “Believing that we are unable to satisfactorily protect life and property, and to prevent civil disorder in Honolulu and throughout the Hawaiian Islands, we hereby, in obedience to the instructions of the Advisory Council, pray that you will raise the flag of the United States of America for the protection of the Hawaiian Islands for the time being.”4

The Friend records how the American minister reacted to personal heartbreak in the midst of diplomatic obligation:

On the night when the terrible blow fell upon his household, the Minister was deeply engrossed in preparing for the morning’s mail his final dispatches to his government respecting the revolution, and the raising of the American flag...


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