Captain James Cook became the first European to reach the Hawaiian Islands on his third voyage in January 1778. After exploring the further reaches of the Pacific over the following year, he stopped in the Hawaiian Islands again and was killed in an altercation with natives. A century and a half later, Hawaii was a territory of the United States. A group of Hawaiian socialites set out to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Cook’s landing; one of their proposals was a commemorative half dollar. The proceeds were slated for the establishment of a memorabilia collection related to Cook’s voyage, which today resides in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.
As Hawaii was not yet a state, the territorial delegate to Congress, Victor S. K. Houston, introduced the authorizing legislation in December 1927. Surprisingly, Houston’s bill was bolstered by a letter from Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who usually opposed the issuance of commemorative coins. When a Norse-American commemorative coin had been proposed in 1925, Mellon’s Treasury Department opposed the measure, and a commemorative medal was issued, instead. This time, however, Mellon stated that he did not object. The legislation was signed by President Calvin Coolidge in March 1928.
Even before the legislation passed, work had begun on the coin’s design. Juliette May Fraser, a Hawaiian artist, was selected to prepare sketches for the new half dollar. Her sketches were forwarded to the federal Commission of Fine Arts. James Earle Fraser, the designer of the Buffalo nickel and no relation to Juliette, suggested New York sculptor Chester Beach to prepare dies for the coin. Beach had previous experience with commemorative coins, having designed the 1923 Monroe Doctrine Centennial half-dollar. Beach’s design includes Captain Cook facing westward on the obverse, and a Hawaiian chieftain on the reverse. The reverse design is based on a statue of King Kamehameha I, the ruler of Hawaii at the time of Cook’s landing. Both Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head can be seen in the background.
Beach was forced to revise his design several times. The Mint’s Chief Engraver, John R. Sinnock, raised concerns that the high relief of the design would cause difficulties in the production process. Delegate Houston brought a number of complaints about the design itself, leading to a back-and-forth revision process. A frustrated Beach forwarded his final models to the Mint with a letter suggesting Delegate Houston ought to invite Beach and his family to vacation in Hawaii for inspiration if further revisions were desired.
Just 10,008 coins were produced, with the eight coins in excess of the authorized mintage produced for the satisfaction of the Assay Commission (as was typical). Fifty pieces were produced with a special sandblasted proof finish, made in a process similar to the matte finish proof gold coins of 1908-1915. The coins sold well and owing to their low mintage they are among the rarest and valuable commemorative half dollars.