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Paniolos - Colorful Cowboys of Hawaii

Updated on May 10, 2013

Did You Know Hawaii Had Cowboys?

Cattle driven across lava fields. Bell spurs jingling over a sandy beach. Roping steers in the shadow of a volcano. Did you know that long before there were cowboys in the Wild West, there were cowboys in Hawaii?

Most people donât know that Hawaii has a thriving cattle industry, its roots going back to a gift of cattle from an English explorer and a far-sighted king. This gift gave birth to a rich tradition of ranch culture and had a huge impact on the economy. The sport of rodeo is older here than anywhere else in the United States, with the 4th biggest held each July 4 weekend. Hawaii is also home to the largest privately held ranch in the United States. Where did the cattle come from? When did the cowboys arrive? Read on to find out.

All pictures courtesy of the Paniolo Preservation Society

A Gift to A King

In 1793, Captain George Vancouver arrived at the Sandwich Islands - as Hawaii was then called - with a gift for the Hawaiian King Kamehameha I. He had brought five cattle, black longhorns from Monterey, California. King Kamehameha was pleased with the gift, and Vancouver returned the next year with more cattle, hoping that the animals would thrive and multiply on the islands. The natives called them pua'a pipi - beef pig - and to encourage the growth of herds, Vancouver suggested that Kamehameha place a kapu (taboo) on the animals, forbidding their slaughter. Kamehameha agreed, and a kapu was placed on them for ten years.

The California longhorns are similar to the Texan longhorns, with a huge spread of horns of some four feet. They have a temper and can weigh in at more than 1000 pounds. They are large, wily, fearsome animals and left on their own, they did multiply. Soon vast herds were roaming widely over the islands. With no natural predators, they became a danger to the islanders, foraging in the sweet potato, taro, yam and other crops and damaging the native forests in the mountains. Fences of volcanic rock and even prickly pear cactus could not keep them out. Something had to be done.

Who Is John Palmer Parker?

In 1809 a New Englander named John Palmer Parker jumped ship and made Hawaii his home. He became a good friend of Kamehameha, and in 1815, he was allowed to use his new American musket to shoot the cattle. The kapu was now lifted, and the hunt for cattle began. Parker learned to work with the wild cattle, teaching the Hawaiians to turn the meat into salt beef, which they sold to whaling and merchant ships. It became the number one export, replacing sandalwood as the chief product of the Big Island. This was the beginning of the beef, tallow, and hide industry.

The Cowboys Arrive

The wild herds on the islands were vast and dangerous, and King Kamehameha III wanted them brought under control. On a world tour, the King became impressed with the skilled Mexican-Spanish vaqueros. He sent a high chief to the mainland to bring back vaqueros that could subdue the cattle and teach his people the skills needed to round them up and control them. In 1832, vaqueros Kossuth, Louzeida, and Ramon arrived from Spanish and Mexico Alta California. They drew attention with their flamboyant dress, their distinctive sombreros, saddle, ropes and spurs. The Hawaiians called them paniolos, a play on the word espanol, and the name has stuck. Hawaiian cowboys are still called paniolos today.

The vaqueros were hardworking and fun-loving. They spent long days rounding up, roping and branding cattle, and evenings singing and playing their guitars. They mended and built fences for the domestication of the cattle and set about training the Hawaiians in all their skills. By the 1850s, paniolos would be moving onto ranches established throughout the islands.

A Cowboy Needs a Horse

What is a cowboy without a horse? In 1803, the first horses were brought on the brig the Lelia Byrd by Richard J. Cleveland. King Kamehameha I was the first to ride a horse on the islands. These horses were of Arabian and Moorish descent. They were fast, agile, and tough. Eventually, they were bred with other horses brought over from Great Britain and the United States. Today, a paniolo would choose a quarter horse; they respond quickly to commands.

Rounding Up the Wild Cattle

Rounding up the large, wild cattle was not an easy task. They needed to be domesticated, and could be dangerous when handled. Sometimes the cattle were lassoed in the mountains, then roped and tied to a tree. They were left overnight, so they would be tired and hungry. Weakened, they would be yoked with a domesticated animal who would lead them back to the ranch. Sometimes pits were dug in the forest floor. The animal would be fall in, to be led out by the paniolos later.

Piers and docks were built to help load the cattle onto ships. They were chased into the ocean, lashed by their horns to longboats, and rowed out to the waiting ships. Sharks in the surf could be a threat, but most of the cattle made it safely. They were hoisted by crane onto the ships.

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Ikua Purdy
Ikua Purdy

Steer Roping Championship

In 1908, several paniolos traveled to compete in the largest rodeo in the United States. It was the Frontier Days Rodeo in Wyoming, and two of the paniolos were Ikua Purdy and Archie Ka’au’a. They made quite an entrance in their colorful dress and their Hawaiian leas. Using borrowed horses, Ikua Purdy went on to become the world rodeo steer-roping champion, winning in 56 seconds. Archie came in third. In 1996, Ikua was nominated to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Hawaiian Rough Riders

Wonderful cowboys, pommel saddle on the horses

Pulling tight the lasso, bringing in the wild cattle

Aches, aches and pains, aches throbbing in the heart

Aches, aches and pains, aches throbbing in the heart

Famous are Ikua and Ka`aua, spirited lassoers

Here come the cowboys, the glory of my home

Aches, aches and pains, aches throbbing in the heart

Aches, aches and pains, aches throbbing in the heart

Anonymous Author

The Parker Legacy

John Palmer Parker established his ranch in Waimea on the Big Island. In 1816, he married the granddaughter of King Kamehameha I, Kipikane. The king initially gave him land grants of two acres, On her marriage, he gave Kipikane another 640 acres. At one time, the ranch had upwards of 300,000 acres. Although the acreage is less today, the Parker Ranch is still the largest privately held ranch in the United States.

The Parker Ranch isn't the only ranch running on the islands. Other outfits include the Kahu'a Ranch, the Kealakekua Ranch, and the Pu'uwa'awa'a Ranch on the Big Island, the Moloka'i Ranch on Molokai'i, and the late Ikua Purdy's Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui.

It all began with five heads of cattle and an enterprising king. The Hawaiians adopted the ways of those early vaqueros and made them their own. The paniolos tooled Hawaiian flowers on their saddles. They wrapped leis around the brims of their hats. They sang at dusk on their ukuleles. Today, they may round up cattle in jeeps, but the legacy of the paniolos lives on.

Did You Know Hawaii Had Cowboys?

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    • goldenrulecomics profile image

      goldenrulecomics 4 years ago

      I didn't know all that much about this, so your article is wonderful. Thanks much for sharing.