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Few Mainlanders Realize that Three Generations of Cowboys Lived, Worked and Died in Hawaii Before Ever White Men Brought Cattle to Wyoming and Montana: Photo by Carol Gilliland

Few Mainlanders Realize that Three Generations of Cowboys Lived, Worked and Died in Hawaii Before Ever White Men Brought Cattle to Wyoming and Montana: Photo by Carol Gilliland

By Donnie MacGowan

The cattle industry in Hawaii began on February 22, 1793, at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. British Navigator George Vancouver presented to Kamehameha I four cows, two ewes and a ram he had brought from Monterrey, Mexico. In January of 1794, Vancouver landed many more cattle at Kealakekua and formally requested a kapu against killing them.

Kamehameha ordered the first cattle pen in Hawai’i to be built at Lehu’ula. Still in use today, the paddock enclosed over 400 acres.  However, many of the cattle ran wild, and with the kapu against killing feral cattle in place, the wild herds became enormous and unmanageable.

Archibald Menzies, Vancouver’s ship surgeon, wrote in his diary in 1793: “When they [the cattle] stampeded, they ran up and down the country to the no small dread and terror of the natives who fled from them with the utmost speed in every direction.”

Cows Graze the Upper Slopes of Kohala Mountain: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Cows Graze the Upper Slopes of Kohala Mountain: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

For over thirty years the kapu against killing wild cattle was in force and the rapidly growing wild herds destroyed farmland, ate crops, often stampeded through villages destroying homes and claiming numerous lives.  On June 21, 1804, the first horse and mare were landed on the Kona side of the Island of Hawaii, and the days of the free ranging cattle were coming to a close as the number of mounted men increased and they began to coral and tame the wild herds.

Kamehameha lifted the kapu on killing wild cattle in 1830; the rapid increase in whaling ship traffic about this time had caused a great rise in demand for fresh and salt beef. And soon the wild herds were being thinned to meet this demand.

Unused to herding the large, unruly beasts, initially the Hawaiians simply dug deep pits, similar to “tiger traps” and stampeded the cows past them, hoping to catch a few.  This was not only inefficient, it had unintended consequences, as well.  In 1834, Sir David Douglas, the Scots botanist for whom the Douglas Fir is named, died in one of these pits.  Whether killed by the fall, killed by the bull that later fell on top of him, or was murdered by the Englishman Edward Gurney (bull hunter and escaped convict) for his gold and then tossed into the pit was never determined.  A monument to Douglas has been erected at the site of his death, Kaluakauka, off Mana Road on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

At this point, the history of Hawaiian ranching introduces one of its more colorful characters, John Parker, founder of Parker Ranch, which is still today the largest cattle ranch in America wholly under private ownership. Parker’s story in Hawaii starts back a bit in 1809 when as a 19-year old  sailor, he jumped ship on the Island of Hawai’i.

Coming to the attention of King Kamehameha the Great, Parker was trusted with many organizational tasks which the King believed would help him bring the Kingdom of Hawai’i into modern times.  During the War of 1812, John Parker was allowed to go to China seeking adventure, fame and fortune, but returned to Hawai’i bearing many modern inventions to show the King, including the newest models of military muskets.

With his modern weaponry, Kamehameha gave John Parker the task of shooting many of the feral cattle rampaging the countryside.  Parker taught the natives how to render the meat into salt beef which was then sold to the passing whaling and merchant ships and soon became Hawai’i’s number one export.  For this, John Parker was given an initial grant of 2 acres land by the King.  When he married Princess Kipikane in 1816, Kamehameha the Great’ granddaughter, she was granted some 640 acres…this is how the Parker Ranch began.   Parker asked for lands surrounding the area the Hawaiians referred to as “Waimea”,  which means “sloppy” or “muddy” in Hawaiian.

John Parker Knew the Lush Grasslands Around Waimea Were Perfect for Ranching: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

John Parker Knew the Lush Grasslands Around Waimea Were Perfect for Ranching: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

There is some irony here, as the Hawaiians considered this land nearly worthless—at considerable altitude, cold and rainy, it was no good for producing traditional Hawai’ian food crops and uncomfortable for living in traditional Hawai’ian homes.  However, Parker saw it was perfect for raising cattle.  Much to the private mirth of the Hawaiians, he kept buying and adding land to his holdings until today; the ranch he started covers nearly 10% of the Island’s landmass, a whopping 150,000 acres.

At Parker’s suggestion, Kamehameha recruited California Vaquero Joachin Armas to help contain the wild cattle and train local cowboys.  As the years went by, more Spanish mission vaqueros from California came to work for the burgeoning cattle industry.  They brought their trained horses, Spanish saddles, spurs, sombreros and Spanish traditions of cattle ranching, passing them on to the Hawai’ians they trained.  They also trained the Hawaiian to work leather, jerk beef and cure hides.  Soon, hides and tallow were a major Hawaiian export.

The Hawai’ians called the vaqueros “paniolos”, their linguistic corruption of the Spanish word “Español”; which today remains the island word for “Cowboy”.

Early Hawaiian Cattle Brands: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Early Hawaiian Cattle Brands: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Cattle born on the Island of Hawaii were often shipped live to other islands and the mainland.  In the early days, cows were simply run down into the surf, swum out to longboats and secured to the boat by lashing their horns to the gunwales, then rowed out to the waiting ship.  In the late 1800s, piers and docks began to be built at various shipping spots around the island and the cows were unceremoniously hoisted by crane onto the deck of the waiting ships.

In recent years, due to fears of further ground-water contamination, laws against building new slaughterhouses were passed in Hawaii.  In order to prepare the beef for retail sale, many cattle today are shipped live to the mainland for slaughter and butchering via ocean-going barge; others are loaded aboard converted, air-conditioned, 747s and flown live to California.  Seriously.  I am not making this up.

Ranch culture by its nature is fairly isolated.  As such, over the years this allowed the Paniolos to preserve many Hawaiian traditions, such as the art of Hula and the Hawaiian Language, both of which the missionaries actively tried to eradicate.

A direct benefit of this isolation and the cultural cross-pollination that is not immediately identified with the cattle industry was the advent of modern Hawaiian music.  When the Mexican vaqueros moved to Hawaii, they also brought their guitars and their love of music.  A deeply musical people themselves, the Hawaiians were intensely interested in these, the first stringed instruments they had ever seen up close.  Fearing the Hawaiians would steal their guitars, the Mexicans would de-tune them after use, making it much more difficult for the curious Hawaiians to unlock their musical secrets.  However the Hawaiians were more than clever musically and quickly learned to make their own tunings.  Instead of the standard European tunings which require various fingerings to make chords, the Hawaiians worked out their own open chord tunings that more suited the key and style of their indigenous music.  Called “slack key guitar” these unique tunings are one of the features that make the sound of Hawaiian music so distinct.  The signature Hawaiian musical instrument, the ukulele, was actually introduced by Portuguese settlers.  In Hawaiian, “ukulele” means “dancing flea”.

The modern connection to all of this is that without ranching and without the importation of Spanish vaqueros and their guitars, there would be no rock music.  Don’t believe me?  Hawaiian slack-key guitar virtuosos invented the steel string guitar.  Without steel string guitars, no electric guitars would ever have been possible.  No electric guitars, no rock music. So next time you’re rocking out with your MP3 player, take a moment and silently thank King Kamehameha the Great for his extreme foresightedness…

Hawaii ranches also produced some of the greatest cowboys of all time, the best remembered of whom is Ikua Purdy, winner of the 1908 World Roping Championship at Cheyenne Frontier’s Day.

In 1907 the owner and manager of Pu`uwa`awa`a Ranch, Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low, attended Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Knowing his cowboys far excelled their mainland contemporaries, in 1908 he sent Jack Low, Archie Ka`au`a and  Ikua Purdy (his brother, half brother and top hand) to compete in Cheyenne.

Statue of Hawaii's Most Famous Paniolo, Ikua Purdy, In Waimea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Statue of Hawaii's Most Famous Paniolo, Ikua Purdy, In Waimea: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

As colorful in their hats with flower lei and vaquero-style chaps as they were masterful in the competition, they took Frontier Days by storm.  Ikua Purdy won the steer-roping contest in 56 seconds, Archie Ka`au`a came in second and even though he had an asthma attack during the competition, Jack Low placed sixth.  Eben Low always said Hawaiian cowboys were the world’s finest because they dealt primarily with wild and feral cows.  In 1999, Ikua Purdy became the first Hawaiian ever voted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Cattle ranchers were also important to Hawaii’s contribution to the war effort during the Second World War.  During the years 1943-1945 more than 50,000 marines of the 2nd and 5th Marine Divisions, Navy sailors and Army soldiers used Camp Tarawa, located almost entirely on the Parker Ranch, for rest and recuperation from the historic assault on Tarawa, as well as training for the assaults on Iwo Jima, Leyte and Guam and the occupation of the Japanese home island of Kyushu.

Visiting paniolo country on the island of Hawaii means traveling to Waimea town, snuggled deeply between Mauna Kea and Kohala Volcano.  Sometimes startlingly sunny, sometimes shrouded in mist or rain, Waimea is also the scenic heart of the mountain country, which cries for exploration. From here one can take stunning Highway 250, the Kohala Mountain Road, an incredibly beautiful drive through upland pasture, meadow and forest to the old-time Hawaii town and artist community at Hawi.

Simply touring between Kona and Hilo through Waimea also is a wonderful trip from dryland forest through the upland lava flows and rolling grasslands of the Kohala-Mauna Kea Saddle and down again through eucalyptus forests to tropical jungle-filled canyons and the feral sugar cane fields of the Hamakua Coast.

Waimea Celebrates its Ranching Roots With The Cowboy Boot Statue: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Waimea Celebrates its Ranching Roots With The Cowboy Boot Statue: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Waimea offers some of the finest shopping, restaurants and the most modern hospital on the island. There are two large shopping centers, a fine art museum and “Restaurant Row”, a street of eating establishments that rival any restaurants on the island. Although it seems a little rough and tumble and jeans and flannel shirts appear to be the uniform, Waimea is actually a very sophisticated town and an enjoyable place to visit.

For more information on visiting Hawaii in general or visiting the Big Island in particular, please also visit and  Information on the author is available here.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan (except where otherwise noted).

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