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The Story of the Hawaiian Cowboys

Hawaiian cowboys

Hawaiian cowboys on parade.

The Storied Tradition of Our Hawaiian Cowboys

Many outside of Hawaii are probably unaware of its rich cowboy and ranching traditions. Students of history should take note Hawaii had such traditions well before the American West actually had its own. The American West tradition began later in the mid-1800s. Here is the rich and storied history of the Hawaiian cowboys.

Hawaii’s ranching and cowboy history began in the Waimea area of the Big Island of Hawaii. It began sometime in in the late 1700 to early 1800 time frame. This was when British sea captain George Vancouver gave five long horned cattle to king Kamehameha as a gift. The cattle were not in good shape after a long sea journey. So Kamehameha made it kapu (off-limits) to harm or possess the cattle. He allowed them to roam as well as breed freely. But after two decades, the cattle had grown into thundering herds, often causing destruction and terror.

The Need for Hawaiian Cowboys

There was an urgent need to get these huge herds of wild cattle under control. Around 1815, King Kamehameha sought the help one of his haole (foreigner) advisors, John Palmer Parker. Parker was a gun owner and good marksman. He shot the cattle, salted their meat, tanned their hides and sold them to passing ships. Parker shot and killed many cattle. But he was wise to keep some of the best ones for his own ranch. Parker later married the granddaughter of King Kamehameha. In turn, this allowed him to acquire huge tracks of land to expand his ranching operations.

Reportedly, Parker hired Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) to work on his ranch in 1832. They were expert horsemen with plenty of cattle ranching experience. They also trained his Hawaiian ranch workers to become cowboys.

But others have another version of the story.  Around the same time, King Kamehameha’s successor, Kamehameha III, was on a world tour. While on the tour, he became impressed with the skill of Mexican-Spanish vaqueros. As a result, he convinced the King of Spain send a number of them to Hawaii to train his people in ranching and horsemanship.

The Role of Parker Ranch

Perhaps it’s not as important whether it was Parker, Kamehameha III or both who brought the vaqueros to Hawaii. What is probably more important is that the vaqueros had significant impact on the Hawaiian economy back in the early to mid-1800s. It shaped the history of the Waimea and other areas where with large ranching operations in Hawaii. Partially because of the vaqueros’ training, Parker Ranch became the largest privately-owned ranch in America.

But the vaqueros had an even longer lasting influence on Hawaii’s culture and arts. These are traditions associated with the men whom the vaqueros trained and mentored. These are the Hawaiian cowboys or the paniolos. Under the vaqueros’ stewardship, the paniolos became outstanding horsemen and ranchers. They even shocked the world when paniolos from Parker Ranch won a world rodeo championship in 1908. It even included Ikua Purdy who was John Parker’s great-grandson. Since then, these men have been forever commemorated in Hawaiian history as the “Hawaii Roughriders.”

Paniolo Vs. Paniola

Depending on who you speak to, some refer to the Hawaiian cowboy as the paniola, rather than paniolo. The word paniola is said to come from the so-called Hawaiianization of the word Spanish word Española (someone from Spain). The word was apparently changed to paniolo to match the masculine form of words in Spanish. Most people today use the term paniolo to refer to Hawaiian cowboys. But some still prefer paniola as the word paniolo supposedly has some negative connotations.

Hawaiian Cowboys Today

In addition to mentoring Hawaiian men on horsemanship and ranching, the vaqueros shared their lifestyles and cultures with those whom they worked and lived with. This was particularly true in the areas of music, clothing and traditions. Such traditions were very influential among the paniolos and were passed onto future generations. Many Paniolo traditions still thrive to this very day. They include the slack key style of guitar playing and the wonderful accompanying songs written for this musical style.

Today’s Hawaiian formal dress still owes much to the influence of 19th century Spanish fashion. A man’s shirt that fits snugly around the waist, the accompanying sash, a woman’s puffed sleeves and train of the holoku flowing gown are of Spanish origins. The paniolo heritage is also readily apparent during major Hawaiian events, parades and festivals. One example in the case of the pa’u riders. These are women on horses ornately dressed in colorful flowing garments with both wearing beautiful leis.

An example of the tadition of Hawaiian cowboys

Pa’u riders on parade.