The Ranching heritage of Hawai`i began with a gift from England and the assistance of Spain. In 1793, British sea captain George Vancouver gifted the Hawaiian King, Pai`ea Kamehameha, with long horned cattle. Kamehameha place a kapu (royal sacred protection) on the cattle, allowing them to roam and breed freely.
Within two decades, the animals had formed huge herds, eating native crops, and stampeding through villages, causing destruction and terror. Similar to the famed Texas Longhorn, the Hawaiian cattle were smart, wily, and very dangerous. The kapu had to be lifted to allow the capture of these animals.
John Parker, a New England sailor who jumped ship in 1809 and remained on Hawai`i, became a friend of Kamehameha. Parker did set sail one more time, but returned to make the islands his home 1812, and talked the king into granting him the right to hunt the wild cattle. Once the kapu was lifted, other people also began hunting the wild cattle, beginning the Hawaiian ranching industry.
The Hawaiian style of ranching included capturing wild bullocks by driving them into pits dug in the forest floor. Once tamed somewhat by hunger and thirst, they were hauled out up a steep ramp, and tied by their horns to the horns of a tame steer which knew where the paddock with food and water was. Many of the ranch fences and paddocks can still be seen today – and some remain in use – stone walls undulating over the lava fields. Wood was too rare in many areas to use for fencing, so stones provided a sturdy and readily available material.
By the 1830s, ranching was an important part of the Hawaiian economy. Hawaiian hides, tallow, and beef were important in international trade, and even supplied many outfits during the California Gold Rush.
At that time, King Kamehameha III decided to take a world tour, to meet other heads of state so that Hawai`i could take her place among the nations. On that tour, the King was impressed with the skill of the Mexican-Spanish Vaqueros. He requested the King of Spain send vaqueros to Hawai`i to train the Hawaiian in ranching, to modernize the industry and to make it more productive.
The vaqueros arrived on the Island of Hawai`i in 1832. The era of hunting wild cattle was over.
With their highly trained ponies, intricate high-horned saddles, and lariets, the vaqueros demonstrated handling and horsemanship as an art. They taught the Hawaiians to make saddles, to braid the kaula`ili (lariat), to craft `uepa kani (bullwhips) and the metalwork for bits and kepa pele (spurs). In talking with the Hawaiians, the men introduced themselves as “Español.” The closest the Hawaiian tongue could come to that was “Paniolo.” A man who worked cattle in the Spanish style was now a Paniolo.
Not only Hawaiian saddlery, but Hawaiian formal dress, owes much to the influence of 19th century Spanish fashion. The man’s tight-waisted shirt, full sleeves, and flowing sash, and the puffed sleeves and ruffled train of the woman’s holoku still show their Hispanic heritage. The paniolo’s hat often has the flatter crown and wider brim of its Spanish ancestor, rather than the height of the ten-gallon hat of the Western US.
In 1908, three Paniolo, Iku? Purdy, Archie Ka`aua, and Jack Low traveled to the World Rodeo Championships in Cheyenne, Wyoming. They were considered curiosities, and faced prejudice. Not taken seriously, they had trouble borrowing horses to use. Finally given scrubs, they trained the horses in the Hawaiian style – working them in a river to prevent them from fighting. Low was unable to compete due to his asthma, but Ka`aua took third place, and Purdy won first. He was proclaimed World Champion. Having won them over with his skill, determination, and style, Purdy was given a standing ovation by the crowd. Hawaiian Rough Riders was written in their honor. The name of the writer has been lost, but his or her poetry lives on.
Written by: Leilehua Yuen