Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Select language English

Paniolos—The Cowboys of Hawaii

Paniolos—The Cowboys of Hawaii

 Paniolos​—The Cowboys of Hawaii

By Awake! writer in Hawaii

MANY visitors coming to the Hawaiian Islands are surprised to learn that there is a thriving cattle industry here, particularly on the Big Island, called Hawaii. Although the former sugar and pineapple plantations and Kona coffee are familiar, real live cowboys, or paniolos, seem strange and oddly out of place to the visitors. They ask, “How did cattle and cowboys ever come to Hawaii?”

The Arrival of Cattle

Cattle came to the Big Island of Hawaii way back in 1793 when an English ship’s captain and explorer, George Vancouver, brought them to King Kamehameha I as a present. Captain Vancouver was no stranger to the Hawaiian Islands, as earlier he had been with Captain James Cook, a famous British explorer, when the two of them became the first Europeans to tour the islands.

The king accepted the gift and was so pleased that Vancouver returned the next year, bringing more cattle and sheep. Vancouver hoped that the animals would thrive and multiply, providing an additional economic resource for the Sandwich Islands, as they were then called. To accomplish this objective, he suggested to King Kamehameha that he put in place a kapu (taboo) forbidding the slaughter of these animals so that they could multiply rapidly. The king immediately saw the advantage in this, and he proclaimed this kapu for a period of ten years.

 The Cattle Become a Nuisance

The cattle Vancouver introduced were longhorns from California. (See the illustration on page 18.) They were large, fearsome animals, with a huge spread of horns. The Hawaiians promptly named them pua‘a pipi (literally, beef pig) and gave them a wide berth, respecting the kapu. Left alone, the cattle roamed widely and multiplied profusely.

It was not long before these cattle became a nuisance! Having free rein and no predators, they began to do serious damage to native forests in the mauka (mountain) lands, and they frequently foraged in the gardens of the makai (lower, oceanside) lands, where the villagers grew their sweet potato, yam, taro, and other crops. Cattle fences of volcanic rock and even papipi (fences of prickly pear cactus) proved to be inadequate protection against these strong, fierce, and determined beasts.

It was not until about 1815 that an enterprising New Englander, John Palmer Parker, was allowed by King Kamehameha I to use his new, American-made musket to begin shooting some of the cattle that were now numerous and a nuisance on the Big Island. The beef, tallow, and hides from these animals were soon seen by the farsighted king as a valuable commercial asset, and indeed, salt beef would in time replace sandalwood as the chief product of the Big Island.

Vaquero to Paniolo

By the early 1830’s, the wild herds of cattle were so vast and dangerous that something had to be done. King Kamehameha III recognized the need to bring them under control. So he sent a high chief to Spanish California to bring back men experienced in herding cattle. Their  job would be to round up the cattle and to train Hawaiians to do the same. By then, the animals were not only on the Big Island but also on Oahu, Maui, and Kauai.

In 1832, Spanish, Mexican, and Indian vaqueros​—colorful, experienced cowboys who had learned their trade on Spanish-Mexican haciendas—​arrived in Hawaii. With their distinctive sombreros, saddles, ropes, and spurs, they were soon dubbed paniolos because of their Spanish, or español, background. The name stuck, and they are still called paniolos today.

The paniolos were hardworking, fun-loving cowboys, who not only excelled in their work but also enjoyed singing and playing musical instruments. They brought to their monumental task experience, courage, stamina, and an abiding pride in their work. One old-time paniolo expressed their feelings this way: “If you work hard, you live long.” And work hard they did! They spent long days from sunrise until after dark rounding up, cutting out, roping, and branding cattle. And, of course, fences had to be built and mended, for the cattle were now to be domesticated.

But what is a cowboy without a horse? In 1803 the first horses had been brought to Hawaii by Richard J. Cleveland, on the brig Lelia Byrd. These were of Arabian and Moorish descent, and King Kamehameha I himself was the first Hawaiian in the islands to ride a horse!

These horses were fast, agile, and tough, and they adapted well to the uneven terrain. The paniolos found them indispensable for the demanding work of handling and domesticating the cattle.

Some horses, like the cattle, roamed unrestrained at first, and as time passed, they bred with other horses introduced from Great Britain and the United States, including thoroughbreds and Arabians. This intermingling produced an interesting variety of horses available to the paniolo. But the paniolo of today, if asked to choose his favorite for roping and rodeo work, would probably choose the quarter horse. Why? Because, as the paniolos learned, the animals’ quick response when starting, stopping, and obeying commands makes them hard to beat.

World Rodeo Championship

The Hawaiian paniolos mastered the skills that cowboys everywhere are noted for​—riding, roping, and racing. They were so adept that in 1908 several of them, including Ikua (Ike) Purdy and Archie Ka‘au‘a, competed in the largest rodeo in the United States. This was the Frontier Days Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a truly prestigious event.

These paniolos, with their colorful dress, dashing style, and Hawaiian leis, caught the attention of the Western cowboy world. And how they distinguished themselves! Ike Purdy became the world rodeo steer-roping champion, and Archie too did very well in the rodeo. An astonished world sat up and took note of Hawaii and its fascinating paniolos. Later, in 1996, Ike Purdy was even nominated to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Modern Paniolo Life

What is life as a paniolo like today? A little tamer, perhaps, but there is still a lot of hard work to be done on a modern ranch. The Parker Ranch in Waimea on the Big Island is a good example. It has extensive acreage, hundreds of miles of fencing, and many thousands of head of cattle. There is much for the paniolo to do, and together with his favorite horse, he moves the cattle from one grazing area to another.

Today in Waimea after the day’s work is done, you just might find a group of paniolos relaxing at a favorite watering hole​—dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat, perhaps with a Hawaiian lei wound around it—​listening to the distinctive slack-key guitar music that is a local trademark or perhaps joining in an old-time favorite Hawaiian song!

[Picture on page 17]

King Kamehameha I

 [Picture on page 18]

Branding cattle

[Picture on page 18]


[Picture on page 18, 19]

From left to right: Archie Ka‘au‘a, Eben Low, and Ike Purdy

[Credit Line]

Paniolo Preservation Society/Dr. Billy Bergin

[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

Hawaiian Islands: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

[Picture Credit Line on page 17]

Parker Ranch/John Russell

[Picture Credit Line on page 18]

Parker Ranch/John Russell