Paniolo (Hawaiian Cowboys) of Hawaii Island

Hawaii Island has an unexpected heritage, a rich “cowboy culture” more than a century old, centered in the upcountry ranchlands of Waimea and North Kohala. In 1798, Captain George Vancouver presented King Kamehameha I with five black longhorn cattle. The animals were in poor condition after the long sea voyage and Kamehameha immediately put them under kapu (taboo) and freed them to range the island. Horses arrived five years later in 1803.

In 1816, John Palmer Parker, a western advisor to Kamehameha, married royal granddaughter Kipikane and was awarded two acres of land for $10. He was given permission to wrangle the maverick cows that had thrived and multiplied, overrunning the range by the thousands. With the help of Hawaiian workers, Parker quickly established a booming beef, tallow and hide business with visiting whalers and sandalwood trading ships.

By 1832, Parker contracted Mexican vaqueros, expert horsemen with plenty of cattle experience. They arrived with boots and saddles, a new language and a new lifestyle for the island. Called “paniolo” by Hawaiians, the skilled cowboys trained local men to rope and ride a generation before their American counterparts in the “Wild West.” Their contributions to local culture included the guitar and ukulele, and a lifestyle of hard work, close-knit family ties and wonderful music that thrives to this day.

The beef business boomed and Parker Ranch was born. Over the next century it grew into one of the world’s largest privately-owned cattle ranches: 150,000 acres raising 30,000 head of prime Angus and Charolais beef cattle. In 1908, great-grandson of John Palmer Parker and Kipikane, Ikua Purdy, was invited to compete in the Frontier Days World Championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He and fellow paniolo Archie Kaaua and Eben Low shocked the rodeo crowd by taking top honors, and became instant cowboy celebrities as “Hawaii Roughriders.”

Today, paniolo traditions continue. You can take a tour of Kahua Ranch (began in 1928) and other ranches like Anna Ranch or Paniolo Adventures in the upcountry pastures of Hawaii Island or learn about this interesting facet of Hawaii’s culture at the Paniolo Preservation Society. Although today’s paniolo often use all-terrain vehicles (ATV’s) in open country (horses only in close quarters), you can still go horseback riding and explore the beautiful landscapes of Waimea. ATV rides are also available.

Paniolo traditions can also be seen during Hawaii Island events, parades and festivals. You’ll also notice beautiful Pau riders, women dressed in colorful flowing garments, with both the riders and their horses draped with fabulous lei. This is just another paniolo tradition that still lives on today on Hawaii Island.