We happen to live in a development that was created out of ranch land, and until we reach a specific level of density and build out (not likely to happen in my lifetime) our homeowner’s association still has a grazing contract with the original property owner. That means we have cows, and, due to the very canny ranch owner, the cows have the right of way, and they are ‘free range’ – which means that they get to go where they want, and it is the individual property owner’s responsibility to keep them out of whereever you don’t want them to go.
We have fencing, but our driveway gate is broken, and two days this past week I have had the unenviable task of getting some fairly agressive cows to leave off munching my landscaping and leave. The dogs tried to help, but the cows don’t think too much of my little ten pounders, noisy though they are. “Our” cows are various breeds of beef cattle, mostly Angus, some Charlois, and recently some banded breed – I suspect they are Belted Galloways as they were bred to flourish under poor grazing conditions in the Scottish highlands. Still, moving cattle around isn’t something this city girl is all that used to doing, but I did ‘cowgirl up’ and get them to move out of the yard.
All of which started me thinking about cows and how they got here to begin with. It all started with Captain Vancouver in 1793. He picked up some cows in Monterey California, intending them as gifts for Kamehameha The Great. The first group didn’t fare too well, ending up quickly either dying of illness or being killed for food. A second batch was delivered in 1794, and Vancouver encouraged Kamehameha to put a 10 year kapu on the herd so that it had time to grow.
Kamehameha did this, and within a very few decades, the herd not only grew and flourished, like a lot of other introduced species, the cows became a nuisance and a hazard. By the time of Kamehameha III, in 1846, there were 25,000 feral cattle (and these were long horns with horn spreads upwards of 6 feet) and an additional 10,000 domesticated or semi-domesticated head. Vast herds disrupted traditional agricultural practices, knocked down houses and canoe sheds, ate the thatching off the roofs of homes, and even hurt or killed people.
After the kapu was lifted in 1830, the hunting of wild cattle was encouraged. The king hired bullock hunters from overseas to help in the effort. Many of these were former convicts from Botany Bay in Australia. Hunting sometimes ended in inadvertent tragedy. In 1834, the trampled dead body of Scottish botanist David Douglas – for whom the Douglas Fir is named – was discovered a bullock pit on Mauna Kea. Though suspicious head wounds and a quantity of missing cash also implied murder, bullock traps caught unsuspecting humans with alarming frequency.
Finally, in 1832, after being petitioned repeatedly by his people to do something about the ravages of the feral cattle, Kamehameha III sent one of his high chiefs to California to hire cowboys who could round up wild cattle and teach Hawaiians cattle and horse handling skills. Three Mexican-Spanish vaquero (cowboys) named Kossuth, Louzeida and Ramon came to Hawai’i Island, first breaking in horses to turn them into working animals, then rounding up and handling the hordes of cattle. They taught the skills of their trade to the Hawaiians, including horsemanship, roping, saddle making, braiding of leather for lariats and also playing the guitar – which the Hawaiians ultimately adapted into the unique ‘slack key’ style in use today.
The Hawaiians proved to be apt students, and became known as paniolo, a corruption of español, the language the vaqueros spoke. The term is still in use today, and there is a Paniolo Preservation Society on the Big Island devoted to maintaining these skills and traditions. Hawaiians became paniolo before the territories of the American West had cowboy or ranch traditions. Cowboys in the Pacific Northwest got their start in 1846; in California and Texas it was 1848. Because Hawaiians began their work with cattle and horses more than a decade earlier, their paniolo traditions were strongly shaped by the Mexican vaquero heritage that stemmed originally from Spain. By 1836, Hawai’i had working cowboys. Whereas, what we consider “American” cowboys date back only to the 1870s, after Custer’s last stand at Little Big Horn. That’s when vaqueros from Mexico began teaching Texans to ride and rope. It was then that Wyoming, Oklahoma and Arizona – the “wild west” – became ranch country. (Though the Spanish had been running cattle for centuries before.)
Through the years, many paniolo proved themselves exceptional athletes, horse handlers and cattlemen. Three drew the attention of a wider audience when they competed in the 1908 Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the top contest for cattlemen and ranchers of the day. Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low, owner and manager of Pu`uwa`awa`a Ranch, attended Frontier Days in 1907 and knew his ranch hands could do better than the mainland cowboys. In 1908, he paid for three of his top men – Ikua Purdy, Archie Ka`au`a (Eben’s half-brother) and Jack Low (Eben’s brother) – to go to the competition.
Ikua was born on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1873 in Waimea. He was the second son – one of nine children – of William Purdy and Anna P. Waipa. As the Hawaiian-Irish offspring of Anna, he was a great-grandson of John Palmer Parker, founder of Parker Ranch, and Kipikane, granddaughter of Kamehameha the Great. Ikua learned to ride and rope on the grasslands and upland forests of Waimea and Mauna Kea. He was a working paniolo who competed in roping events on the Big Island, O’ahu & Maui. Hawai’i’s most famous singer/story teller, Clyde “Kindy” Sproat, speaks with great aloha for Purdy as well as Archie Ka’au’a – who took third in the world championships that same year – and their patron and promoter, Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low. He says he learned about Ikua “from the horse’s mouth – Eben Low,” when Kindy was a child. “Eben Low was a successful rancher and very proud of the skills of Hawai’i’s paniolo. So he secured the invitation to compete in the 1908 Frontier Days World Championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming,” said Sproat, who has shared stories about Hawai’i’s most famous paniolo on several occasions at the Smithsonian Institute. The invitation read: “Bring your saddle and lariat; horses will be provided at the rodeo.” Conditions in Cheyenne – especially the cold – were difficult for the Hawaiians. They were an instant curiosity with odd, slouched hats and colorful hat bands, peculiar saddles and bright clothes – an exotic blend of Hawaiian and vaquero influence and tradition. What’s more, they spoke a foreign language – native Hawaiian. Cheyenne didn’t know what to make of the paniolo. They believed these strangers didn’t stand a chance; they were riding borrowed mounts. But on the day of the competition, Ikua roped his steer in fifty-six seconds flat. The rest is history.
Kindy recalls Eben’s explanation about why Hawaiian cowboys were able to compete for the championship: “Our paniolo had to catch wild cattle. They would set up ropers at the edge of a kipuka (a densely overgrown piece of land entirely surrounded by newer lava). The cattle would run by on the fly and the cowboys had to be ready with horses in good condition. They’d only get one swing of the lasso to catch a longhorn or it would get away. Therefore, when Hawaiians first encountered rodeo-style roping of fast-running cattle, it was what they did everyday.”
The paniolo made a colorful entrance in Cheyenne, wearing their vaquero-inspired chaps and hats with flower lei. They wowed the spectators with their performances too. In the World Championship finals, Ikua Purdy won the steer-roping contest in 56 seconds. Archie Ka`au`a came in second and Jack Low, despite suffering an asthma attack during the competition, placed sixth. Against the best American cowboys, Hawaii’s paniolo proved their worth.
In 1999, Ikua Purdy was voted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, the first Hawaiian ever to be nominated. That same year he was the first inductee to the Paniolo Hall of Fame established by the O`ahu Cattlemen’s Association. In 2003, a large bronze statue of Purdy roping a steer was placed in Waimea town on the Big Island, erected by the Paniolo Preservation Society.