A few years ago I was doing work with a couple of ranches on Maui — mostly trade-show brochures and special event posters — normal photography jobs. I managed to get to know a few of our local paniolo cowboys and began to learn about the incredible story of the Hawaiian cowboys.
Did you know the first cowboys in America were probably in Hawaiʻi? The history of the “paniolo,” the Hawaiian cowboy, is one aspect of Hawaii’s cultural heritage that often gets overlooked. Our Upcountry ranches are incredibly beautiful. The elevation is perfect. The weather is perfect. The views are some of the best coastal views on Earth. And the people – the people are the friendliest on Earth.
The story begins in 1795, when the British Sea Captain, George Vancouver, gifted a few head of Mexican Longhorn cattle to King Kamehameha, as an offering of friendship. The King protected them, allowing them to multiply and roam the islands untouched for 40 years. Eventually, the herd grew to thousands, creating a need for instruction in handling and managing the descendents of those first few cattle.
While the first horse was introduced to the islands in 1803, it was not until some 30 years later that expert cattle handlers-the Spanish-Mexican “vaqueros” were brought to Hawaiʻi to teach the Hawaiians. In fact, the word “paniolo” evolved from the word “Espanol” (Spanish) that was used in the early years in referring to the vaqueros.
Today, “paniolo” is a term used with well-earned respect and admiration in describing the Hawaiian, or Hawaiʻi-born, cowboy working on island ranches. Also, it’s a general term used for the rural, ranch-related lifestyle in the islands. In the beginning, most paniolo were Hawaiian, but today the ethnic mix commonly includes Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Caucasian.
Active cattle ranches can be found on the islands of Hawaiʻi, Maui, Molokaʻi, Oʻahu, and Kauaʻi. Hawaiʻi produces over $18 million worth of beef every year. The “Big Island” of Hawaiʻi has one of the largest spreads in the world, at Parker Ranch. Here on Maui there are several – Haleakala, ʻUlupalakua, Kaupo, Piʻiholo, and Hana Ranch.