The Paniolos of Hawaii - KIALOA

March 27, 2018

The cowboys of Hawaii are called Paniolos. Where did they come from? How do they fit into Hawaiian culture? Most of us that have spent time on the islands, specifically the Big Island, know that these cowboys exist but few of us know the history behind these amazing people. 

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It all started with a gift. In 1793, the maritime explorer Captain George Vancouver unloaded a few cattle on King Kamehameha, the Native monarch of Hawaii at the time. They were ruddy brown Herefords, but it was the ultimate white elephant present for a people accustomed to eating fish and tubers. The king promptly placed a kapu—a protective edict—on the beasts. Safeguarded by this special status, they were free to graze on the Big Island’s rolling grasslands unmolested, even as they multiplied and marauded their way through gardens, occasionally charging unsuspecting islanders.

In 1832, the cattle population hit the thousands, the kapu was lifted, and Kamehameha’s grandson (also a king) inherited a unique problem: no one on the island knew anything about wrangling cattle. So he recruited three Mexican vaqueros from California to come show some of his fellow Native Hawaiians how to build saddles, braid leather, throw loops, and brand calves. For those of you keeping track, this is still about four years before Texas became a state. Fittingly, the Native Hawaiians who went the cowboy way became known as paniolos—a Hawaiianized pronunciation of español. (The Hawaiian language doesn’t do s sounds.)

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