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Although most of us have visions of the Wild West in Texas—or the dust bowl—when we hear the term “cowboy,” Hawaii is no stranger to its own unique giddyup culture. Known in the Aloha state as “paniolos,” these skilled horsemen were contracted way back in the 1800s to come and impart their wrangling and riding wisdom to the Island community.
Centered in the rich soil, rolling pastures and ranchlands of the Big Island’s Waimea and North Kohala districts, the heritage of Hawaii’s paniolo legacy leaves a trail both fascinating and deeply rooted. To begin, we must clear up a long debated issue…in most books, you will hear “paniolo,” as the most widely-known term for Hawaiian cowboys. However, much heat arises when this term is uttered among the weathered, leather-skinned veterans of the upcountry ranches. If you ask these old-timers, the REAL term for the real-deal cowboy is “paniola,” derived straight from authentic Spanish roots-which would make sense, as that is where it all started in the first place: in the form of a present of prime, longhorn cattle presented to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha circa 1798.
The giver of this unique gift was Captain George Vancouver, and the steers, sadly, were not in great shape upon receipt, having traveled long and far. Years later, John Palmer Parker (founder of the now famous Parker Ranch) would marry King Kamehameha’s daughter and transform the originally small and lackluster collection of cattle into the thriving beef, tallow and hide business Waimea’s premier ranch is known for today. But such a great feat wasn’t accomplished without more than a little help.
And who were the saviors who swam their horses to shore to help Parker change the tides of tired and sickly stock? The paniolas, of course. Contracted by Parker in 1832, these Mexican horsemen arrived equipped bearing boots, saddles, a brand new language and an exciting lifestyle all their own to the Big Island—as well as more than enough expertise with horsemanship and cattle.
Known as "vaqueros" in Mexico and California, the Hawaiians took the word "espanol" and pronounced it "paniolo," (yes, I know it gets confusing—much like splitting hairs between the saying of tomatoes and um, tomatoes). These highly-skilled cowboys trained the local Hawaiians how to rope, ride and wrangle cattle with the best of ‘em.
Unknown to many, the guitars the paniolo brought with them to make music on the lonely range, evolved into the Hawaiian slack-key guitar. When workers from the Madeira Islands brought their small "Branguinha" guitars in 1879, that instrument evolved into the Hawaiian ukulele - and the Mexican and Hawaiian paniolo made beautiful music with both.
Infusing the island culture with a hearty and healthy lifestyle of hard work, family values and simple yet rich traditions, this tribe of cowboy transplants transformed the Big Island’s entire way of living, as well as positively impacting its industry and economy—a blessing that continues on to this day.
But don’t take my word for it, any day you may visit Waimea (and a multitude of other working ranches) and experience firsthand the still-thriving traditions and ways of real ranch life. From witnessing daily operations, to experiencing more formal celebrations of paniolo life and culture, including parades and lively festivals, the legacy and lifestyle that these cowboys brought to Hawaii so long ago is beautiful and inspiring to behold. So giddyup and get here, ya’ll—we'll be sure to keep the light on for you.
—Andy Beth Miller