Articles Non-Fiction
The Cowboys of Hawaii
Scott A. Gese


Cattle ranching was well established in Hawaii long before the American cowboy made his mainland debut.

the cowboys of hawaiiPaniolo David Kuloloia and his horse, 1930’s (Hawaii State Archives, PP-13–6.010)

It was early. I had just arrived at the office and was about to pour myself a fresh cup of coffee when my boss stepped out of his office and called out to me as he walked my way.

“Scott, I’ve got an assignment for you. I need you to talk with a man named Harold Kalani. He’s a local rancher. Lives a few miles west of town. Here’s the address.”

He handed me a small slip of paper and headed back to his office.

“I’m on it, boss,” I called out as he closed the door behind him.

I barely had time to turn my attention back to my coffee when the door opened back up and he stuck his head out. “Almost forgot to tell you, It has something to do with cowboys and cattle… Imagine that,” he remarked with a chuckle as he ducked back into his office.

I found the remark rather curious as I had recently written an article about cowboys and cattle ranchers.

The assignment was short on details. I guess I would find out more once I got there.

~~~~~~

I always like the assignments that take me out of the city. The fresh air and openness of the countryside clears my head and relaxes me. It’s a beautiful Summer day and I find myself wondering what’s on the mind of Mr. Kalani and how this assignment will eventually turn out.

When I arrive at the ranch I’m greeted by a middle aged man, a rancher complete with boots and hat. He has a sun-baked complexion, strong handshake and judicious eyes that size me up rather quickly.

I introduced myself. “I’m Scott from The Daily News, you must be Harold.”

“Not wearing boots,” he comments rather bluntly.

“I’m a city boy,” I counter almost apologetically.

He smiles. “Do you ride?”

“Horses? No sir, I don’t.”

“Kinda guessed that. Too bad. Guess we’ll stick to the porch then.”

We step up onto a wide porch that overlooks a cattle pasture green with tall grass and a row of distant hills. “What’s on your mind, Harold? My boss didn’t give me much to go on.”

Harold chuckles. “That’s because I didn’t give him much to go on. Just told him I needed to talk with someone regarding a recent article I read in your paper. Just felt I needed to set the record straight concerning a few facts I feel were left out. Purely unintentional I’m sure.”

I felt a barb with the last statement but let it pass. We take a seat in comfortable wood Adirondack chairs. A young woman brings out a pitcher of cold lemonade, sits it on the small table between us and disappears back into the house. Harold pours us each a tall glass, takes a drink and proceeds to ask me a question.

“When I mention cowboys and cattle, what part of the country comes to mind?”

“Oh… Texas or maybe Kansas,” I reply.

“That’s cattle country for sure, and has been for well over 150 years,” he counters. “But did you know there’s a state even further west that’s been the home to cattle ranching and cowboys for even longer than that?”

“Are you talking about California?” I question.

Harold smiles. “Nope. What’s further west than California?”

I have to think about it. “Is this a trick question?” I ask.

“Nope, I’m sure you know your geography. Think about it.”

“I do know my geography. Hawaii is further west, but what does Hawaii have to do with cowboys and cattle?” Harold has me a little confused at this point.

“This is exactly why I asked your paper to send someone out here. The article I read in The Daily News concerning the history of this countries cattle industry completely missed the boat when it comes to Hawaii.”

I suddenly have the feeling I was about to get a history lesson.

Harold continued. “I’m not a crazy man, I’m serious. There are both cowboys and cattle ranches in Hawaii. In fact cowboys and cattle ranching have been at home in Hawaii for over 175 years. Long before the white man gave a whole lot of thought about venturing west of the Mississippi. My last name is Kalani. I’m Hawaiian. My not too-distant relatives ran cattle on the big island.”

“When I think of Hawaii I think of grass skirts and palm trees, not cattle,” I remarked.

“Exactly! That’s the tourist version and I believe your paper has that same mindset. Like I said, it missed the boat and I think it’s important to set the record straight.”

My gut was right. This wasn’t going to be an interview. Seems a history lesson was about to commence. I took a long drink of my lemonade and settled in. Harold removed his hat and set it aside. The lesson was now in session.

Harold continued. “Did you know there have been longhorn cattle in Hawaii since 1793? They were a gift from England to the King of Hawaii. The King was so impressed with the longhorns he placed them under ‘sacred’ protection called a Kapu. They were allowed to roam and breed freely for many years. But, as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end.

“Within twenty years the cattle had grown in number to the point where they had become unmanageable. It was then that the sacred protection they had enjoyed for so long was lifted and life for the Hawaiian bovine was changed forever. Some of the cattle were now being hunted by hired foreigners called “Bullock Hunters.” Some were herded into large enclosures.

The beef soon became Hawaii’s largest export.

But there was a problem. Hawaii had no experience in the cattle ranching business. Things were beginning to get out of hand. So in 1832 the King of Hawaii sent an ambassador to Mexico for some much needed help in managing this new herd.

“The ambassador returned with three Spanish-Mexican “Vaqueros.” The native Hawaiians trained by these South of the border cowboys soon became known as “Paniolos”. That means ‘Hawaiian cowboys’.

“Those Vaqueros were so skilled at their craft, and the King was so impressed with their abilities, he requested more Vaqueros be brought to Hawaii to teach more Hawaiians these new skills.

“The Vaqueros not only taught the Hawaiians how to handle cattle, they also taught them other crafts such as how to work with leather and metal. The Hawaiians became skilled in making saddles, lariats and bullwhips as well as bits and spurs.

“Not only did the Paniolos take to these new and valuable skills, they also took on the colorful dress of the Vaqueros. In fact they do so to this very day.

“By the 1830’s cattle ranching had become a very successful and intricate part of the Hawaiian economy. Cattle hides and beef were exported to an international market.”

Harold stopped, took several gulps of his drink and set his glass back on the table. “Did you know Hawaiian cattle were shipped to the mainland during the California gold rush?”

“I had no clue,” I sheepishly replied.

“I thought not,” countered Harold.

He then commented rather sharply. “You know, I find it rather interesting that Hawaii, having such a rich heritage in the cattle industry, and the “Paniolos” having excelled at the necessary skills needed to manage those cattle, have never once received more than a passing mention in history books or stories concerning the cattle industry in America. I think it’s important to set the record straight.”

“I have a confession to make. I wrote the article your talking about and I have to agree, there was no mention of the Hawaiian connection.

Harold cracked a knowing smile. “I know you wrote it. That’s why I asked for you specifically.”

“Now that I know the history, I can see where I should have made some mention of it. I’ll do what I can to make it right.”

“I’d appreciate that,” replied Harold.

I finished up my notes and my lemonade. Harald Kalani and I talked about his ranch and other less pressing things for a while longer. Before we knew it, the afternoon had gotten away from us. We said our good-by’s and I headed back to town with a new friend and a new appreciation for Paniolos, the cowboys of Hawaii.

© Copyright 2023 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.


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