Paniolo: Hawaiian Cowboys

A Hawaiian cowboy (paniolo) astride a horse throwing a rope.
A Hawaiian paniolo from the Hawaii State Archives. Photo in the public domain.
In 1793 on a visit to the Big Island, Captain George Vancouver gave cattle as a gift to King Kamehameha I, the first on the island. In 1830 King Kamehameha III invited three vaqueros from Mexico to Hawaii to teach locals cowboy skills.

The story goes that when the Hawaiians asked the new visitors who they were, the Mexican cowboys responded “Español” (Spanish). The Hawaiians then pronounced the word español as paniolo and thus were born Hawaiian cowboys known as paniolo.

Paniolo traditions abound in current day Hawaii, mostly centered in Waimea on the Big Island. Kahua Ranch, a working cattle ranch, offers a guided historic tour, ATV adventures, and daily horseback rides along with evening festivities. Anna Ranch has a unique story to explore in a restored 14-room ranch house turned museum, as well as an on-site saddle maker happy to share how the Hawaiian saddle owes much to its Spanish roots but has become an entity all its own. Visitors are also welcome to stroll through the extensive grounds on their own. At Paniolo Adventures in the upcountry pastures of the Big Island, there are a variety of group horseback rides ranging from one hour to four, as well as private rides with a dedicated wrangler.

A woman rides in a rodeo in Hawaii.
Hawaii’s cowboy culture is still alive today. Photo © variationblogr, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

To learn more about the unique history of cowboys in Hawaii visit the Paniolo Heritage Center, also in Waimea on the Big Island (at Pukalani Stables on Pukalani Rd., Waimea, behind Parker Ranch Shopping Center, 808/854-1541, Tues. and Thurs. 10am-2pm, $5 suggested donation). It’s run by the Paniolo Preservation Society.

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