In 1908, three cowboys traveled four-thousand miles from Hawaii to Wyoming to compete at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Few expected the trio—Ikua Purdy and his cousins Jack Low and Archie Ka‘au’a—to be competitive at one of the top rodeos in the country, but as it turns out, it was the mainland cowboys who found themselves overmatched. The locals shouldn’t have been surprised, though, as Hawaii already had a much older ranching tradition than the Great Plains. But in the early twentieth century, few Americans were aware of the existence of Hawaiian cowboys, or paniolo, not unlike the case today.
David Wolman and Julian Smith—co-authors of “Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West (William Morrow)—hope to change that by drawing attention to Hawaii’s cattle culture and the exploits of the finest Hawaiian cowboys. Though it may be difficult to imagine, “At one point a quarter of all the land mass of the Hawaiian Islands was dedicated to cattle production and the largest private ranch was in Hawaii,” says Smith, the first of many insightful quotes drawn from the following Failure interview.
How did you learn about the Hawaiian Cowboys you profile in the book?
There’s a statue of Ikua Purdy, the hero of the book, in a supermarket parking lot in Waimea, Hawaii. Purdy is roping a steer, and the plaque says: “World Champion Roper 1908.” It’s not something you expect to see in the land of tropical sunsets and palm trees. When you’re a non-fiction writer and you see something like that you can’t help but to start digging.
How did longhorn cattle get onto the Island of Hawaii—and when?
It was the tail end of the eighteenth century, and they were a gift from the English, who brought a dozen longhorns from Spanish California and presented them to King Kamehameha as a gift.
At its peak, how large was the cattle population in Hawaii?
We are talking about tens of thousands of cattle. There are no solid numbers but the original cattle started reproducing like crazy because there was a royal edict [a kapu] against killing them. Within a few decades the cattle were a huge problem—a massive, deadly, invasive species.
What did the Hawaiian cowboys do to control them?
First they had to learn what it meant to be a cowboy. The king [Kamehameha III] asked for a handful of vaqueros [the New World’s first cowboys] to come over from New Spain, which is now Mexico and California, to teach the Hawaiians how to control these animals, which were goring people and digging up garden plots. The vaqueros introduced the techniques and equipment and the Hawaiians took to cowboying like a duck to water. And that was the birth of the paniolo tradition.
I understand the Hawaiian cowboys had to drive cattle over lava fields and then onto the beach and into the ocean, so they could be loaded onto ships.
First they had to track them down in the jungle, and then they had to rope them and bring them downhill, either on the end of a rope or in a big group. Then they came down into these extensive, bone dry, brutally hot lava fields. The final step was down onto the beach and into the waves to get out to the ships that were waiting to take them other places.
Who got the idea of traveling from Hawaii to Wyoming to compete with mainland cowboys?
That was the brainchild of Eben Low, another major figure in the book. He was a paniolo himself and he was really talented, even after he lost a hand in a roping accident. He was also an entrepreneur at heart and always looking for the next way he was going to make money. He actually organized a few rodeos in Honolulu, and in 1907 he traveled to the mainland and ended up in Cheyenne for Frontier Days, sitting in the stands watching Wyoming cowboys. He said to himself, ‘These guys are pretty good, but I think my cousins back home could beat them.’
How were Purdy & Co. received in Wyoming?
They were received positively. If you look at the newspaper coverage there was no overt racism. [Purdy and his cousins] were the first folks coming from outside the mainland to complete at Cheyenne Frontier Days, and that gave Frontier Days a stamp of legitimacy as far as being the premier rodeo in the country, because people were coming from so far away to compete. At the same time, the newspaper coverage was almost patronizing, as in ‘It’s great they’re here but there is no way they are going to beat the local talent.’ Over the three days of competition that attitude definitely changed.
How were the Hawaiian cowboys different than the mainland cowboys?
In terms of their appearance they were shorter and darker skinned. A lot of their gear was similar but they had a few Hawaiian adaptions, mostly for the climate and the environment they were working in. Their hat brims were a little bigger, because they had to protect from a lot of sun and rain. And their spurs were smaller so they wouldn’t get caught in the dense forest. But the biggest difference was probably their lassos. On the mainland they used this kind of cord fiber to weave their ropes, but in Hawaii they made their lassos from braided rawhide, which lasted a lot longer in that climate. Also, when they came to Cheyenne to compete they had rings of flowers around their hats, like the modern leis you see in Hawaii.
And the Hawaiian cowboys were successful in competition?
Yeah, Jack Low competed on day one and wasn’t particularly impressive because he had an asthma attack when he was trying to rope his calf. But on the second day Ikua and Archie got to show their stuff for the first time and both did incredibly well, being two of the four who competed in the finals. But all three finished in the top ten, so they did pretty damn well.
Few people associate cowboy culture with Hawaii. Why?
One of the points we’re trying to emphasize in the book is that the simplistic view of history is far from the real story, which is a lot more complex and interesting than the image of the American cowboy that has been adopted worldwide. Most of what we know about the stereotype of cowboys comes from books or films—books and films made by white men. Recently things have started to change. By some estimates a quarter of all the cowboys were African-American, newly freed by the Civil War and looking for work.
Can you talk a little about the boom and bust of Cheyenne and how it figures in to the story?
Cheyenne started out as just another dusty, Podunk town on the route of the transcontinental railroad, but in the mid- to late-nineteenth century—when people had all these cattle down in Texas but didn’t have the resources to support them—someone got the bright idea of driving the cattle north to places where there were seemingly acres of grassland.
Cheyenne was ideally positioned, not only because it was near the open range where they could fatten up the cattle, but because it had rail links to faraway markets. It was those factors that led to an incredible boom, and at one point it was the richest city of its size in the country. It had electricity before a lot of other places, and it had an opera house. But it was also dependent on this single industry, and when settlers came out and started fencing off these huge open ranges with barbed wire the decline was steep. Within a decade the wealth was gone.
And the downturn was part of the inspiration for Cheyenne Frontier Days?
The city fathers didn’t want the city to dry up and blow away, and they noticed a lot of towns and cities in the area had started these festivals/rodeos. Denver had a big one, for example, called the Festival of Mountain and Plain. Cheyenne realized it had all this local cowboy talent and enthusiasm so they decided to start a rodeo called Frontier Days, which was a huge success from day one. Pretty soon it became the preeminent rodeo in the country.
Is there any remaining connection between Cheyenne and the Hawaiian cowboys today? Any museum you can go visit?
Yeah, Cheyenne Frontier Days is still a big deal. They also have a great museum there called the Old West Museum, which has displays on the Hawaiian cowboys. But it’s a story that’s much more known in the Hawaiian Islands; on the mainland it’s more like a footnote in a history museum.
Are there still cowboys in Hawaii?
There is still a handful, probably in the dozens, though a lot of them are using ATVs now instead of horses. David and I got to go up into the hills and met some of them doing research for the book, and there are still cowboy lifestyle-traditions that are part of the Hawaiian culture. They have rodeos in Hawaii and one place has a Western Week. There is also a tradition of women who get dressed up and ride on horseback—the pa’u tradition of riding.