Yup. The American West continues for three thousand more miles off the coast. You see, the Parker Ranch on the Big Island of Hawaii is both a modern day working ranch and a spread steeped in rich island history.
At present, 12 cowboys each wrangle eight of the Parker’s 125 Quarter horses, and the 25 mares are bred to produce the next generation. Horses go on sale each Labor Day weekend.
(Hawaiian cowboys took on the name paniolo, meaning Spaniard. Many of the original wranglers were California vaqueros who spoke Spanish…however, the Hawaiian language has no S.)
17,000 heads of Charolais/Angus cattle are pastured on the Parker’s 130,000 acres. It’s the fifth largest ranch in the United States and located in the northwest uplands of the island in Kamuela.
Culturally, the Hawaiian table featured foods from the sea. Strict laws protected species from overfishing–and it was kapu (prohibited or off-limits) to eat certain fish during certain months of the year. So how did ranching come to sea-loving Hawaiians?
In 1788–ten years after British sea Captain Cook “discovered” islands that had been there all along, his colleague Captain George Vancouver changed things up. He presented a bull and several cows to King Kamehameha I, the first king to unite the eight inhabited islands. His Majesty was so enamored of the beasts he declared them kapu and let them run free.
Within twenty years, this little unregulated herd grew into thousands of cattle that roamed the island, destroying native plants and family gardens.
A seaman from Newton, Massachusetts named John Palmer Parker (1790-1868) jumped ship in the islands in 1809 and worked for the king for a time. After a stint in the War of 1812, he returned to the islands bearing a powerful, modern musket. Kamehameha gave Parker permission to “hunt” the throngs of cattle, whose hides and salted meat became profitable for whaling ships. By 1810, the cattle industry had replaced the exporting of sandalwood as the island’s chief economy.
Parker’s love for the islands increased along with his influence and wealth. Eventually he stopped hunting cattle and domesticated them. He learned the language and in 1816, married the king’s granddaughter, Chieftess Kipikane, who took the Christian name Rachel.
On the slopes of volcano Mauna Kea (White Mountain), the happy couple bought two acres for $10 and built a homestead they named Mana Hale–mana meaning “arid” for the dryness of these upland area, hale meaning house. John and Rachel had three children–the start of the powerful Parker dynasty.
The ranch grew in size through purchase, lease, and royal gift, and was no stranger to Hawaii’s royals and nobility. The area was eventually named for their grandson Samuel Kamuela Parker (1853-1920), as Kamuela is Hawaiian for Samuel. He became a politician rather than rancher and was a chum of King David Kalakaua. In 1992, sixth-generation descendant Richard Smart turned over the ranch to the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust.
Original owner John Palmer Parker died in 1868 on neighboring Oahu, but is buried at Mana Hale.
Although this house is the replica constructed in 1986 by Richard Smart, the interior walls and contents of the original were carefully removed and reinstalled here.
And the underside of the staircase! What attention to detail.
Although sometimes I resent how western civilization has invaded the Hawaiian culture, I so appreciate John Palmer Parker’s efforts to kind of meld the two worlds. Soaking up western history as well as the moist tropical breeze and scent of flowers made our visit to the Parker a day I will always remember.