From the Archives: The Roots of Ranching in Hawai‘i: From Vancouver to Parker and Beyond

posted in: Agriculture, Forestry, Forests, May 2020 | 0

On the occasion of completing 30 years of continuous publication – a mile- stone that will be attained in June – Environment Hawai‘i will be reprinting from time to time articles that we believe display the breadth and the depth of the reporting that characterizes our best work.

The following article was originally printed in our September 2002 edition and was the first installment of a three-month series on the impact of cattle and other ungulates on Hawaiian forests.

Christmas morning, 1857. At the Seamen’s Bethel in Honolulu, the Reverend S.C. Damon was conducting divine services, an event duly applauded by the yet-young Pacific Commercial Advertiser. “This is a new feature in the celebration of Christmas at these islands, and a very praiseworthy imitation of the custom in other countries,” its editorialist wrote.

As the pious worshipped, a custom of another sort, one with a much longer history in the islands, was observed a few blocks distant at the Robinson & Co. wharf. The schooner Mary had just berthed from Kawaihae. On board were 27 wild bullocks, 48 sheep, 80 barrels of Irish potatoes, 13 barrels of tallow, 10 bullock hides and one bale of wood.

“A large crowd of idlers” had collected about the wharf, the paper reported, watching the cattle as they were unloaded and driven down Honolulu’s dusty streets to a slaughterhouse on the outskirts of town.

Horsemen stood by to keep the unruly animals in line. As the cattle were being driven, “one fellow, with particularly short and sharp horns, made a sudden detour to the right and into the open entrance of W.F. Allen’s store, where a number of gentlemen were quietly smoking their after-breakfast cigars and chatting over the current news.”

The customers made a run for it. “We have an indistinct notion that there was some tall traveling done in an incredibly short space of time,” the report of the event continued. “However, after the bovine customer had abruptly retired – without even asking the price of hides and tallow – we discovered one gentlemen, whom we had previously supposed to have a tendency to rheumatism, snugly perched on the top of the bookkeeper’s desk, not far from the ceiling.”

Bovine Beginnings

When it came to the running of bulls, the streets of mid-19th century Honolulu could hold their own against those of Pamplona. “Pedestrians taxed their calorie and adrenalin reserves by jumping walls, rushing through gates, and running desperately before furious bovines,” historian Richard Greer has written. “It was said that hardly a resident had not experienced at least one such exhilarating encounter.”1

Not only did residents of the town have the cattle – wild and otherwise – of O‘ahu to contend with, for nearly two decades, they had had to put up with shipments of wild cattle, or bullock, brought for slaughter to Honolulu from Hawai‘i and, to a much less extent, from Maui, and Kaua‘i. Here they were butchered, with the meat sold fresh (6 cents a pound) or salted (6 1/2 cents a pound). To be sure, a small number of cattle were butchered and consumed on the islands where they were grown, but by the 1850s, Honolulu had become the port of choice for whalers and other vessels provisioning in the islands. When it came to trade in beef and beef products, and practically every other island commodity as well, O‘ahu was the clearinghouse.

Although it isn’t clear exactly when cattle were first brought to O‘ahu, some accounts report that Don Francisco de Paula Marin, who eventually established a ranch in Wai‘anae, was slaughtering beef in the first years of the 19th century. An 1812 visitor described the capture of two wild cows on that island.2 By 1816, the cattle were enough of a nuisance to cause people to fence their gardens and houses. An engraving of Honolulu done that year shows thatch houses surrounded by pickets with oxen grazing just beyond. Fifteen years later, what Greer describes as “the Great Cattle Menace” was in full flower.3

“Its early manifestation was relatively mild – a bovine invasion from the eastern dry plain into the cultivated plantations behind Honolulu. To stop this, in 1831, the Hawaiians (including chiefs) worked on a stone wall running down from Punchbowl. It was to be six feet high, six feet thick, and about a mile and a half long.” The wall ran from the king’s residence (near the present site of St. Andrew’s Cathedral) up to Punchbowl, along the eastern side of the hill to Makiki, and then down Punahou. (Not all labor was voluntary: those professing allegiance to the Pope were forced to work on the wall as punishment for their beliefs.)

As cattle began to be brought in to the port of Honolulu, slaughterhouses developed along the waterfront. By 1846, wild cattle were regularly stampeding down roads, menacing pedestrians and riders alike. At least two men were killed by rampaging bulls.

The creatures that plagued Honolulu were the descendants of cattle brought to Hawai‘i by Captain George Vancouver in visits to the islands in 1793 and 1794. Vancouver presented the livestock to Kamehameha, from whom he extracted the promise that there would be no killing of the animals for at least 10 years.

Captain Amasa Delano, visiting Maui in 1806, reported the introduction of cattle to that island. “They had very recently brought to this island one of the bulls that Capt. Vancouver landed at Owhyhee,” Delano wrote. “He had made very great destruction amongst their sugar canes and gardens, breaking into them and their cane patches, and tearing them to pieces with his horns and digging them up with his feet. He would run after and frighten the natives, and appeared to have a disposition to do all the mischief he could, so much so that he was a pretty unwelcome guest among them.” Delano added that he had been told by other captains who had recently visited the islands that cattle on Hawai‘i had increased to the point that they were frequently killed for the beef.4

Around 1814, Kamehameha ordered a large wall to be built to protect the farms in the Kailua-Kona area from wild cattle. Another, the Wall of Kauliokamoa, was built between about the same time and for the same reason in Waikoloa – to protect the king’s lands.

Nuisance or not, the king claimed ownership of all the wild cattle, which were to be killed only by his agents who shared with him profits from sales of hides and tallow. One of the earliest such agents was John Palmer Parker, who went on to found the Parker Ranch. Parker arrived in the islands in 1815 and by the early 1820s was reported by observers to be killing cattle on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

In 1823, Joseph Goodrich ascended Mauna Kea, noting “immense herds of wild cattle.” The only advantage to them, he wrote, was that they provided employment for people, “principally foreigners,” who shot them and salted the meat.

The foreigners may have done the hunting, but it was the labor of Hawaiians that brought the hides and meat to market. The hides were crudely cured at the site of slaughter with salt brought from Kawaihae salt pans. They “soon became stiff as boards and just as unwieldy,” writes Bernice Judd. “One or two of them made a cumbersome burden for a man. Before the Kawaihae road was made passable for carts, the natives were ordered by the chiefs to carry the hides to the seashore in the same way that they had had to carry logs of sandalwood. On the return trip to Waimea, they were compelled to take bags of salt.”5

In 1825, the Scotsman James Macrae, who accompanied Lord Byron on the voyage of the Blonde, ascended Mauna Kea. Along the way, he encountered two bullock hunters – one a Welshman, the other a “Prussian blacksmith” — at an elevation he estimated to be about 12,000 feet above sea level, on the windward side of the island of Hawai‘i. Cattle, Macrae reported, “have now increased to some hundreds.” Other estimates place the number of cattle around the same time at more than 1,600.

Within a few years, unnumbered thousands of wild cattle roamed the Big Island. Records from a court case heard in 1861 indicate that in 1829, William Hughes, one of the bullock hunters employed by Governor Adams (Kuakini), reported killing 40,000 cattle.6

To facilitate trade in cattle, Kuakini and his entourage moved to Waimea in 1830. Using the forced labor of 40 men found to have broken the moe kolohe (seventh commandment), he had built a cart road linking Waimea and Kawaihae. Down it were carried casks of salt beef, bales of hides, and barrels of tallow in ever increasing numbers. In the first seven months of 1840, the export value of bullock hides alone — $18,500 (representing 9,250 hides) – outstripped the value of any other single export from the islands. (Sugar was a close second, with sales totaling $18,000. Just one year earlier, the top export was sandalwood, with a value of $21,000; exports of bullock hides and sugar amounted to $6,000 each. A year later, sandalwood had disappeared as an item of trade.)

Counting Beeves

On the island of Hawai‘i, trade in cattle and cattle products – hides, horns, bones, salt beef, and tallow — grew rapidly. Almost all of it derived from the wild herds. By 1840, Kuakini was concerned that the bullock population needed time to recover and so imposed a five-year kapu on the slaughter of wild cattle solely for hides and tallow. But the scarcity of the animals apparently was a result not so much of reduced numbers as it was reduced visibility. The Polynesian carried a report of a traveler to Mauna Kea in its July and August editions of 1840. On rough lava outcrops and “chimnies” dotting the plain on the approach to the summit, the unidentified traveler wrote, “were herds of bullocks, which scampered off at our approach, and plunged down their rugged sides with a rapidity which defied pursuit. Their only object in frequenting this region, where there is no trace of vegetation, is to avoid the pursuit of the hardy hunters or to lick the snow.”

In any event, it isn’t clear how sweeping Kuakini’s kapu was; on May 13, 1840, Kamehameha III signed an agreement with one Moses B. Fuller allowing Fuller to “engage in the business of tanning leather for the King of Waimea on the Island of Hawai‘i.” (The “king of Waimea” was almost certainly Kuakini; Moses Fuller ended up marrying J.P. Parker’s daughter.) The agreement also granted to Fuller the right to “cut and to draw all the bark necessary for the business.” And in 1843, The Friend reported exports of more than 10,000 hides. Nearly all of these would have come from the island of Hawai‘i.

By the 1830s, herds of wild cattle roamed the major islands, while private herds were amassed using animals from wild stock. The earliest agreements allowing pasture use of the king’s lands are unrecorded. By the late 830s, however, the king and other chiefs were regularly committing to paper the agreements struck with cattle owners allowing private herds to graze on their lands. On O‘ahu, one George H. Bush received rights to graze his cattle on “that range of land situated between Waititi and Wailae [sic].”7 The American-born businessman William French, who, with J.P. Parker, was to become one of the most important cattlemen in the islands, obtained a pasture lease from Kukuanaoa and John Young for land in Halawa, O‘ahu. In return, French was to pay “one dollar and a half annually for one beeve,” with French agreeing to pasture no fewer than 300 cattle on the land for a period of 15 years. Most leases also reserved to the ali‘i rights to trees and water.

As with French’s lease, payment was usually based on the number of head of cattle. In the case of an agreement allowing Hawaiians to graze on the puali, or isthmus, of Maui, the king was to be paid annually “one tenth part of the increase of said cattle.” Also, most leases contained requirements that the owners of the cattle keep the herds away from crops cultivated by the natives, or “kanakas.” For example, a lease from Hoapilikane to William Sumner for “the upland and mountains of Moanalua,” O‘ahu, provided that “if the cattle destroy the plantations of the common people, the owner thereof shall pay to the full amount of the damage done.”

By 1845, the mixed blessings of cattle were becoming apparent. Minister of the Interior G.P. Judd noted in his annual report, “It is satisfactory to state the rapid increase of national wealth in the multiplication of cattle throughout all the islands. It would be an unwise policy to discourage that multiplication, but regulations are required to prevent the injury to agriculture arising from the encroachment of cattle on cultivated lands.”

The damage inflicted by cattle on the residents of Honolulu and the potential threats to agriculture feared by Judd were impossible to ignore. Ever more stringent laws were passed in the second half of the 1800s to control livestock and allow Honolulu society to go about its business without the rude inconvenience of cattle drives down city streets. When the O‘ahu Railway linked the wharves to the slaughterhouses in 1889, the practice pretty well came to an end.

But even as the cattle problem was removed from the city, in the hinterlands of the islands, out of sight and all but out of mind, the devastation wrought by cattle continued unabated.‘

Upland Devastation

A study by Holly McEldowney in the early 1980s attempts to determine what Waimea must have looked like before the arrival of cattle. She describes it as a “gardened landscape” that, based on early descriptions, included “evergreen hills and extended plain diversified with thick wood, open pasture, low shrubbery and fruitful plantation.”8

By the end of the 1840s, that landscape had been forever altered. After 1844, with the death of Kuakini and the lifting of the tabu on the rendering of wild cattle, Waimea became less a center of agriculture and more a “cattle pen,” as described by the Rev. Lorenzo Lyons, who lived in Waimea while attending to the needs of Christians throughout the northern part of the island. Writing in 1847, Lyons observed that two-thirds of Waimea had been converted into government pasture land. “People are compelled to leave their cultivated spots and seek distant corners of the woods beyond the reach of the roaming cattle, sheep and goats,” Lyons wrote in his journal, paraphrased by his granddaughter. “But the cattle follow, and soon destroy the fruit of their labors.”9

The Mahele of 1848 and laws allowing foreigners to purchase land in 1850 only made matters worse, McEldowney writes. “Many native residents were legally awarded parcels too small to totally support their households, while the surrounding lands, which had been an additional source of garden lands or supplemental foods, were converted to pasturage. If unable to buy or lease additional lands, these residents were forced into commercial enterprises or to leave Waimea.”

In the 1850s, then, a sort of double-whammy was at work in what had been, until recently, the lightly exploited lands of Kohala and Hamakua. With their land tenure secure, private ranchers increased the size of their herds – and the grazing pressure on their lands. Meanwhile, McEldowney notes, “the wild herds multiplied as a result of a decrease in hunting pressure. Thus the total number of domestic and wild cattle increased, causing a rise in their overall impact.”

While most of the studies of the effect of cattle have focused on the island of Hawai‘i, similar effects were being seen on every island. By 1857, according to one estimate, the islands’ cattle population, wild and domestic, numbered nearly 50,000, and was increasing at a rate of 30 percent a year.10 With consumption of about 3,000 head annually, the net annual increase was more than 9,000, the article – by an unnamed (and innumerate) author – continued. On Kaua‘i, “the average price of full-grown beeves (wild) is $5 per head. This island has become overstocked with cattle, and they are now being slaughtered for their hides and tallow.”

Lands for Cattle

The next few years saw the ascendancy of sugar across the archipelago – and with it, growing interest in the protection of forests as watersheds. But in those areas where sugar planters had no interest in either land or water, ranching was generally regarded as the next best use of land, be it public or private. As the Crown Lands Commission sought to enrich the kingdom’s treasury through the exploitation of its lands, ranchers were able to expand their private holdings many times over by obtaining leases to, or purchasing outright, vast tracts of government lands.

In 1861, Charles C. Harris – later to become finance minister – purchased what was advertised as “about 300,000” acres at Kahuku, Ka‘u, at a cost of 1 cent per acre. The land had been sold at auction by Richard Armstrong, minister of public instruction, apparently to raise funds for public schools. At the time, 2,500 goats were on the land along with “some sheep and cattle,” while “the mountain portion is said to abound in pulu,” Armstrong’s ads for the property stated. Upon survey, the land turned out to consist of 184,298 acres, but it still appears to represent the largest single tract of land conveyed by the government of Hawai‘i to an individual – and went far to establish Harris’ near-monopoly on the pulu trade. Other substantial grants of ranch land made in this period include nearly 40,000 acres to J.P. Parker, 46,500 acres on Moloka‘i to Charles Reed Bishop, and 61,038 acres of Ni‘ihau to J.M. and E. Sinclair.

In 1860, Prince Lot Kamehameha, then minister of the interior, announced to the Legislature his policy with respect to government lands. “Agents have been appointed to take charge of the government lands on Hawai‘i and in consequence certain proceeds have been received from properties which formerly were useless so far as the public revenue was concerned. My general system of disposing of the government lands has been to lease rather than sell large tracts. By that arrangement, a permanent revenue is secured.” (Lot Kamehameha was also president of the Hawai‘i Graziers’ Association, formed in 1856 to address problems of strays and cattle rustling and to promote the livestock industry.)

Within the next two decades, a pattern of land use emerged that was unchallenged, for the most part, through the end of the 20th century. Sugar planters obtained the choice agricultural lands on each of the main islands and the rights to develop water for fluming or irrigation from windward mountain slopes. The rest went to the ranchers.

Patricia Tummons


  1. Richard A. Greer, “The Nuisance Factor in Early Honolulu,” Hawaiian Journal of History ,Vol.23 (1989).
  2. Ross Cox, Adventures on the Columbia River (London, 1831), vol. 1, pp. 62-64. Referenced in Ranching inHawai‘i: A Guide to Historical Resources, by Jean C. Whelan (Honolulu , 1988).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Captain Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (Boston, 1817), pp. 389-390.
  5. Bernice Judd,“Early Days of Waimea, Hawai‘i,” Hawaiian Historical Society Annual Report, XL(1932).
  6. At issue in the case was ownership of wild and unbranded cattle. The government claimed to own halfthe animals and had issued a license to kill them to R.C. Janion, while the king had granted similar rights to John Young Kanehoa, to whose father, John Young, had been entrusted the care of the cattle brought by Vancouver.
  7. The lease, dated November 5, 1839, describes the boundaries as follows: “from the cattle pen [in Waikiki] to the river of Great Waialae, where Yankee Jim hid himself. Lands belonging to natives are not included.” Yankee Jim was probably Jim or Jem Vowles, described by Gavan Daws as “the notorious bar-room brawler.” Honolulu – The First Century (doctoral dissertation, University of Hawai‘i, 1966), p. 224.
  8. Holly McEldowney, Report 16, “A Description of Major Vegetation Patterns in the Waimea-Kawaihae Region during the Early Historic Period,” in Jeffrey T. Clark and Patrick V. Kirch, eds., Archaeological Investigations of the Mudlane-Waimea-Kawaihae Road Corridor, Island of Hawai‘i: An Interdisciplianry Study of an Environmental Transect, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, 1983, published by the state of Hawai‘i Department of Transportation.
  9. Makua Liana, the journals of Lorenzo Lyons, compiled by Emma Lyons Doyle (Honolulu, 1953), p. 47.

10. Pacific Commercial Advertiser, July 23, 1857.

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