Horses arrived in the American continent in 1519 in Mexico with Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes, and cattle soon followed in 1521 with Gregorio de Villalobos. By the 1600s and 1700s Spanish-Mexican settlements and ranches were started in areas such as the lower Rio Grande.
As expeditions moved north transplanting the cattle and horses to the Southwest. After the Civil War, with the abundance of wild cattle in the Southwest and a market in the East, the era of the cattle drives to the railheads, large ranches and range cowboys began. (Texas State Historical Association)
The fiesta, originally a legacy from feudal Spain, quickly became an integral part of the Mexican culture. The fiesta de toros was introduced by the conquistadores on St John’s Day, June 24, 1526 to celebrate both the Saint and Coretz’ return.
The corridas became standard Sunday sports as well as Christmas fiestas throughout the country. A popular sport in 17th century Mexico was riding wild bucking horses. Colear (grabbing a bull’s tail) became a traditional fiesta contest. Roping evolved from a utilitarian skill to a sport. (LeCompte)
Vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) drove cattle long before cowboys, back in the days when Texas belonged to Spain. One of their main paths took them back and forth between what we now call south Texas and Mexico City.
Even though it was tough work, to be a vaquero carried quite the mark of pride. Over a century before the cowboy arrived on the scene, vaqueros took the first steps to tame the Wild West. (Texas Parks and Wildlife)
“A good half century before the Western beef-cattle industry blossomed in Texas, a singular breed of professional horsemen calling themselves ‘vaqueros’ had already set the style, evolved the equipment and techniques, and even developed much of the vocabulary that would become the stamp of the American cowboy.” (Macaraeg)
Rodeo has long been thought of as a distinctly American sport, the horsemanship and ropemanship skills of the early Mexicans were likely the precursor to American rodeo. (LeCompte)
Having said that, some still state that the ‘Old Glory Blowout’ on July 4, 1882 in North Platte, Nebraska was the first organized rodeo in the world. Cash prizes were awarded to the winners of the bucking bronco, buffalo riding, steer roping and horse racing events. (Visit North Platte)
William F “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Pony Express rider, bison hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad and then scout for the US Army) put together the event. It was organized at a privately-owned racetrack in town, and in conjunction with the last of the big open-range roundups in Nebraska.
It is heralded as the beginning of rodeo. It was about a year later (May 19, 1883) that Cody opened his “Wild West Show” in Omaha Nebraska. (National Cowboy Museum)
In the Islands, the gift of a few cattle, given to Kamehameha I by Captain George Vancouver in 1793, spawned a rich tradition of cowboy and ranch culture that is still here, today.
With a kapu against killing the cattle, by 1830, wild bullocks posed a serious and dangerous threat to humans. Spurred also by the growing business of reprovisioning visiting ships with fresh meat and vegetables, Kamehameha III and Kaʻahumanu saw the wisdom of bringing in experienced cowboys.
“The formalization of ranching operations on Hawai‘i evolved in response to the growing threat of herds of wild cattle and goats to the Hawaiian environment, and the rise and fall of other business interests leading up to the middle 1800s.” (Maly)
Kamehameha III had vaqueros brought to the islands to teach the Hawaiians the skills of herding and handling cattle.
The vaqueros found the Hawaiians to be capable students, and by the 1870s, the Hawaiian cowboys came to be known as the “paniola” for the Espanola (Spanish) vaqueros who had been brought to the islands (though today, the Hawaiian cowboy is more commonly called “paniolo”). (Maly)
The Hawaiian cowboy, nicknamed “paniolo,” played an important role in the economic and cultural development of Hawaiʻi and helped to establish the islands as a major cattle exporter to California, the Americas and the Pacific Rim for over a century.
Some might not realize that Hawaiʻi’s working paniolo preceded the emergence of the American cowboy in the American West.
After winning the Revolutionary war (1781), American settlers started to pour into the “west;” by 1788, the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory was in Ohio.
In 1800, the western frontier extended to the Mississippi River, which bisects the continental United States north-to-south from just west of the Great Lakes to the delta near New Orleans.
Then, in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the nation.
The Battle of the Alamo was in 1836; later that year, Texas became independent, the Mexicans left, leaving their cattle behind. Texan farmers claimed the cattle and set up their own ranches.
It wasn’t until the 1840s that the wagon trains really started travelling to the far west. Then, with the US victory in the Mexican-American war and gold soon found in California, the rush to the West was on.
The cattle trade in the American West was at its peak from 1867 until the early-1880s. And, when in cattle country, you can expect rodeos. Headlines in Island and Wyoming newspapers in August of 1908 announced rodeo history.
Twelve thousand spectators, a huge number for those days, watched Ikua Purdy, Jack Low, and Archie Kaaua from Hawaiʻi carry off top awards at the world-famous Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo (the “granddaddy” of rodeo.).
Unlike today’s calf-roping, riders lassoed powerful, full-grown steers. The Cheyenne paper reported that the performances of the dashing Hawaiians, in their vaquero-style clothing and flower-covered, “took the breath of the American cowboys.”
Under drizzling skies, Purdy won the World’s Steer Roping Championship—roping, throwing and tying the steer in 56 seconds. Kaaua and Low took third and sixth place.
They each accomplished these feats on borrowed horses.
Purdy worked at Parker Ranch prior traveling to Cheyenne, Wyoming; his victory demonstrated the exceptional skills of the paniolo to mainland cowboys who long regarded rodeo and roping as their own domain.
On arriving home, the men were met at dockside by thousands of cheering fans and also honored by parades and other festivities on Maui and Hawai‘i.
Waimea-born Purdy moved to Ulupalakua, Maui and resumed his work as a paniolo until his death in 1945. He did not return to the mainland to defend his title, in fact he never left Hawaii’s shores again. But his victory and legend live on in Hawaiʻi and the annals of rodeo history.
In 1999, Ikua Purdy was voted into the National Cowboy Museum, Rodeo Hall of Fame. That same year he was the first inductee to the Paniolo Hall of Fame established by the Oʻahu Cattlemen’s Association.
In 2003, a large bronze statue of Purdy roping a steer was placed in Waimea town on the Big Island, erected by the Paniolo Preservation Society. In October 2007, Purdy was inducted into the Cheyenne Frontier Days Hall of Fame.