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Introduction of Cattle

Ancient Hawai`i boasted no large land mammals, but with the arrival of Western ships, new plants and animals soon found their way to the Islands. The simple-seeming gift of a few cattle given to Kamehameha I by Captain George Vancouver in 1793 made a major impact on the Hawaii's economy and ecosystem. It also spawned a rich tradition of cowboy and ranch culture that is still visible today.

Spaniards introduced the first cattle to Veracruz, Mexico in 1521. Vancouver picked up descendents of these animals from the Spanish mission in Monterey, California when he set off across the Pacific, intending to use them as food and gifts. The first cows and bulls given the Hawaiians fared poorly, either falling ill and dying or quickly killed and eaten. When Vancouver landed additional cattle at Kealakekua in 1794, he strongly encouraged Kamehameha to place a 10-year kapu on them to allow the herd to grow.

Grow they did, into a huge problem. In the following decades - the kapu was not lifted until 1830 - cattle flourished and turned into a dangerous nuisance. By 1846, 25,000 wild cattle roamed at will and an additional 10,000 semi-domesticated cattle lived alongside humans. A wild bull or cow could weigh 1,200 to 1,500 pounds and had a six-foot horn spread. Vast herds destroyed natives’ crops, ate the thatching on houses, and hurt, attacked and sometimes killed people.

By the time of Kamehameha III's reign (1824-1854), something had to be done. After the kapu was lifted in 1830, the hunting of wild cattle was encouraged. The king hired bullock hunters from overseas to help in the effort. Many of these were former convicts from Botany Bay in Australia. Hunting sometimes ended in inadvertent tragedy. In 1834, the trampled dead body of Scottish botanist David Douglas - for whom the Douglas Fir is named - was discovered a bullock pit on Mauna Kea. Though suspicious head wounds and a quantity of missing cash also implied murder, bullock traps caught humans and other unsuspecting humans with alarming frequency.

Cattle were not the only animals introduced to Hawai`i during this period. In 1778, Captain Cook had left both goats and pigs with natives. In 1803, American Richard Cleveland presented horses - a stallion and a mare - to Kamehameha. British introduced sheep in the 1790s and they soon damaged the native forests of Mauna Kea and Hualalai at the same time failing as an economic crop.

In addition to causing erosion damage to the land, these animals also affected what foreign plants were brought to the Islands. While native koa, `ohia, uhiuhi, elama (native ebony), kauila, halapepe, `aiea, mamane and `iliahi began to disappear, other non-native species were planted as cattle feed. Ranchers introduced fountain grass, native to North Africa, and mullein. After 1905, they introduced kiawe as another cattle feed, a shallow-rooted, thorny tree that is now ubiquitous.

 Sites for further information

The Story of Ikua Purdy (Paniolo Preservation Society)

"Hawaiian Cowboys at the Cheyenne Rodeo" (Hawaiian Historical Society)

The History of Parker Ranch (Parker Ranch)

"Lanai Ranch: The People of Koele and Keomuku" (Center for Oral History, University of Hawaii)

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