Today we pay tribute to the great paniolo who paved the way for a generation that came after him, Ikua Purdy.
One of the most illustrious paniolo in history, Ikua Purdy was born in 1873 at Waimea, Hawaii. He was the great-grandson of John Palmer Parker, founder of the famed Parker Ranch, and Kipikane, granddaughter of King Kamehameha The Great. He learned to ride and rope on the Parker Ranch and competed in roping events on the Big Island, Oʻahu, and Maui. Long before Mainland rodeos, Hawaiian paniolo rode the range and hunted wild cattle on the Big Island. Ten-year-old Purdy learned to rope wild bullocks. He and others practiced the clever method of taming unbroken horses in the ocean—the horses, in several feet of water, soon gave up trying to buck off their riders.
Through the years, many paniolo proved themselves exceptional athletes, horse handlers and cattlemen. Three drew the attention of a wider audience when they competed in the 1908 Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the top contest of the day. Eben "Rawhide Ben" Low, owner and manager of Puʻuwaʻawaʻa Ranch, attended Frontier Days in 1907 and knew his ranch hands could do better than the mainland cowboys. In 1908, he sent three of his top men - Ikua Purdy, Archie Kaʻauʻa (Eben's half-brother) and Jack Low (Eben's brother) - to the competition.
By the time he was 20, Ikua Purdy was a master of the rope. In 1903, he and his paniolo friends participated in the first publicized cowboy competition recorded in Honolulu. Five years later, Purdy and other paniolos competed in the 1908 Frontier Days Rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The paniolo made a colorful entrance in Cheyenne, wearing their vaquero-inspired chaps and hats with flower lei. Headlines in Island and Wyoming newspapers in August of 1908 announced rodeo history. Twelve thousand spectators, a huge number for those days, watched Purdy, Kaʻauʻa, and Low carry off top awards at the world-famous Cheyenne 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 slouch hats, “took the breath of the American cowboys.”
They wowed the spectators with their performances too. Under drizzling skies, Purdy won the World’s Steer Roping Championship—roping, throwing, and tying the steer in 56 seconds flat. Kaʻauʻa came in second and Low placed sixth. 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. The Islands have produced other rodeo greats, including Sebastian Reiny, who could ride backwards while roping a running bull. But the three paniolo who swept the Cheyenne Rodeo remain heroes to this day. Against the best American cowboys, Hawaii's paniolo proved their worth.
Ikua Purdy never returned to Wyoming, but his feat elevated the status of the Hawaiian cowboy to a new level. He worked another 30 years mostly as foreman on Maui’s Ulupalakua Ranch. He rode his way into legend and song. He was the inspiration for three of the best-known paniolo songs: “Hawaiian Rough Riders”, “Puʻu Huluhulu” and “Waiomina”, which refers to Purdy and Archie Kaʻauʻa as rascals of the lariat.
In 1999, Ikua Purdy was voted into the National Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, the first Hawaiian ever to be nominated. 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.