You could probably win many bets on the mainland, especially in Texas, asking people to guess where the largest U.S. cattle ranch in the country’s history was located. It certainly surprised me to learn that it was in Hawaii and, in fact, right here on the Big Island.
And it is still the largest ranch under a single private owner, and the fifth largest beef producing ranch in the nation. It is also one of the country’s oldest ranches, with more than 160 years of history.
This is yet another story involving King Kamehameha I and his impact on Hawaii. It began in 1809, a single generation after Captain James Cook first encountered the Hawaiian Islands (or the Sandwich Islands as he called them). It also started very modestly when the British Captain George Vancouver presented Kamehameha with just one bull and five cows 21 years earlier in 1793.
From these animals released on the Big Island, which reportedly arrived in a very beat-up condition, they generated a huge heard of thousands of feral cattle roaming about the Big Island, causing untold problems for the subjects of the great King. You may recall that David Douglas (for which the Douglas Fir tree is named) fell or was pushed into a “bullock pit” and died in 1834.
So it was that in 1809 King Kamehameha asked John Parker, a 19-year-old New England sailor from Boston (part of the family owning the Parker House Hotel), to round up the wild cows. His story is fascinating as well -- Parker had jumped ship here in Hawaii and somehow soon came to the attention of King Kamehameha who, in turn, entrusted him with important assignments. With the help of Hawaiian workers, Parker established a booming beef, tallow and hide business with visiting whalers and sandalwood trading ships.
Due mostly to Parker’s efforts, salt beef eventually replaced the increasingly scarce sandalwood as the island’s chief export. As the need for beef increased, so did his fortune and influence. And in 1815, Parker married Kipikane, the daughter of a high-ranking chief, who bore John a daughter and two sons, and the Parker dynasty began. http://parkerranch.com/Parker-Ranch/161/history-of-parker-ranch
By 1832, Parker was desperate for help. He worked with King Kamehameha III to contract Mexican vaqueros, expert horsemen with plenty of cattle experience. They arrived with boots and saddles, a new language and a flamboyant new lifestyle for the island. Called “paniolo” (“espanol”) by Hawaiians, these cowboys trained local men to rope and ride 20-30 years before their American counterparts in the Wild West. Their contributions to local culture included the guitar, ukulele and slack key tuning, and a lifestyle of hard work, close-knit family ties and music that thrives to this day.
The beef business boomed and Parker Ranch was born. Over the next century it grew into the world’s largest privately-owned cattle ranch with 150,000 acres raising 30,000 head of prime Angus and Charolais beef cattle. (At its peak it spread over half a million acres.) And until 1992 the ranch was controlled by a descendent of John Parker, after which the ranch has been governed by the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust. http://www.bigisland.org/activities-cultural/464/history-of-paniolo-ranching-on-hawaiis-big-island
Today the Parker Ranch is a respected cattle ranch across some 175,000 acres of the Big Island and known for its quality beef, producing 10 million pounds of beef each year and ranking as the fifth largest cow-calf operation in the United States. http://www.hawaii247.com/2010/06/24/parker-ranch-waives-admission-to-historic-homes-june-26/