A brief history of the Big Islands famous Parker Ranch

Apr 10, 2017 | General Information

The home of the Paniolo or Hawaiian cowboy, Parker Ranch in Waimea is the birthplace of ranching and the cowboy lifestyle in the Aloha State. Currently covering approximately 130,000 acres in the center of the Big Island, Parker Ranch once consisted of nearly 500,000 acres (nearly half of the Big Island!). It all began with just five cows brought across the ocean by British Captain George Vancouver in 1788, just ten years after James Cook first landed in Hawaii. Vancouver presented the cows to King Kamehameha I. The King set his cows free to roam Hawaii Island and declared them to be kapu (off limits).

Over the next 20 years, the King’s cows multiplied into thousands. When the young sailor John Palmer Parker jumped ship in Hawaii, in 1809, cattle roamed everywhere on the island. Parker stayed for a while, tending fishponds for the King. He went to sea again during the War of 1812 and afterwards returned to Hawaii again and brought with him an American musket. The King gave Parker permission to shoot the wild cattle and supply meat and hides for local and foreign consumption.

To Parker’s credit, in less than a year the salt beef industry became the Island’s chief export. Parker’s wealth and influence grew enormously. He learned to speak Hawaiian and in 1816 married Chiefess Kipikane, granddaughter of King Kamehameha I. The King granted them two acres of land on the slopes of Mauna Kea. They built their homestead “Mana Hale,” had three children and began the amazing Parker dynasty.

When King Kamehameha I died in 1819, the next King, Kamehameha’s young son began changes in the old ways that soon would make Hawaii a very different place. A year later, Christian missionaries arrived, accelerating those changes. After Kamehameha II died, his brother ruled the Kingdom for almost 30 years. During this time a land distribution act was passed which allowed for private land ownership for the first time. John Parker purchased 640 acres in 1850 and another 1,000 acres the next year. Then he also leased land in the Waikoloa region from Kamehameha III. This king also brought Spanish-Mexican vaquero (“paniolos”) from California to Hawaii to train Hawaiians to handle cattle.

John Parker’s grandson, Samuel “Kamuela” Parker, was a classmate of David Kalakaua, who would become Hawaii’s first elected King in 1874 (the “Merrie Monarch”). Samuel became Minister of Foreign Affairs for Queen Liliuokalani. On the day she was deposed in 1893, he helped negotiate a surrender to avoid bloodshed. Years later, in 1913, Richard Smart was born, sixth-generation of Parker and final heir to Parker Ranch. During Richard’s lifetime, Parker Ranch grew to over 500,000 acres and 30,000 head of cattle.

During WW II, Waimea hosted US Marines. Richard Smart leased acreage to the Marine Corps that set up what was called “Camp Tarawa” after the famous bloody battle. Almost overnight Waimea became home to 50,000 marines. Waimea was changed forever. After the war, Richard Smart, an actor and musician, continued performing around the world until he returned to the Ranch in 1960. He resided in the grand “Hawaiian Victorian” house purchased by John Parker II in 1879.

Afterwards the island’s sugar cane economy waned. During a visit to the island by Laurence S. Rockefeller, Smart signed a 99-year lease with him on 500 acres in Waikoloa. Richard Smart resided in Waimea for the remainder of his life. He sold coastal Waikoloa lands for luxury resort development and other acreage for what is now Waikoloa Village. Before passing away in 1992, Smart created the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust to help serve the education and health needs of the community.

Today, in scenic Waimea, Parker Ranch’s two beautiful historic homes, Puuopelu and Mana Hale, are open to visitors and tell the Parker family’s story through historic heirlooms, family portraits, works of art, treasures from world travels, and everyday things.