Bullock Hunters of the Kohala Range

Bullock hunters

By F. A. Olmstead

A traveler’s account of the first Hawaiian paniolos (cowboys).

The first thing we attended to, upon landing, was to make immediate preparations for a walk to Waimea, a settlement among the mountains about fifteen miles from the coast. The impossibility of procuring any accommodations for the night obliged us to set off on the Sabbath, much against our wishes. A couple of natives were engaged by my comrades to transport their baggage, although it had been expressly told me that it was to be left behind, and forwarded the next day.

When I requested a delay of a few minutes, until a native could be engaged by me, I was answered by two of the party setting off without me, which compelled me to seize one or two necessary articles and hurry along after them. It was most intolerably hot; the sun was blazing down in all his intensity, while scarcely a breath of wind mitigated his ardor. In addition to this, contrary to my repeated suggestions, the party were so impatient to proceed that they did not provide themselves with any water, and were it not for a pineapple we had with us, I should have suffered extremely from thirst.

For the first eight miles the heat was very oppressive, and a thick woolen jacket together with a heavy pea jacket strapped to my back by no means contributed to my comfort. About nine miles from Kawaihae, a cold rain came driving down from the mountains, and instantly checked the perspiration that was flowing from me in streams, so that before I had walked more than a mile or two farther, I was seized with violent rheumatic pains.

It was now growing dark, and I had been revolving in my mind how I should spend the night in the native huts which were scattered along the road, as the severe pain I experienced seemed to forbid any farther exertion.

About eight o’clock, we came up with a collection of thatched houses, towards the principal one of which we directed our steps, which was a store belonging to Mr. French of Honolulu. Here a novel scene presented itself to us. In front of the door, a bright fire was blazing in a cavity in the earthen floor, displaying in strong light the dark features of the natives congregated around it in their grotesque attitudes.

Immediately back of these, a group of fine-looking men, in a peculiar costume, were leaning against the counter of the store. Some of them were Spaniards from California, and they were all attired in the poncho, an oblong blanket of various brilliant colors, having a hole in the middle through which the head is thrust. The pantaloons are open from the knee down wards on the outside, with a row of dashing gilt buttons along the outside seam. A pair of boots armed with prodigiously long spurs completed their costume.

They were bullock hunters, employed in capturing the wild bullocks that roam the mountains, and had just returned from an expedition of eight or ten days, in which they had been very successful.

After a delicious cup of tea and some excellent beefsteaks we adjourned to our place for spending the night, about three quarters of a mile distant. Grimes took it upon himself to be the pilot, but after stumbling about among the bogs, and being exposed to a cold wind and rain for more than half an hour, we were obliged to return and get a native for our guide.

Our bed consisted of layers of thick mats, upon which the usual bedding was spread out. The beds of the natives are nothing more than several large mats laid one upon the other, making a slight elevation above the floor, as in the present instance. The chiefs, not infrequently, take fifteen or twenty of these mats for a bed, the area of which is sometimes ten or twelve feet square.

Our principal object in taking the walk was to witness the marking of a lot of cattle that had been driven down from the mountains not long since. Great numbers of wild bullocks are caught in the mountains every year by the hunters. The lasso, the principal instrument in their capture, is made of braided thongs, upon one end of which is a ring forming a slip noose which is thrown with astonishing precision around any part of the animal. Even while at full gallop in pursuit, the hunter grasps his lasso, and giving it two or three twirls around his head with the right hand, throws it unerringly and entangles his victim by the horns or limbs.

And now, be wary for thy life, bold hunter; for the savage animal is maddened with terror. See, he turns upon his pursuer, with eyeballs glaring with fire and his frame quivering with rage. But the well-trained horse springs to one side, and braces himself, while the unwieldy animal plunges forward, but is suddenly brought up by the lasso, and falls with a heavy momentum on the ground. Again, he rises, and tears the ground with his hoofs, and loudly roars; then doubly furious, comes down upon his pursuer, but is again avoided and again dashed upon the ground. Exhausted by repeated shocks like these, his fury is subdued and he allows himself to be secured to a tame bullock, which soon removes all his ferocity.

The bullocks of the mountains were till within a year or two very numerous and savage, so that traveling among the mountains was attended with great danger. For their capture, a mode frequently resorted to by the hunters was to dig deep pits and cover them over with underbrush and dirt.

A very melancholy casualty occurred three or four years since among the mountains. A gentleman named Douglas, of distinguished attainments as a naturalist, was engaged in a scientific expedition to the volcano. He had nearly accomplished the objects of his excursion when he met with an awful fate. As he was leaving an encampment where he had spent the night, he was particularly cautioned respecting three bullock pits that lay along the path he was expecting to take. He mistook the directions given him, it is presumed, for the first that was seen of him afterwards was when he was discovered by some natives, in one of the bullock pits under the feet of a savage bull, who was trampling upon him and goring him in the most terrific manner! The bull was very soon killed, and the mangled body of the unfortunate naturalist drawn out, but life had long since become extinct.

The Spanish saddle is of very different construction from the saddles of our country in general use, and to myself is far preferable. It rises very high before and behind, rendering it much easier for the rider, especially in ascending or descending hills. The pommel is surmounted by a large flat knot, termed the loggerhead, from which the lasso of the hunter depends.

A pair of large wooden stirrups with a broad piece of leather before each, to protect the feet in traversing a region where the bushes grow thickly together, are also peculiarities of the Spanish saddle. Their horses are governed with powerful bits, such as would he intolerable to our horses, and are allowed free rein, which seemed very strange to me, who had always been accustomed to see the equestrian exhausting the strength of his arms to keep his horse from stumbling.

With us, a pull upon either rein teaches the horse which way we would have him go, whereas with the Spanish horse, the reins are gently pressed against that side of the neck in the direction in which he is to turn.

The bullocks to be marked were driven into a pen towards which we directed our steps. They were noble animals, and had been tamed by tying them singly with tame cattle for a time. I had here some slight exhibition of the skill with which the lasso is thrown. One of the bullocks was selected from the herd, and in an instant the lasso was firmly entangled around his horns or legs, and he was thrown down and pinioned. The burning brand was then applied, and after sundry bellowings and other indications of disapprobation, the poor animal was released.

There were not far from forty bullocks marked on this occasion, intended for the Clementine, in her trip down to Honolulu, fellow passengers of your humble servant. They are there put into pasture, to be fattened for the supply of ships visiting Honolulu in the fall season.