Hawaiian legend returns to CheyenneWritten by Liz LeSatz
In 1908, after more than 10 years as a western frontier celebration and top regional rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days was looking to make a name for itself as a national rodeo.
“Cheyenne Frontier Days was one of the first rodeos to try to celebrate the American West because Wyoming had such a strong culture of cowboys and ranch life,” says Old West Museum Curator of Exhibits Michael Kassel. “At that point it was thought the Old West was going away and everything would turn into modern America, so this was a celebration of things that were passing.”
As the popularity of the CFD events grew, the celebration’s notoriety also grew and Hawaiian rancher Eben Low took a strong interest in the rodeo. Low had sponsored the first rodeo in Hawaii where Hawaiian cowboys, called Paniolos, could test the styles, methods and skills that were unique to the Paniolo trade.
Low knew the Hawaiian ropers were wicked with a rope, says Kassel. While Low himself had lost a hand in a roping accident, he had other champions in mind, specifically his brother Jack Low, Archie Kaaua and Ikua Purdy.
By 1907 CFD was known as the biggest and best rodeo in the world. That year Eben Low and his wife were traveling the U.S. when they arrived in Cheyenne to witness the renowned rodeo. After seeing the Wyoming cowboys compete, Low offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii for CFD’s “World Champion Steer Roper” to compete against his Paniolos.
A man named Angus McPhee won the steer roping that year and accepted the challenge. He came to Honolulu in December 1907 and went up against the Paniolos.
“According to [Mc-Phee’s] daughter, he fell off his horse and the steer charged him,” says Kassel. “There was a big dust cloud and everybody in the stands was horrified and thought he was killed because when the dust cleared, McPhee was on the ground and so was the animal. But the daughter said, ‘Oh, he just bulldogged him.’”
The Hawaiians thought McPhee’s feat was wonderful, but it wasn’t the event he had set out to win and the Wyoming cowboy walked away without the win.
The next year, it was Wyoming’s turn to welcome Hawaii. Low had decided to send Jack Low, Archie Kaaua and Ikua Purdy to compete against the Wyoming champions. The Cheyenne papers followed the three Hawaiians in their trip from the islands to the prairie. They were reported as thinking California was freezing cold in August, but once they reached the Cowboy State, all anyone would talk about was their tremendous roping skills.
Until 1908 Wyoming cowboys had taken the championship every year, but that was about to change. When the Wyoming cowboys got their first look at the Paniolo competition, they knew they were in trouble, says Kassel.
The day of the competition the Hawaiians made history. They had a slow start with Jack Low’s go when he fell victim to the high altitude and struggled through his run. Then Kaaua’s turn came up and he tied his steer in one minute and 10 seconds. At the time, anything under one minute and 30 seconds was considered championship quality, says Kassel.
After Kaaua’s lightning run, Purdy was the only Paniolo left. His fellow Hawaiians had set the bar high, and when he threw his loop, the crowd thought he had lost. The steer was running through the loop when a sharp snap from Purdy cinched it around the animal’s middle. The rope continued to slide down the animal when another sharp snap drew the rope up around the steer’s hind feet and down he went. He tied his animal in one minute and seven seconds. Purdy hadn’t made a mistake as the crowd thought; he had roped in Paniolo style.
The rest of the event found cowboy after cowboy racing to beat Purdy’s time, but none could do it and Purdy walked away the World Champion Steer Roper. Kaaua also received third place and Jack Low took sixth.
The three Paniolos returned to Hawaii where they were greeted by huge crowds and celebrations.
“Everyone wanted to see the champion of the world,” says Kassel. “[Purdy] was wined and dined by the king, he had songs and hulas written about him and they have statues erected in his memory, just because of his victory here in Cheyenne.”
The victory for the Paniolos also turned into a success for the CFD celebration.
“Ikua Purdy became a legend,” says Kassel. “Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1908 became a national sporting event, it was the first time Wyoming lost the championship and it was the first year at our current location. It really was a banner year for Cheyenne Frontier Days.”
Several events featuring the Hawaiian Paniolos are taking place at CFD including an exhibit called “Hawaiians Take Cheyenne!” running through Nov. 15 at the Old West Museum. A complete schedule of Paniolo activities is available at www.oldwestmuseum.org.