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Ikua Purdy at the Cheyenne Rodeo

Hawaiian Historical Society

Headlines in Island and Wyoming newspapers in August of 1908 announced rodeo history. Twelve thousand spectators, a huge number for those days, watched Ikua Purdy, Eben “Rawhide Ben” Low, and Archie Kaaua 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.”

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. Low, even after a rope holding a rampaging bull twisted around his left wrist and severed the hand, became an expert roper. They and Kaaua 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.

Under drizzling skies, Purdy won the World’s Steer Roping Championship—roping, throwing, and tying the steer in 56 seconds flat. Kaaua and Low took third and sixth place. 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 1910 Cheyenne Rodeo remain heroes to this day.