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Parker, John Palmerfree

(01 May 1790–25 March 1868)
  • Sally Lampson Kanehe

Parker, John Palmer (01 May 1790–25 March 1868), cattleman, was born in Newton, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Parker and Ann Palmer, well-to-do owners of a New England shipping company. The family was financially secure and provided an intellectually stimulating environment for the young boy. Educated in eastern Massachusetts at Framingham Academy, Parker excelled in mathematics and history. Early on, he had strong interests both in artifacts from Native American cultures and the revolutionary war. Following his Framingham education, he worked briefly as a bookkeeper in the family business.

At the age of eighteen, Parker’s sense of adventure led him to enlist on a whaling ship out of Boston harbor. The whaling sojourn turned out to be a disappointment for him because he was repulsed by the slaughtering of whales, but it did not curtail his longing for faraway places. Soon he found a position as captain’s clerk aboard a merchant vessel bound for the Pacific via Cape Horn. En route, in addition to keeping the ship’s log, Parker learned the skills of sailing. After visiting the Pacific Northwest, the ship arrived off the west coast of Hawaii in 1809, expecting to take on a shipload of native sandalwood. Because the reigning king, Kamehameha the Great, had nearly depleted the sandalwood forests in exporting the fragrant wood to the lucrative Asian market, the captain decided to move on, but Parker was reluctant to leave. He had become enamored of the islands and their people. Although he realized that foreigners were not welcome on a permanent basis, he slipped off the ship and hid ashore.

Fortunately, in his short stay he had formed good relations with the native Hawaiians, and they aided him with food and shelter until he was summoned to King Kamehameha’s court. Parker’s ability to converse with the king in the native language and his reputation for hard work and dependability put the suspicious monarch at ease. Parker’s admiration for the king led to mutual regard, and the king offered him a job managing the royal aquacultural ponds at Honaunau (now the site of a national park). Parker carried out his charges successfully and came to be regarded with respect by Hawaiians of all ranks.

Just before Parker’s twenty-first birthday, a merchant ship sailed into harbor, and his sense of wanderlust was piqued once more. He signed on for a voyage to Canton, fully intending to return to Hawaii. Once in Canton, however, he was prevented from further travel. Due to the War of 1812, a shipping blockade kept all ships harbor-bound there for nearly two years. Finally, just before the end of the war, in 1815, Parker’s ship was allowed to depart from Canton. To his great relief they set sail for Hawaii, arriving there during his twenty-fifth year.

Parker’s return to Hawaii was well accepted by Kamehameha because Parker had brought back a gun and bullets. The king welcomed his help with control of the wild cattle that had begun to overrun the North Kohala regions of the Big Island. Sixteen years earlier, Captain George Vancouver had introduced cattle to the Big Island as a gift to Kamehameha. The cattle had been protected by royal order and were allowed to multiply freely. Turned feral by now, however, they had become both a physical threat to the safety of the people and a nuisance to crop cultivation. This cattle-hunting job began Parker’s ranching career. Always alert to opportunity, Parker marketed beef jerky, hides, and tallow to the sailing ships that periodically resupplied in Hawaii. Parker was additionally commissioned to provision ships with a full range of vegetables and basic needs during their circuits through the islands. Simultaneously, he became a trusted confidant of the king, who promoted him to positions of importance in the island economy.

Parker wanted a family to share his newfound prosperity. He was introduced to a young, attractive chief, Kipikane, who in 1816 became his wife in a traditional Hawaiian ceremony sanctioned by the king. They had three children. Parker happily trained his two sons in the skills of cattle management, the focus for the heirs of this family for generations to come.

By 1835 the cattle industry had increased significantly in North Kohala, and the village of Waimea became the center of the livestock business. A Honolulu entrepreneur, William French, established a cattle herd in Waimea and began to improve agricultural and ranching methods to compete in the cattle business. With government permission, French opened two stores and hired Parker to manage the Puuloa Store in Waimea. Parker was pleased with this new opportunity, for it paved the way toward more efficient marketing of his own beef and other agricultural products. He created a general market, offering yard goods, boots, tools, soap, lumber, and other consumables. Salted beef for the ships that came regularly to the Kawaiahae harbor, ten miles downslope from Waimea, continued to be particularly profitable.

Eventually, the cattle business that had relied on wild herds began to decline in the 1830s. Parker became interested in the idea of ranching as a more efficient way to supply beef. He and others organized to persuade the current king, Kamehameha III, to allow private ownership of land. The king, convinced that the knowledge and capital that foreigners supplied was valuable, approved the 1839 Bill of Rights allowing for a structural change in governance that permitted private land tenure in Hawaii. For the first time under a plan called the Great Mahele (literally, land division) of 1850, land was granted in fee simple title, ending Hawaii’s feudal system. Parker and Kipikane immediately applied for property titles, and the new government land commission awarded them two acres. Subsequently, when the chief Kipikane was awarded a property befitting her rank, the Parkers acquired a major land grant of 640 acres.

Parker continued to buy more land and develop his beef herd. He created a dairy farm, developed a meat storage house and sheds for his farming equipment, expanded his fruit and vegetable production, and imported Mexican vaqueros, called Paniolo by the Hawaiians, to do the cattle ranching. The Paniolo taught the native Hawaiians the skills of the trade, and soon Hawaiian cowboys manned the ranch, as they continue to do today. The basis for what has become the largest privately owned ranch in the United States had been successfully put in place through Parker’s prudence and perseverance.

John Parker died in Honolulu. Descendants of the family continue to own and operate the ranch. Waimea village was eventually renamed Kamuela, after Samuel Parker, Parker’s grandson. John Parker, the young New England adventurer who successfully found a niche in the island life, made his mark in establishing an enterprise that has survived for generations.


The best sources for information on Parker and the Parker ranch are Joseph Brennan, Paniolo (1978) and The Parker Ranch of Hawaii: The Saga of the Ranch and a Dynasty (1974); A. Grove Day, History Makers of Hawaii (1984); Virginia Cowan-Smith, Aloha Cowboy (1988), and Bernard Wellmon, “The Parker Ranch: A History” (Ph.D. diss., Texas Christian Univ., 1969).