More than a century ago, a small group of Native Hawaiians left the Islands to found a tiny town in Utah. This is their story.
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Arrival of the Hawaiians
From 1889 to 1917, hundreds of Pacific Islanders lived, toiled and some died in Skull Valley, Utah. The remote valley is about 75 miles southwest of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ headquarters in Salt Lake City, and it was a stark contrast to their Island home. They traded rain forests for juniper and sage brush, the blue Pacific for the Great Salt Lake—a remnant of the giant Lake Bonneville.
Most of the settlers were Native Hawaiians, who had been converted to Mormonism by missionaries and had first gathered on Lanai and then at Laie, Oahu, but were determined to gather at Zion with other members of the church in Utah and participate in sacred ordinances at the Salt Lake Temple that was under construction there.
In the 1870s, the Hawaiian government eased restrictions on emigration, and the Hawaiian “saints,” as the LDS church refers to its members, began their journeys eastward to Utah.
In Salt Lake City, assimilation didn’t come easily for the Pacific Islanders, and a committee consisting of three Caucasians and three Hawaiians was sent to find a place suitable for relocation of the Pacific Islanders. After looking at several possible destinations, it was decided that the 1,920-acre John T. Rich Ranch in Skull Valley would be the place.
On Aug. 28, 1889, nearly 50 Polynesians arrived in Skull Valley. The settlement was named Iosepa, after Joseph F. Smith, who had been a missionary in Hawaii and later president of the Mormon Church. His uncle, Joseph Smith Jr., had organized the church in 1830.
The townsite of Iosepa does not exist today and it’s hard to imagine the place that was once bustling with Hawaiians. Skull Valley is bound by the Cedar Mountains to the west and the juniper-spackled Stansbury Mountains, with its highest peak towering more than 11,000 feet, to the east. The super saline Great Salt Lake marks the valley’s northeastern edge. The valley today is dotted with sage brush. Wisps of yellow, dry grasses poke up from the dusty ground.
This past summer, Benjamin Pykles, assistant professor of anthropology at State University of New York at Potsdam, walked in the same places the Polynesians did, dug where they lived and worked, hoping to gain insight into the workings of the Polynesian community that survived for nearly 30 years near the turn of the century.
Pykles, who attended Brigham Young University in Utah—where his interest was first sparked about Iosepa—has been researching the abandoned settlement and conducted an archaeological dig at the site for about a month this summer.
The townsite was blocked out in typical Mormon fashion with gridded streets and a public square—in this case the 17-acre Imilani Square. Streets and avenues with names like Wailuku, Hawaii, Laie, Honolulu, Waimea, Kula, Kapukini, Napela, Solomona and Kaulianamoku dissected the town.
The townsite was roughly 120 acres, with 40 blocks. Lots were three-quarters of an acre. Some individuals owned more than one lot, and some families owned an entire block. The company constructed homes, a school, a store and a church among other buildings.
Townspeople worked for the church-controlled Iosepa Agriculture and Stock Co.
“In many ways Iosepa was a company town with the Pacific Islanders providing the labor for this agriculture and stock company,” says Pykles.