Remembering Iosepa

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.


(page 2 of 3)

1898 portrait of an Iosepan mother and child.
Photo: Courtesy of BYU Hawaii Archives and Special Collections

The Morrill and Edmunds-Tucker acts prohibited the church from owning more than $50,000 in property, so the company was structured as a joint stock corporation, with private individuals owning stock in the company.

The company grew crops and raised other people’s livestock before acquiring livestock of its own and selling it at market. It grew a variety of crops including oats, barley, wheat, corn, potatoes, hay, squash and pumpkins. It also planted hundreds of fruit, nut and ornamental trees. The town even gained the honor of the best kept and most progressive townsite in Utah. Nearby, Kanaka Lake was stocked with carp. This lake also provided recreation in the form of swimming in the summers and ice skating in the winters.

In the beginning, the harsh weather took its toll on the Polynesians. They came almost entirely from the Hawaiian Islands but also from other Pacific Islands, from tropical paradises to this desolate place, and many were sickened. They had to endure bleak winters with snow and freezing temperatures, and hot, dry summers.

The graves of some in the cemetery about a half mile away from the townsite are proof of the hardships encountered there. Several inhabitants contracted Hansen’s disease. A small house was constructed a distance away from the townsite. When they needed supplies, a flag was raised on a flagpole and assistance would come. Eventually, the afflicted residents died.

Despite the struggles, the people persevered and survived.

“The contrast of coming from Hawaii to here and not having the things we’re spoiled with—central air and heating—they didn’t have that,” said George Sadowski, whose grandfather lived at Iosepa.

At first, the water system consisted of water flowing down in open ditches from springs in the foothills to the east in the Stansbury Mountains. In 1908, however, a pressurized water system was installed and piped down to the town. Today, fire hydrants, remnants of that project, protrude through the sage brush.

Headstone of John Kauleinamoku, the first Native Hawaiian to settle in Utah permanently.  Mormon missionaries first arrived in Hawaii in 1850.  Converts such as Kauleinamoku and the settlers of Iosepa would move to Utah to be closer to church temples, which did not exist in the Islands.  Kauleinamoku worked as a carpenter and stone cutter in Salt Lake City from 1874 to 1889 before joining the Iosepa settlement.  There, he contracted, and succumbed to, Hansen's disease.

Photo: Courtesy of BYU Hawaii Archives and Special Collections

“It seems a little strange they’d be investing so much money to improve the town less than 10 years before it was abandoned,” Pykles said. “This was intended to be a permanent settlement.”

By 1915, Iosepa had grown to the height of its population—228 people. That was that same year the LDS Church announced the building of a temple in Hawaii. The Polynesian saints were once again called upon to relocate, this time to assist with the construction of the sacred building. The church offered to pay for the return fares of those who could not afford them.

Because of their faith in their religion, they picked up once again, this time leaving their adopted home—which to some was the only home they’d ever known—for their island homeland. By 1917, almost everyone was gone and the settlement was mostly abandoned.

“People were quite happy there,” Pykles said. “Others did not like it. Some people just left the settlement and others were crying when they were asked to leave.”

The townsite was sold to the Deseret Livestock Co., owned by the church. The land now belongs to the Ensign Group, which operates a working ranch there, grazing cattle.

Cory Hoopiiaina is a descendant of one of two families that stayed at Iosepa after it was mostly abandoned.

Hoopiiaina, treasurer of the Iosepa Historical Association—an organization dedicated to preserving the memory of Iosepa and the sacrifices made there—said his grandfather, Benjamin Kaloni Hoopiiaina, didn’t want to go back to Hawaii when the church encouraged the Hawaiians to return and help with the construction of the temple there.

He said the other family ended up leaving Iosepa after just a few weeks, but Benjamin stayed until 1918 before moving into the Salt Lake area.

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