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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.


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“Most didn’t want to leave the land,” Hoopiiaina said. “They were asked to build a temple in Laie. He thought that if you go out there for 28 years and that’s part of you, you don’t want to just up and leave. He had put his sweat and tears into the place and fell in love with it. And it takes a certain kind of person to fall in love with the desert like that.”

Structures at Iosepa have long since been razed to the ground, relocated or succumbed to the elements. All that remains is the cemetery to the northeast of the townsite, as well as a few visible foundations and artifacts that jut up from the ground.

At the head of the cemetery, the bust of a Polynesian warrior and flags from island nations watch over those who died there. The first death occurred only several weeks after the Polynesians first arrived in Skull Valley. Sage brush now covers the landscape where beautiful trees, manicured lawns, flowers and crops once flourished. Chunks of concrete—remnants of the town’s sidewalks—are strewn about. The giant shade trees that once lined the northern part of the public square are now skeletons of their former selves. Only a few remain upright; the others have fallen to the ground.

Benjamin Pykles at Iosepa in Utah's Skull Valley.  This past summer, Pykles conducted an archaeology project at the town site.

Photo: Maegan Burr, Tooele Transcript Bulletin

The Archeology Project

In an effort to discover what life was like at the abandoned Polynesian settlement in the desert, Pykles began an archaeological project. In the summer of 2007, field work on the project was done, which mostly included mapping and surveying the site. Using old surveyor maps and original stone surveyor monuments placed in 1908, he was able to re-establish the location of the townsite on the ground. Stakes were placed in corners of roughly a dozen lots. He hopes in the future to be able to stake out the entire town.

For the month of July, he and a team of a dozen students dug on one of two lots that belonged to John K. Mahoe Koakanu. An area on the lot believed to be a trash pit turned up a wealth of artifacts, including fish bones, chicken skulls and peach pits. Items like these are valuable, as they hint at the Iosepans’ diets.

Other items including dishware, jars, bottles, the leather bottom of a shoe, an oil canister for a lamp and chimney lamp fragments were also found at the site. Also scattered around the town were the rusted blade of an ice skate, worn metal tablespoons and various shards of jars and pottery.

Sadowski, grandson of Koakanu, said, “It’s really neat because they’ve found some teacups and other artifacts. There are things that my grandparents and my mom’s siblings used so they’re very close to us. It’s just three generations away so the dig itself was outstanding. To us it’s priceless.”

But before the dig began, some descendants of the Iosepa pioneers expressed concern over it as they were worried graves would be dug up. Many of their concerns were alleviated, however, when they learned that Pykles would follow appropriate cultural protocol if human remains were found and many with the Iosepa Historical Association gave Pykles their blessing.

Sadowski’s grandfather went back to Hawaii to help build the temple there. Sadowski grew up in Hawaii and moved to Utah in 1976. His wife is from Utah and he found employment in the state. He still has strong ties to Hawaii.

Pykles is hoping the artifacts he’s uncovered will help him see what everyday life was like at the settlement, in addition to how the Pacific Islanders coped with the differences and distance from home and how they held their culture.

It’s evident from Iosepa’s street names that they wanted to bring some of their homeland to their new home.

“They were trying to create a little bit of Hawaii in the desert,” Pykles said.

In addition, the settlers adapted to the ingredients available to them in the desert to make traditional dishes. For example, wheat flour was substituted for taro to make poi.

On a rock in the foothills of the Stansburys above the cemetery, sea turtles, palm trees and other images reminiscent of Island life are scratched into a large rock.

“If you lived out there for 28 years of your life, unless you were born in Hawaii, the only thing you could ever kind of relate to is the stories that the elderly people told you of what the Islands were like. If you’ve never seen a turtle how would you know what it looked like?” said Hoopiiaina.   

The Hawaiians adjusted to all the changes in their environment.

“I think back in the day they relied a lot more than we do in the Lord. They had so much faith that he would always come through and he always did. As hard as everything was, every year they could watch things grow,” Hoopiiaina said.

Memorial Day celebration

Every Memorial Day weekend, descendants of the original Iosepa pioneers and other Polynesians gather in the desert to honor those who came before. The celebration, sponsored by the Iosepa Historical Association, includes a giant luau and traditional Polynesian entertainment, is. It is tradition for children to clean the graves at the cemetery. About 1,500 people attended this past Memorial Day celebration. The association has built a pavilion, a kitchen and a water well, installed bathrooms and this year built a changing room. The next thing they hope to install is power.

Even though the desert has reclaimed Iosepa and the townsite is gone, it won’t be forgotten. It is sacred and the legacy, the town they built and the sacrifices the Polynesians made will live on forever. One can feel it when looking over the expanse of the austere beauty of Skull Valley, reading the names on the headstones in the cemetery that seem so out of place in the desert surroundings, and watching it in the evenings as the desert sunset bathes the landscape and the wind rustles everything it touches.                    

Journalist Sarah Miley lives in Clinton, Utah. She became acquinted with Iosepa through her work as community news editor for the Toele Transcript Bulletin.

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