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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.