The voyage of Hawaiian Islanders to the windswept desert of Skull Valley could only have happened in Utah.
Once established in Utah in 1847, the Mormon Church drew thousands of new converts who came to build a new home in “Zion.” By the late 1880s missionary efforts resulted in a small community of Polynesian converts living in Salt Lake City. The Islanders faced prejudice in the capital, so church leaders looked for a new place for them to settle. That place was Skull Valley, in the desert west of the Stansbury Mountains, where in August 1889, forty-six Hawaiians established the colony of Iosepa.
Like other frontier settlements, winters were harsh at Iosepa, summers brutal, and disease common. But for twenty-eight years the Islanders who migrated from the tropical Pacific did their best to turn the bone-dry desert into a home.
To do that, they planted crops and built infrastructure. But they also maintained their culture and traditions. Although fluent in English, most continued to speak Hawaiian, and all Iosepa streets had Hawaiian names. Island music and dance was common at Pioneer Day festivities and community celebrations. Residents even found ways to replicate familiar foods by raising pigs and farming fish in the reservoir they had built for water storage. Algae was harvested from the reservoir as a substitute for seaweed and corn husks stood in for the ti leaves usually used to wrap food for cooking.
At its peak, Iosepa was home to 228 people. When the LDS Church began building a temple in Hawaii, residents decided to return to the Islands and by 1917, Iosepa was a ghost town.
Despite the challenging environment of Skull Valley, many were sad to leave. As the last Hawaiians departed, observers wrote that “...the women refused to ride in the wagons and were determined to walk the [fifteen mile] distance to the railroad. They followed the wagons on foot and with big tears running down their faces … kept looking back at their homes and uttering ‘goodby Iosepa, goodby...’”
Megan van Frank for Utah Humanities © 2014
Image: Iosepa. Iosepa residents picking up goods at a train station, 16 miles north of Iosepa. c. 1910. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
The Islanders’ desert sojourn is now remembered every Memorial Day by Utah’s Polynesian community, which maintains the cemetery and a community center at the site. For more information about Iosepa, see Richard H. Jackson and Mark W. Jackson, “Iosepa: The Hawaiian Experience in Settling the Mormon West,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 76, Number 4, Fall 2008, pp. 316-337; W. Paul Reeve, “A Bit of Polynesia Remains in the Salt Desert,” History Blazer, May 1995, accessed http://historytogo.utah.gov; David L. Schirer, “Iosepa,” Utah History Encyclopaedia, accessed http://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/; and Gregory E. Smoak, Utah’s Journey Stories, Salt Lake City: Utah Humanities Council, 2014, accessed http://www.utahhumanities.org/journeystories/journeys_essay_HL.pdf.
The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org