Iosepa: Utah’s Pacific Islander Pioneers

ehora UPAN Blog

Benjamin C. Pykles, Historic Sites Curator

Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“Hawaiians in the Utah desert! What?” This was my initial reaction when I first heard about Iosepa, a historic settlement in Skull Valley, Tooele County, established by Pacific Islander converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although Utah now has the second largest population of Pacific Islanders in the mainland United States, relatively few citizens know about the pioneering roots of Utah’s Pacific Islanders at Iosepa.

Residents of Iosepa, 1914. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

In the 1880s, a group of Pacific Islanders—mostly Hawaiians—immigrated to Salt Lake City after joining the Church of Jesus Christ. In 1889, due to language barriers, racial prejudice, and an incidence of leprosy, Church leaders assembled a committee to help the Pacific Islanders find a place where they could settle. The committee, including three of the Pacific Islander converts, selected a 1,500-acre ranch in Skull Valley, which the Church purchased for the new settlement. There, under the supervision of a few former Latter-day Saint missionaries to Hawaii, they established a town. They named it Iosepa—the Hawaiian word for “Joseph”—in honor of Joseph F. Smith, a Church leader who had labored among them years earlier as a young missionary in Hawaii.

They laid out the town in typical Latter-day Saint fashion, with a gridded pattern of streets and uniformly square lots and blocks. They established a large central public square and two extra wide streets forming the main north-south and east-west axes. Wanting their new community to reflect their traditional cultural values, they assigned Hawaiian names and phrases to these features of the town. For example, they named the town square Imilani, which in the Hawaiian language means “to look for (or seek) God (or the heavens).” They named each of the town’s east-west avenues after specific locations in the Hawaiian Islands, and they named the town’s north-south streets after prominent Hawaiian individuals or families.

The 1908 plat map of Iosepa Townsite. Courtesy of Tooele County Recorder’s Office.

Some people are surprised to learn that the area’s arid climate was not a difficult challenge for the Pacific Islanders of Iosepa. The leeward, or downwind, sides of most of the Hawaiian Islands are as warm and dry as Utah’s Skull Valley. But Utah’s winter weather was another matter. Although it does snow on some of the highest volcanic peaks of the Hawaiian Islands, nothing the islanders experienced in their native homelands prepared them for the cold and snowy winters of Utah.

Residents of Iosepa in front of their meetinghouse, 1913. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.

In spite of these challenges, the Pacific Islanders took advantage of the good soil and water in the area and helped Iosepa blossom as the rose. They completed an irrigation system in 1908, collecting water from numerous mountain streams and springs and channeling it into the town and surrounding fields. With this abundant supply of water, the Pacific Islanders raised animals and various crops for market as employees of the Iosepa Agricultural and Stock Company. The residents constructed new houses and surrounded them with fruit trees and shade trees. They also built a meetinghouse, where they gathered for worship, in the center of the town square. In 1915, twenty-six years after its founding, Iosepa won a competition for the cleanest town in Utah. Sadly, a few months later, the state board of health announced that Iosepa could not win the contest because the town was not officially incorporated.

Iosepa cemetery decorated for the Memorial Day weekend festivities. Courtesy of Aaron Mohler.

After twenty-eight years of ranching and agricultural production, Iosepa’s residents abandoned the town in 1917. Most of them, at the encouragement of Joseph F. Smith, then President of the Church, returned to Hawaii to assist with the construction of the Latter-day Saint temple in Laie, Oahu. The town site was sold to a livestock company, which over the years razed the majority of the town’s buildings so the land could be used for grazing cattle. Nothing but a cemetery and a few house foundations remain visible at the site today. Nevertheless, a large number of Pacific Islanders, some of whom are descendants of Iosepa’s original residents, gather at the cemetery every Memorial Day weekend to remember and commemorate their ancestors and cultural heritage. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was not a Memorial Day gathering this year.

In the summers of 2008 and 2010, I led a group of students from the State University of New York at Postdam, where I was an assistant professor of anthropology, in archaeological investigations at Iosepa. We focused our excavations on a few town lots on which John and Lucy Mahoe and their children once lived. In addition to uncovering some of the stone foundations of the Mahoes’ home, we unearthed one of the family’s privies. After careful analysis of various artifacts, we determined that most, if not all, of the items found in the privy had been intentionally discarded around 1917, when the Mahoes, with nearly all of their neighbors, packed up what they could, leaving everything else behind, and started their journey back to the Hawaiian Islands. Today, these broken pieces of everyday life are some of the few priceless reminders of this significant but little-known chapter in Utah’s Pacific Islander history.

Students from the State University of New York at Potsdam excavating the Mahoe privy at Iosepa, 2008. Courtesy of the author.]

If you’re interested in learning more about the archaeology of Iosepa, you can watch this video, in which I explain more about the history of the settlement and the different artifacts uncovered at the Mahoes’ homesite.

And here’s a link to a short documentary film about Iosepa, made by Palakiko Chandler, a native Hawaiian and recent graduate of Brigham Young University’s journalism program.

To get involved in the preservation and celebration of Iosepa, please visit the website of the Iosepa Historical Association, which sponsors the annual Memorial Day weekend events.

Aloha.