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Iosepa: The Hawaiian Experience in Settling the Mormon West

Iosepa: The Hawaiian Experience in Settling the Mormon West

The community of Iosepa in western Utah’s Skull Valley is significant as the only non-European migrant settlement in the Mormon West. Iosepa, the Hawaiian name for Joseph, was established in 1889 as a gathering place for Polynesian immigrants to Utah. It followed Joseph Smith Jr.’s “City of Zion” Plan, introduced in 1833, and used as a model for plotting Mormon towns in the Midwest and West. For twenty-five years Polynesian settlers worked to make Iosepa a success. In the end, Iosepa, like 15 to 20 percent of other western Mormon settlements, was abandoned. 

Iosepa’s abandonment was as unique as its demographic character among Mormon settlements because it resulted not from external environmental, political or economic forces, or internal dissension or economic failures as did other failed Mormon communities, but from the changing view of Mormon church leaders. An analysis of the unique aspects of  Iosepa illustrates its differences from other Mormon towns and reveals its continued importance to current Utah residents of Polynesian ancestry.

The establishment of the Mormon settlements in the West was largely accomplished during the lifetime of Brigham Young. After his death in 1877, converts continued to “gather” to the Mormon West, where they and a new generation of western Mormons needed jobs and homes. Existing Mormon towns in the Great Basin often had little potential for expansion of their agricultural based economy and lacked a sufficient industrial base to employ both new migrants and second generation Mormons. Consequently a new settlement period emerged after the death of Young, but one with some important differences. 

Contrasting Paradigms of Mormon Settlement: 1847-19151847-1877: The Brigham Young Era*

A major difference between the settlements before and after Young’s death are related to the replacement of the utopian ideals of communal settlements based on a formal church call (that attempted to ensure that a new settlement would include settlers with all the skills necessary for success) with settlements created by a group with little or no formal church direction. The creation of Iosepa in 1889 is notable among Mormon settlements established after the death of Brigham Young because it relied on the earlier Mormon settlement paradigm. Not only was it sponsored and planned by the church, it was funded, operated and subsidized by the church.  Unlike other Mormon settlements of its period, it was located in Utah only scores of miles from Salt Lake City rather than in sites far removed from church headquarters.

Iosepa owes its origins to Mormon missionary work begun in the Pacific Islands in 1843, and one of the unique doctrines of the early LDS church, the “gathering,” of its members to the headquarters of the church in the Great Basin. Initially, Hawaiian converts were unable to join with fellowchurch members in Utah because of Hawaii’s anti-emigration laws but undertook a local gathering process first at Palawai on Lanai in 1854, and later at a new site purchased by the church at Laie on Oahu in 1865.  At the same time only a few Hawaiians traveled to Utah with missionaries returning from Hawaii. Among them was J.W. Kauleinamoku who arrived in 1875 and started working on the Temple Block to learn the carpentry trade. He was given a piece of church owned land in the 19th ward where he built a home in the northwest part of the city at what was then known as Beck’s Warm Springs. In 1882, eight individuals in three families came with Harvey H. Cluff, a returning missionary. They located near the Kauleinamoku home and secured employment with the church.  More Hawaiians came to Utah with missionaries after the King of Hawaii lifted emigration restrictions in the mid-1880s. In 1889, seventy-six Hawaiians were reported to be living in Salt Lake City. Difficulties with year round employment opportunities, cultural differences, and unwarranted fear of leprosy “…made it necessary to seek another location for the Hawaiian people.” 

Three men, Harvey H. Cluff, William W. Cluff, and Frederick A. Mitchell, were appointed “as a committee to take into consideration the subject of locating and arranging to secure land suitable for the colonization of the Hawaiians who have immigrated or who may immigrate to Zion,” and summoned to a meeting with the LDS Church Presidency on May 22, 1889. 7 At that meeting three Hawaiians—J. W. Kauleinamoku, George Kamaka[naiu] and “Brother” Napela—were approved to assist the committee. 

The group faced formidable obstacles in their task as the best sites along the well watered eastern margin of the Great Basin were already occupied, leaving only the marginal lands farther west in the drier western side of the Wasatch front or Great Basin Desert or marshy lands along the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake as alternative sites. Tooele County, in the Great Basin desert west of Salt Lake City with a population of 3,700, was one of the few places relatively near Salt Lake City with the potential for settlement. Of the seven sites investigated by the committee, including sites in Tooele, Weber, Cache and Utah Counties, all but one, Tooele County’s Skull Valley, were deemed unsuitable due to either expense or lack of water and suitable soil for irrigated crops. 

Located seventy-five miles west of Salt Lake City and thirty miles from the nearest town of Grantsville, Skull Valley is characterized by an arid environment of six to eight inches of precipitation annually, extreme variability in temperatures with hot summers of over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and cold winters with temperatures dropping below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Skull Valley is from ten to fifteen miles wide, bounded on the west by the Cedar Mountains, a typical block fault range of low hills of sedimentary rock. The valley opens into the Great Salt Lake Desert to the north with the eastern boundary formed by the Stansbury Mountain Range whose elevations reach eleven thousand feet. Soils on the alluvial fans at the base of the Stansbury Range are shallow and dry, but fertile when irrigated. Springs are found near the base of the mountains, some large enough to create small seasonal streams in wetter years. Native vegetation consists of bunch grass and scattered sagebrush, shad scale and creosote bushes and pinyon pine, with some aspen and pine available on the nearby mountains.

The dry summers and the limited water of Skull Valley deterred farming by earlier Mormon settlers, but the valley was used for livestock grazing. Harvey H. Cluff, president of the committee to select a site for the Hawaiian settlement, reported that although the valley was thirty miles distant from Grantsville, making the valley isolated and remote, there are some “great advantages.” The committee recommended purchasing the ranch of John T. Rich at a cost of $35,000. Equipment, improvements and the growing crops together “will amount to $12,000. This amount deducted from the former makes the real cost of land and improvements not to exceed $13.50 per acre.” Moreover, more land could be obtained if needed and in the nearby mountains there was “an abundant supply of fuel and fencing,” and sufficient building material nearby. The water supply was “extensive,” and with a mild climate would provide for the production of a large annual crop yield, sufficient to meet the settlers’ needs. A growing herd of livestock “judiciously managed” would enable the settlers to meet the annual payment of both the principal and interest. The committee was unanimous in its recommendation to locate the Hawaiian saints in Skull Valley. 

The church purchased the ranch with its 1,920 acres of land, 129 horses, 335 cattle, cattle sheds, a barn and blacksmith shop, a large spring and rights

to irrigation water from five intermittent streams flowing from the Stansbury Mountains. On August 16, 1889, Rich and his wife were paid five thousand dollars cash by Harvey H. Cluff, with the balance to be paid by the Iosepa Agricultural and Stock Company in seven equal installments beginning on July 1, 1890. The notes, however, were endorsed by the First Presidency of the church, indicative of the actual financial source of support for the colony. 

The First Presidency manifested the importance of the colony by requesting Tooele Stake leaders to furnish volunteer teamsters to drive to Salt Lake City to pick up the possessions of the Hawaiians on August 26, and other volunteers to provide wagons and drivers to pick up the settlers at the train terminus in Garfield a day later. The night of the August 26,“…the Hawaiians were assembled in the Ward house, where the Bishops of the 19th and 22nd wards had provided a sumptuous supper. There were present on invitation quite a number of Elders who had been on missions in the Sandwich Islands, and the evening was spent in music, songs and recitations.”  The Tooele Stake was also assigned to provide a dinner and places to stay in Grantsville on the night of August 27. The next day, August 28, 1889, the first group of forty-six Hawaiian saints, (twenty males, twelve wives, two daughters, and twelve children,) were transported by wagon to the settlement site. 

The new colony was named Iosepa, Hawaiian for Joseph, in honor of Joseph F. Smith, a member of the First Presidency of the church and former missionary to Hawaii.  The settlement was organized into a cooperative called the Iosepa Agricultural and Stock Company (IASC), an incorporated entity designed to circumvent the limitations of property ownership by the LDS church by incorporating as a private company under Utah law. 15 The stockholders included Harvey and William Cluff and Frederick Mitchell, the three committee members who selected the site, who each owned 334 shares, and John T. Caine, Albert W. Davis and Henry P. Richards, each owning 333 shares. Shares were nominally valued at $25.00 per share, although there is no record of any of the shareholders actually investing any actual personal cash or property in them. Few, if any, of the Hawaiian saints owned shares in the company.  F. A. Mitchell accompanied the first settlers to their new settlement and from August 28 to 30 platted the Iosepa town site to include:

A public square, containing eleven acres, has been laid out in the center of town, and is destined to be fenced this fall and planted out to trees. The four center streets, eleven rods wide [181.5 feet], extended from the outer limits of the town on the four sides of the square, intersecting the eight rod streets [132 feet] encircling the square. It is designed to plant a row of trees in the center of each of these broad streets, forming avenues, extending from the centre of town to the outskirts. All the other streets are four rods [66 feet] wide and the blocks twenty-two rods [363 feet] square [3.035 acres], divided into four lots [181.5 feet square or 3/4 of an acre], thus making each lot a corner lot.

The plan reflected the original plan drawn by Joseph Smith for his earlier proposed City of Zion in the Midwest. Smith’s original plan was unique in suggesting wider avenues in the center of the town, a proposal apparent in the Iosepa community but absent in most other Mormon settlements in the West. 18 The actual survey was apparently not carried out until the following year, and the largest streets were dropped in favor of only the four 132 foot avenues and the 66 foot wide streets. The 181.5 foot wide streets would have been the widest in any town in the Mormon West, and even the smaller 132 foot wide main streets surveyed equaled those found in the burgeoning Mormon capital, Salt Lake City.

Residential lots were selected in a drawing and construction on the first houses began on September 9 with local stone and wood from a waterpowered sawmill five miles away. The mill was acquired by the LDS church and the former owner paid to continue operating the mill. 

The first winter was extremely difficult. Cattle died from the harsh weather and influenza spread among the settlers, some of whom returned to Salt Lake City during the coldest months. According to one account, “The winter of 1889-90 was very severe and the Hawaiian colonists suffered intensely, having come from a climate where a balmy temperature prevails. They remained indoors hovering around fires most of the time and an epidemic of ‘flu’ rendered conditions unusually trying. Only one man (white) died, however.” 

A few settlers gave up the following spring and left, but most stayed to begin plowing, planting and making irrigation ditches to nourish the growing crops.  The settlers’ work was rewarded with a bounteous crop after their first full year in the new community of Iosepa. In August 1890, the LDS church’s First Presidency visited Iosepa and, according to H.H. Cluff, “The Brethren were astonished at the good crop, especially the splendid crop of corn.”  Others reported that there were 1,826 bushels of wheat, 1,837 bushels of barley, 2,267 bushels of oats, 400-500 bushels of corn and some potatoes and fresh corn. 

The dedication of the Salt Lake Temple was an important event for residents of Iosepa. When a special fast was held on May 1, 1892, to raise funds to push the temple to completion, Iosepa residents contributed $1,400 of their hard-earned and much needed money.  When the temple was completed and dedicated in 1893, faithful LDS members in various settlements were assigned a day to attend the temple dedication ceremonies which began on April 6 and continued through April 18, and resumed for two days April 23 and 24. T.A. Waddoups, who was both the ranch manager and ecclesiastical leader of the church organization of Iosepa, reports that twenty-nine adults at Iosepa were so eager to attend that they came to him, confessed any minor sins they might have committed, and asked to be re-baptized to show their worthiness to attend the temple. All left Iosepa several days early to insure they would arrive for their appointed day, April 9, 1893.  Because only worthy adults were able to enter the temple, the number from Iosepa must have been nearly all of the adults in the estimated eighty to one hundred residents, and their inclusion in the earliest dedicatory services suggests their continued importance to the church leaders. After participation in the temple dedication, Iosepa worthy adults made the uncomfortable two day wagon trip to the Salt Lake City Temple as often as possible, camping overnight in a cave en route. 

By 1893 the Iosepa settlement had eighty Hawaiians and fourteen Anglos, “who labor under the direct supervision of the First Presidency. The company finds employment for all men who will work, at $30.00 per month.”  Cluff continued to serve as head of the community and president of the IASC until 1901 when he was replaced by Thomas A. Waddoups, another former missionary to Hawaii.  The practice of assigning an Anglo fluent in Hawaiian to serve as both president of the Hawaiian Mormon congregation (which was conterminous with the Iosepa settlement) and manager of the corporation persisted throughout Iosepa’s existence.

Iosepa’s first twenty-five years witnessed relative success, although perennial concerns about water for crops and the broader American economy were evident. During the depression of the 1890s, for example, Grantsville Mormons were unable to pay the agreed upon rent to use Iosepa lands for winter grazing of sheep.  Consequently, the IASC was unable to pay its county property taxes, prompting church authorities in 1897 to consider renting the ranch to a Grantsville Mormon who would hire the Hawaiian residents to operate it.  With additional cash assistance from the church, however, the community survived and grew slowly.

Close examination of the settlement of Iosepa illustrates how unique it was in the Mormon settlement of the West. Other towns had also been settled partially or completely by Mormon converts from a distinct geographic area but each group shared a related European origin. Unlike Iosepa, the other Mormon ethnic settlements occurred during the early settlement period (1847-1877) when better agricultural lands were available. Mormon settlements established in this time used cooperative efforts to lay out the community, build schools and churches, but followed the example of Salt Lake City in dividing the land into privately owned town lots and farm lots which were allocated by drawing numbers assigned to the lots. Each head of a household was entitled to ownership of a lot and a small farm in the area surveyed for irrigated farms. Normally each family operated its own farm. Public works like irrigation systems, roads, and schools, were completed through community cooperation, but individual ownership of land and businesses was the norm in Mormon settlements until Brigham Young began the economic cooperative movement in 1868 when the first Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) was formed in Salt Lake City. The goal behind the ZCMI movement was to insure that Mormons rather than outsiders (referred to as Gentiles by Mormons) benefited from Mormon trade. By 1870 many Mormon settlements had a general store operated cooperatively for the community’s residents.  Young expanded the idea of community cooperation when in 1873-74 he introduced the idea of the Order of Enoch, commonly referred to as the “United Order” in which all members of a community were to cooperate in all their economic activities.  The arrival of the railroad in 1869 bringing cheaper manufactured goods from the east and new opportunities in mining, followed by the death of Brigham Young in 1877, led to a rapid abandonment of the cooperative or communal model except for the local ZCMI in all but a few communities.

A variant of the communal model, however, resurfaced as the basis of Iosepa’s incorporation as a joint-stock company. Settlers drew lots to receive land for a home, garden, and privately owned livestock, but worked for the IASC were paid based on their labor and the value of the crops produced, as in Young’s United Order model. Initially, the settlers were simply credited for the amount of labor they devoted to the crop and livestock production of the IASC, and the corporation balanced their work against their purchases of food and clothing at the general store.  In 1901 the IASC issued scrip to replace the cumbersome bookkeeping required to keep track of hours worked and value of goods produced. Workers were paid thirty dollars per month in scrip, which was redeemable only at the company store in Iosepa.  Later the scrip was abandoned in favor of regular U.S. currency, but the United Order communitarian model in which all members of the community were part of a joint stock company and shared in the production from the cooperatively owned lands persisted longer in Iosepa than in any other Mormon settlement. A major difference, however, was that in Iosepa the land always belonged to the IASC rather than being originally owned individually and then pooled in the United Order.

Iosepa was never a large community, but the initial settlers were joined over time by other Hawaiians and a few other Polynesians. The Deseret Evening News reported that at the 1908 Hawaiian Pioneer Day on August 28, there were “100 Hawaiians, 27 American Indians, 13 Samoans, 6 Maoris, 1 Portugese, [sic] 5 half caste Portugese, 3 families of Scotchmen, [and] several families of English [local Anglo Mormon residents]...” in attendance. 35 The 1910 U.S. Census reports that there were 187 people in “Iosepa precinct.”  Judging from the numbers at the celebration and population listed by the census of 1910 the Iosepa precinct was as large as many other small Mormon agricultural villages elsewhere in the region.

The Hawaiian achievements at Iosepa were especially noteworthy because the national financial recession of the 1890s coincided with an offer by the Hawaiian government to pay for the passage of all Hawaiian settlers who wanted to return to their native land as the Kingdom of Hawaii faced economic and political challenges that ultimately led to the United States acquiring the islands as a territory later in the 1890s.  Few responded to the offer, and by 1915 Iosepa was reported to have a population of 228, similar in size to many other small Mormon settlements. 

The population growth was correlated with increased agricultural production of the IASC. In 1904, the Hawaiian settlers had 500 head of cattle and had raised 1,000 tons of hay, 5,200 bushels of wheat and barley, and 800 bushels of potatoes and 50 tons of squash.  Six years later the colonists cultivated 1,000 acres in crops besides their hay lands and by 1914 the IASC recorded $20,000 in profit after paying the workers and other expenses. A telephone line reached the community in 1906, and a railroad siding was opened on the Western Pacific Railroad at Timpie station fifteen miles north of the community the same year. In 1915, when Iosepa received a state award for the cleanest community, the settlement had 5,000 acres of crops and hay under cultivation. 

Iosepa continued to be unique among other Mormon settlements because it remained a joint-stock company under direct supervision of the leaders of the church. It was incorporated under Utah laws as a joint-stock company and managed by managers (who were also ecclesiastical leaders of the Iosepa branch) appointed by the First Presidency of the church. None of the First Presidency was on the company’s board of directors but the First Presidency did guarantee the company’s financial losses and provided additional funds for the company’s expansion and operation. While complete records detailing costs to the church for Iosepa are not available, there are a number of references to such expenses. For example, the church purchased additional land for the colony in 1890, 1893, and 1902, as well as a one-third interest in water rights from six small creeks entering the valley in 1896, and the church provided funds to improve facilities for hog production. Church assistance in meeting taxes and installing the pressurized water system are other examples. 

During their years at Iosepa the Hawaiian settlers sought to maintain their language, culture, and traditions. They continued to speak Hawaiian at church and other public meetings—although most were fluent in English—as did the IASC manager, a former Hawaiian missionary.  Culinary traditions continued in spite of the lack of traditional Pacific foodstuffs which forced adaptation of local substitutes. Pork, raised by the settlers, was one traditional foodstuff, which was also sold in Salt Lake City as was the beef raised at Iosepa. Missing from the local environment was a ready supply of fish. The solution was to plant carp in the 250 foot wide by 1500 foot long reservoir (named Kanaka Lake) dug for water storage.  A variety of algae was also harvested from Kanaka Lake to use in place of seaweed in cooking several of the traditional luau delicacies, and corn husks were substituted for ti leaves to wrap pork and fish. Poi, another traditional food,

was made from flour and corn starch poured into boiling water and stirred until the lumps disappeared. It was then strained through a flour sack and put into an earthen jar to sour. After it was soured, it was placed on a flat board and pounded with a ball stick until the mixture became fluffy and smooth, resembling ice cream, then it was returned to the jar ready to eat. The natives ate their poi, which took the place of bread, with their two forefingers. 

The Iosepa residents also maintained their distinctive music and dance. Pioneer Day celebrations and other festivities attracted local ranch families, sheep herders, visitors from Grantsville, and the rare passing motorist from the Lincoln Highway to hear traditional Hawaiian music.  The residents also formed a Hawaiian band and a singing group called the Hawaiian Troubadours which performed in Grantsville and other communities. 

Life was fragile for all of the frontier settlers of the West and Hawaiian settlers at Iosepa especially weathered some unusual challenges. The first winter the influenza was so severe that when a death occurred there were only three men healthy enough to make a coffin and see to the burial. 47 Typhoid fever, pneumonia, and diphtheria struck the colony from time to time. Three residents were diagnosed with leprosy in 1896, and, after all remedies failed, the colony constructed a small house outside the village where continued care was provided the victims until 1901 when the last victim died. 

Church leaders had intended Iosepa to be a permanent gathering place for Polynesians. On August 28, 1890, the first anniversary of the Iosepa settlement, church president Wilford Woodruff, “dedicated Skull Valley as a gathering place for the Saints from the islands of the Seas.”  However, Iosepa’s end came unexpectedly twenty-five years later with the announcement at the October 1915 LDS church conference that construction of a temple in Hawaii would begin immediately.  The temple was dedicated four years later on November 27, 1919. With that announcement, many Iosepa settlers expressed their desire to return to Hawaii. 

There may have been multiple reasons for their willingness to abandon their oasis in the desert, but first and foremost seems to have been the desire to return to Hawaii to assist in building the temple and to gather genealogical information which would allow them to complete their ancestors’ temple work. The initial desire of Hawaiians to immigrate to Utah centered on their desire to “gather” with the saints where they could perform temple ceremonies for their dead ancestors. Some of the adult residents of the Iosepa colony had been involved in construction of the Salt Lake Temple before Iosepa’s founding. 

The prospect of having a temple in their own land was very appealing to the residents of Iosepa, and apparently to the church. More importantly, some of the people of Iosepa had been able to acquire an understanding of skills useful in construction of a temple, while others were familiar with those necessary to participate in temple ceremonies, and their presence in Hawaii would be an asset in the construction and operation of the proposed temple there. President Joseph F. Smith directed that “…if any of the Hawaiians wished to return to the islands, it was agreeable with the Church for them to do so and that the Church would pay such transportation expenses as the individuals could not afford to pay.”  However, not all at the outset were desirous to return, but the generous offer by President Smith persuaded nearly all of them to accept the offer and return to the Islands. Ella Brunt Kamauoha recalled that her husband John, “…did not wish to go back to Hawaii, but [did so] under the advice of President Smith who said that perhaps the next prophet would not have the same ‘aloha’ for the Polynesians as he had.”  T.A.Waddoups reported that “Some of the colonists did not wish to leave Iosepa but once the movement got under way, all were swept up with it.”  President Smith counseled the Polynesians that if they returned they were “...to go to a location where there was an established LDS mission,” apparently emphasizing the importance of returning to Laie, since it was the location of the headquarters of the Hawaii mission.  The settlers began to leave within months of the 1915 announcement, and by 1917 the settlement was abandoned, which forced the president of the IASC to hire non-Polynesians to assist in harvesting the crops. The land and community were sold to the Deseret Livestock Company (owned by the LDS church) in the fall of 1917.  Not all of the Hawaiians and other Polynesians left Utah when Iosepa ended, however. A few continued to live in Salt Lake City or other towns in the state, one even continued to live in Skull Valley, attempting to “prove up” on a homestead just north of Iosepa. 

Since its abandonment, a number of explanations have been offered as unique reasons for the closing of Iosepa. The incidence of leprosy is seized upon by some as the cause of abandonment of the village. “Some say that the reason the project was abandoned, was that the government was afraid leprosy would be brought from the Islands to the United States.”  Other authors repeated this explanation, combining it with other problems of disease faced by every frontier community: “The eventual disbandment of the community seems to have resulted in part from problems of health. The prospects of the colony took a serious turn for the worse in 1896 when the county physician found three cases of leprosy... The outbreak of leprosy was undoubtedly one of the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm of some of those participating in this colonization experiment.”  Since the actual end of the town did not occur until sixteen years after the deaths of the only three individuals diagnosed with leprosy it is an unlikely proximate cause for its demise.

LDS church historian Andrew Jenson concluded that health reasons were the primary factor. “In 1917, it was considered best to discontinue the Iosepa Colony as the health of the Hawaiians was not good and the percentage of mortality was too high. The colonists were therefore advised to return to their native homes and assisted by the Church to do so.” 

Some observers have posited environmental causes for the sudden departure of the Polynesian saints concluding that the Islanders were simply incapable of living in such a hostile environment setting. Notes one author:

[The] conditions in the desert valley were too difficult for this project, begun with such enthusiasm and pursued with such courage. Even the intense faith of converts was not enough to adjust dwellers of the Pacific islands to the conditions in Skull Valley, Utah. Picturing the contrast between the lush and verdant flora of the Hawaiian landscape and the sparse vegetation, the sagebrush and scattered cottonwoods of this desert region; and thinking of the all-year-round warmth and sunshine of the Islands and the extreme summer heat and winter cold of Skull Valley, it is easy to understand the inability of Hawaiians to adjust themselves physically and mentally. 

Others have suggested even a stronger assessment for the failure of the Iosepa colony.

What qualms must have assailed those gentle islanders as they gazed upon the land allotted them for a home! For countless generations their race had known only the luxuriant beauty of a carefree South Sea Paradise; a place where surf sparkled on white coral beaches; where wild fruit could be had for gathering and fish for the catching; where midnight was as warm as noon and winter was a thing unknown.
And now...Skull Valley.
But for a few scraggly junipers on the desert hill to the east, there was not a tree or shrub as far as the eye might range. Heat of the Salt Desert would beat mercilessly upon them in summer; winter would bring the icy grip of snow-laden winds. Here was no fruit, no fish, no gleaming surf; here were no gay tropic blossoms that an island maid might tuck in her hair…
Only men of magnificent courage and the fortification of deep religious faith could have had the heart to take up the cross of Iosepa.....Iosepa...would never be more [than a small, temporary community], for those who peopled it were not constitutionally adapted to the unremitting labor demanded of men who seek to conquer the desert; nor were their bodies capable of adjusting to violent climactic change. Sickness and death was the payoff.....With the cemetery growing faster than the town, and the flat, dry breast of Skull Valley remaining as inhospitable as in the beginning, it is little wonder that the islanders at last lost heart....Iosepa, the Forlorn Hope, was deeded back to the desert winds and desolation.

While the author’s conclusion that Iosepa was a harsh geographic setting is correct, there is no evidence that the Polynesian settlers themselves were any different from those of other Mormon Great Basin settlements. Nearly a generation of Polynesians had lived and died in these very conditions, clearly they did not leave because their bodies and minds were somehow inferior and unable to adapt to the climate. The environmental difficulties as the proximate cause of failure may have some validity, however, if tied to the problems of financial costs versus benefits. The location was a harsh one in which the settlers would never become rich from agriculture, but numerous other Mormon settlements in the Great Basin persist to the present in situations that are clearly harsh compared to sites in more humid environments. Over time more and more of the inhabitants of these other Mormon settlements turned to other economic activities to supplement their farming incomes, and there is clear evidence that the same process was beginning in Iosepa prior to its demise as some male residents worked in Salt Lake City or Grantsville during the winter or part time during the summer. 

The financial problems of Iosepa were unusual among Mormon settlements because the joint-stock company was never completely independent from the church. This close tie also created an unusual financial drain on church finances. The ecclesiastical and business leader of the community was a Utah resident, familiar with the Hawaiian language and culture, appointed by church leaders, which illustrates the paternalistic nature of the church’s relationship to the Iosepa community. When President Smith announced construction of a temple in Hawaii he removed the major reason for the church’s support of Iosepa, access to the temple for sacred rites for Hawaiian converts. When he indicated that future church leaders might not be as supportive of Iosepa and offered to pay their fare to Hawaii as well as buy their stock in Iosepa, he effectively freed them from the commandment to “gather” to the Salt Lake area, suggesting that they could leave.

We can conclude that the abandonment of Iosepa was not because of widespread leprosy among its residents, nor the inability of the Hawaiians to tolerate the climate of the Great Basin. It is impossible to conclude how much of the decision to encourage the settlers to return to Hawaii resulted from continued financial costs to the church. The colony had been showing a profit in the years just preceding the advice to leave, except for capital investments like the water system, which was to have been repaid over time to the church. However, the ranch manager reported that all profits had always been re-invested in the colony instead of returned to the church so there was some financial drain.

With the opportunity to participate in construction of a temple in their homeland and the permission and assistance of the church to abandon their quarter century of gathering to Zion, some residents still sensed a great loss. Observers recorded that as the last Hawaiians left Iosepa in January 1917,“...the women refused to ride in the wagons and were determined to walk the distance to the railroad [fifteen miles]. They followed the wagons on foot and with big tears running down their faces they kept looking back at their homes and uttering ‘goodby Iosepa, goodby Iosepa.’” 

Today there is little physical evidence of the Hawaiian community that existed in the desert for nearly three decades. A road sign at the entrance to a ranch headquarters identifies it as Iosepa. Several of the buildings used by ranch employees were once homes of the Hawaiian settlers. Behind these buildings a few scattered trees and dead tree trunks are arrayed in line and close observation reveals a few sidewalk remnants partially visible through the brush, beginning in what were once streets, and ending in the sagebrush overgrown foundations of long removed houses. The little cemetery at Iosepa contains the graves of seventysix settlers dating from September 15, 1889, to December. 16,1915.  One headstone, that of J. W. Kauleinamoku, born in Hilo, Hawaii, on October 27, 1837, died at Iosepa, Skull Valley, Utah, July 21, 1899, records the life of a member of the original selection committee who devoted the last years of his life to the Polynesian colony.  His grave is joined by other Polynesian natives (mainly from Hawaii) as well as children only a few months old who had never known anything but Iosepa in their brief lives. All are mute symbols of the faithful saints who made Iosepa a Polynesian “island” in the Great Basin Desert. The Iosepa experiment has not been forgotten. An imposing granite monument recounting the accomplishments of the Iosepa colonizers was constructed at the old Iosepa cemetery in 1989 in commemoration of the centennial of the settlement’s founding. 68 Mormon church president Ezra Taft Benson personally presided at the ceremony unveiling the monument, noting that: “Sometimes this [Iosepa] is looked at as a failure. But it was not a failure because of the spiritual conviction and influence it gave the islanders who lived there and their descendants living today.” 

From the perspective of Mormon colonization, Iosepa is an interesting example of how ideas introduced by Joseph Smith Jr. persisted long after his death in encouraging converts to gather to be near the community of believers. In this respect, it is only marginally different from the founding of other Mormon communities in the West, but examination of the experience of Iosepa and other Mormon settlements suggests a model for explaining the success or failure of not only Iosepa but other Mormon communities.

The successful Mormon settlements established under Young’s direction shared five distinct characteristics:

(1) The charismatic leadership of Young who directed the settlers’ colonization efforts. (2) The successful use of cooperative efforts in their settlement process. (3) A shared millennialist ideology that included the view of themselves as a chosen people for whom God would intervene in the natural environment to facilitate their successful completion of the directions of their leaders.

(4) Continued conflict with non-Mormons fostering a defensive mentality. 

(5) Geographic resources of land and water sufficient to allow the initial settlement to become self-sufficient without continued outside subsidies.

At least three of these factors were unique to the Mormon experience, but they changed markedly after Young’s death. The post-Young settlements (1877-1915) lacked the personal direction by a charismatic leader as growth in the church combined with outside political pressure to cause the church to give up its role as guarantor of businesses such as the IASC.  Abandonment of the practice of polygamy reduced the most vocal opposition to Mormons that typified political speeches and newspaper accounts during the 1870-1890 years, reducing the Mormon view of themselves as a beleaguered minority. At the same time the acceptance of a millennialistic utopian world-view based on communitarian principles was replaced by adoption of typical American frontier characteristics of individualism, private property and free enterprise economic practices.

Iosepa’s establishment, however, represents a reversion to the earlier settlement paradigm of the Brigham Young years. Joseph F. Smith, like the charismatic Young for earlier settlements, was the church leader for the Hawaiians who encouraged settlement of Iosepa. Smith helped direct the selection of a location for the settlement, and the resultant organization and settlement process. His ties to the Hawaiian community prompted differential treatment for them compared to European immigrants of the time. While Europeans were expected to assimilate into the established Mormon society and economy, Smith’s intervention on behalf of the Polynesians created a unique paternalistic settlement form for the Mormon’s only Polynesian community in Utah. Albeit apparently inspired by good intentions, the establishment of Iosepa not only segregated the Hawaiian minority far from the Mormon capital on marginal land, but effectively implemented a plantation-like ranch under direction of a Caucasian overseer. Failure to become integrated into the mainstream Mormon communities and the continued need for church financial support of Iosepa probably factored into the decision to end the Hawaiian settlement and to repatriate them to the existing Mormon Hawaiian community in Laie, where a temple was to be constructed. The primary cause, however, seems to have been Joseph F. Smith’s concern about the future of the settlement after his death and the residents’ acceptance of his advice to return to Hawaii. The Iosepa colonists’ faith in their leaders as inspired men who had encouraged them to gather to Utah also allowed them to accept the then prophet’s counsel to return to Hawaii.

The Polynesian impact on Utah did not end with the Iosepa memorial, however. Largely as a result of post World War II immigration, Utah today ranks third (after California and Washington) among states in the continental United States in numbers of Polynesians. The 2000 U.S. Census indicates 22,678 individuals claiming Pacific Island ancestry in Utah, of whom 20,021 are Polynesian. While ranking third in number, the percent of Utah’s population who claim Polynesian ancestry is twice as high as any other mainland state (0.7 percent of the total population) and seven times the national average. The rate of growth of the Polynesian population in Utah has increased by 70 percent for the decade of 1980 to 1990, and has more than doubled in the last decade of the twentieth century. 

Descendents of Iosepa and other supporters of the former Hawaiian community have taken a renewed interest in Iosepa and in 1985 organized the Iosepa Historical Society. Over the years the historical society has received various grants and contributions to construct a covered pavilion, which has kitchen facilities, and other amenities, to restore and maintain the cemetery and to make other improvements. The pavilion and adjacent cemetery provide a permanent location for events associated with the annual Memorial Day activities. The Iosepa Cemetery continues to be an “active cemetery” with new graves being added.

Today, after the abandonment of the settlement of Iosepa little remains of the town site except a few foundations and pieces of sidewalk. The poplar trees that once lined the main street are dead and largely have disintegrated while the outline of the streets that were clearly visible only a decade or two ago are hard to discern among the numerous cattle trails that bisect the old town site.

A granite monument dedicated in 1989, topped with the bust of a Hawaiian warrior, stands as a mute testimony that the people buried here are different from those in most Mormon cemeteries. Much effort goes into weeding and cleaning the cemetery prior to the Memorial Day weekend when a celebration consisting of classes in traditional island crafts and dances are taught, a luau is prepared and served, and other activities take place. Flags which represent the isles of the Pacific flank the monument and on Sunday a LDS church meeting is held where visitors reflect upon both the faith and perseverance of the original settlers and the symbolism of their sacrifice in the modern world of Polynesians. Today, Iosepa remains unique among Mormon settlements in the American West, a distinction recognized far beyond the borders of the Mormon West. 

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