by Richard Poulsen,
In the late 1800's the Mormon Church was expanding rapidly around the world due to the dedicated efforts of many diligent missionaries. Church membership grew especially fast in the Hawaiian Islands, where the native Polynesian people were quick to embrace the teachings of the gospel. Many of these Hawaiian converts felt a strong desire to come to Zion, where they could do temple work for themselves and for their ancestors. Soon arrangements were being made to undertake the journey, and these members began trickling into Utah as they accompanied missionaries returning to Utah from the Sandwich Islands. These pioneers settled into the Salt Lake Valley and its surrounding areas.
In 1889 a group of three Hawaiian converts and three return missionaries chose a section of land on Skull Valley's Rich Ranch for the purpose of forming a colony of Polynesian Saints. This colony was called Iosepa, the Hawaiian equivalent of Joseph, in honor of Joseph F. Smith, who had served a mission in the Hawaiian Islands.
On August 28, 1889, these Polynesian Saints moved to Iosepa, where lots were drawn for plots of land that had room for a home, garden, barn and corral. A sawmill was purchased and the Polynesians built homes, a chapel/assembly hall, a school, and a store in their community.
From that time until 1917, continuous improvements were made to the settlement. On Arbor Day in 1899 many native Utahns journeyed to Iosepa and planted 300 walnut trees, 300 fruit trees, and 100 ornamental trees. Other landscaping improvements included the planting of grass, grape vines, currants, raspberries and flowers (Iosepa was famous for its yellow roses). An aggressive irrigation project allowed water to be piped to the town's homes and fields, amazing first time visitors to the community who emerged from miles of barren desert into a virtual island oasis that had cottages surrounded by green lawns, flower beds and strategically positioned fire hydrants.
The Polynesians were especially proud of their luaus, where they dressed in traditional costumes and performed the songs and dances of the islands along with their Gosh Ute Indian neighbors from the adjoining Reservation. On these occasions large feasts were prepared consisting of pigs and sheep cooked in an imu (underground oven), along with the making of laulau by wrapping carp (raised in their reservoir) inside cornhusks. The traditional island poi was replaced with a substitute concoction that used cornstarch and flour.
The community also had a number of performing groups that went out into the surrounding communities. These included a young men's glee club, an orchestra, and a Polynesian instrumental group called the Troubadours. The Troubadours used guitars, ukuleles, violins, a cello, a banjo, and vocalists.
At its height, Iosepa was home to 228 people, mostly Hawaiians but also Samoans, Maoris, Portuguese, Scots and English. In the 10-year period from 1907 through 1916, 48 babies were born, while 29 people died. Utah historian J. Cecil Alter wrote in 1911, "Iosepa is perhaps the most successful individual colonization proposition that has been attempted by the Mormon people in the United States…There are 1,120 acres practically all in use and half as much more is being brought under the magic wand of the Hawaiian irrigator."
In 1915, Joseph F. Smith, then president of the Mormon Church, announced plans to build a temple at Laie, on the North Shore of Oahu. Some of the Hawaiians decided to return to the Islands, where they would now have more opportunities to perform sacred ordinances than they did in Utah, since the temple in Salt Lake City was 75 miles away. Church officials did not advise the colonists as a group to return, but did offer financial assistance to those who needed it. All of this had a snowballing effect, with more and more families deciding to return to Hawaii. Soon, even those who wished to remain in Iosepa were uncertain of the town's future. By January 1917, the town was virtually abandoned.
For decades the only evidence that the town had ever even existed was a small cemetery with the names of those who had lost their lives in Iosepa. As the years passed, the town that had flourished at the turn of the century, slowly fell into disrepair and was neglected by most of the outside world, with the occasional exception of a few groups such as the Boy Scouts and some B.Y.U. organizations who did a little repair work.
In 1980, Vermin Hawes, a direct descendant of two Iosepa families, organized Memorial Day activities at the old town site, where she and a few other Polynesians from Utah gathered for the event. That year the group repaired the fence and beautified the area.
Since then this once small group has held annual Memorial Day activities that have gathered more momentum each year and have made Iosepa the gathering place for Polynesians from all over the West.
In 1989 President Hinckley dedicated a monument to the memory of those early Iosepa residents for their unique part in Utah history. That year also marked a turning point in the Memorial Day activities, changing them from a one-day work excursion into a three-day festival including a program documenting the history of the colony, church services and memorial observances, games, arts and crafts and a luau with pig, chicken, beef, and other Polynesian foods and entertainment.
During this year's services, a pavilion will be dedicated that will serve as a place to gather and teach the history of the once thriving Polynesian community to the new generation of Polynesians who have come and are coming to Utah.
The Iosepa Historical Association of Utah would like to thank and pay tribute to the late Ed Kamauoha, Ed Morell, and Aunty Clara Silva, for their dedication and hard work in preserving and uplifting the memories of Iosepa.
The Polynesian Gift to Utah is made possible by a generous grant from the R. Harold Burton Foundation.