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Remembering Iosepa and other determined Mormon pioneers

Published July 25, 2013 7:20 pm

The settlers came from a lush Hawaii about a century ago to settle a barren West Desert.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Iosepa • As a group of Pacific Islander Boy Scouts from Taylorsville and Orem played basketball nearby in this West Desert ghost town, Jacob Fitisemanu pondered the significance of Utah's Mormon pioneers.

Not Brigham Young. Not Parley P. Pratt. Not Eliza R. Snow.

But I.W. Kauleinamoku. And Benjamin Kaloni Hoopiiaina. And Makaopiopio Kaohimaunu.

They and scores of others helped found a Pacific Islander outpost called Iosepa in western Utah's Skull Valley.

Named after Mormon founder Joseph Smith and a later LDS prophet, Joseph F. Smith, Iosepa (pronounced Yo-see-pa) served as a home for Islander converts who came to Utah, mostly from Hawaii, in the late 1800s.

As many as 200 lived there from 1889 until 1917. Many then returned to their homeland, drawn by the LDS temple going up in Laie, Hawaii.

"There is a spiritual connection whenever we come here," said Fitisemanu, an assistant Scoutmaster from Taylorsville. "We try to be reverent when we come here. We understand it."

He imagines being part of the original settlers and the culture — and climate — shock they must have endured in such a remote place.

"They made it work," he said. "They were very spiritual people who managed to survive. They brought water to town from the top of the mountain four or five miles away for an irrigation system. They were an industrial people."

Iosepa was laid out in square grids like many Utah cities. Its streets bore the names of Hawaiian places. But there is little left of the town. A cemetery, with a monument to the settlers, remembers those who lived, loved and died there. Many headstones are weathered and difficult to read.

The Iosepa Historical Association, which leases the land from Tooele County, has constructed an outdoor pavilion and stage, cooking facilities, a small playground, restrooms and a flat area for camping.

Richard Poulsen, a board member and former president of the group, said the idea for more facilities came about 30 years ago. Islanders with ties to Iosepa would gather in those days for several hours on the Friday before Memorial Day to clean graves and enjoy a potluck meal. That grew into an event that now lasts the holiday weekend. They built the facilities so Scout groups and church organizations could better use the historical area.

Poulsen said the cemetery, where his wife's great-grandmother was laid to rest, still sees the occasional burial. A monument pays tribute to Makaopiopio Kaohimaunu, who died in Iosepa's early days in 1889, though she is not buried there. About 300 of her descendants attended the monument's dedication seven years ago.

The colorful signs marking the area include words such as "aloha" along with depictions of turtles, palm trees and Hawaiian natives.

Though many marvel that the Islanders — used to a tropical environment — could survive and even thrive in Utah's parched West Desert, Mormon historian and archaeologist Benjamin Pykles said the change might not have been as tough as many presumed. He noted that the leeward side of the Hawaiian Islands can be dry and, when not irrigated, almost desertlike.

"I don't think the desert climate was the challenge," said Pykles, who has been working on archaeological digs at Iosepa since 2007. "What was the challenge were the winters."

He said excavations have unearthed a range of medicines, including an early version of Vicks VapoRub for treating colds.

"That first winter was brutal," Pykles said. "The Pacific Islanders were holed up in their houses and would not come out. They got very sick. That was primarily the largest environmental challenge. The heat and dryness are not as foreign as you might think."

Pykles said the first Hawaiians came to Utah in the 1870s, with the lifting of a ban on island migration. But their skin color, language and background made it hard for them to integrate and find jobs. So LDS leaders organized a committee to find a place where they could settle as a group.

The archaeologist has studied rock art left by the Islanders near Iosepa on the west side of the Stansbury Mountains. He was particularly struck by a portrayal of the Big Dipper.

"The Big Dipper is also depicted on the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, the same temple the residents of Iosepa would have attended to participate in Mormon rituals," Pykles wrote in a research paper. "Furthermore, the Big Dipper for several cultures is means to locate the North Star and historically it has been a way to orient one's self when lost. … For the residents of Iosepa, the Big Dipper may have been a traditional navigational tool that now allowed them to find direction in a religious sense. This was likely important to the Hawaiians, as the transition to living in the American West was difficult."

Today's Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population in Utah numbers nearly 41,000, according to Census Bureau estimates, but Pykles is "amazed" at how few of them know about Iosepa.

"There is not an understanding that their people were here in the late 1800s and early in the 1900s, and what they did. We talk about in the context of faith. Their ancestors had enough faith to follow their religious leaders, to do what they were asked and to literally make the desert blossom as a rose."

Historical accounts even tell of Iosepa's streets lined with yellow rosebushes.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton