Iosepa is not a ghost town for Hawaiians in Utah

Story and photo by DAYNA BAE

Utah has a long history of migration of Pacific Islanders since the 1800s. Such a long history may lead to today’s large Pacific Islander population in Utah.

Jacob Fitisemanu Jr., a clinical manager with Health Clinics of Utah and associate instructor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, said that the first settlement of Pacific Islanders in Utah was made in 1873. The first settlement was in Warm Springs, west of Salt Lake City.  It is thought that they settled there because it was a little warmer in the winter and people were able to grow some crops during the cold season. “They had farms up in that area, initially,” Fitisemanu said.


Jacob Fitisemanu Jr. is sharing his idea at the University of Utah.

Pacific Islanders’ migration was caused by a certain trigger, a religion. Pacific Islanders’ migration to the state of Utah has a direct correlation with LDS church and missionary.

Malie Arvin, Ph.D., assistant professor of history and gender studies at the University of Utah, said, “The LDS church missionary played significant roles for the first arrival of Hawaiians.”

Fitisemanu also said, “They came here to help to construct Salt Lake Temple.”

Lots of people wonder how Hawaiians arrived in Utah in the 1800s. Since Utah is located in the middle of the desert and mountains, some people assume that they arrived in Utah by crossing the continent with handcarts. In fact, they came to Utah by trains.

Hawaiians’ arrival by railroad at that time is related to the gold rush in the 1800s and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.

“Hawaiians took ships to San Francisco and then traveled by train to Utah. The first group of Hawaiians came back with missionaries in the 1880s. By then, travel between Hawaii and California was pretty common and relatively easy,” said Hokulani Aikau, Ph.D., an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Utah, in an email interview.

Despite their religious piety in the LDS church, the first Hawaiian settlers in Utah experienced severe discriminations in Utah.

“Hawaiians, one of the first native Pacific Islander groups, came to Utah and faced lots of discriminations in Utah, because of their race,” Arvin said.

Fitisemanu said, “When they came they weren’t allowed to stay in hotels, they were not allowed to eat at restaurants. So they packed their own food and slept in a wagon.”

Iosepa, a ghost town in Skull Valley, Utah, has a direct relation with Hawaiian migrants. In 1889, Hawaiians came to Utah and built up a new town. It was named after Iosepa, which means “Joseph” in Hawaiian.

Arvin said, “At first, they lived in Salt Lake, but then the church moved them out to Iosepa, which took a three-day journey to travel to Salt Lake City, kind of middle of the desert. So they needed to do a lot of work to live there. They had to irrigate the area to grow food.”

According to Utah Stories, Hawaiian Mormons decided to come to Utah to establish their own town in one of the most barren regions in the west desert. Utah Stories reported that they worked hard, many died, but they persevered and survived, and in 1911 the town won an award as “the most progressive town in Utah.”

Still, there is an unsolved mystery of the abandonment of thriving village Iosepa, after successful cultivation. In 1917, six years after becoming the most progressive town in Utah, Hawaiian residents of Iosepa left their village and went back to Hawaii. Many historians and experts in ethnic studies have different views on this.

According to Utah Stories, the residents “decided to return to Hawaii to help build the first Mormon temple in La’ie.”

Aikau believes that they were forced to return to La’ie, Hawaii, to build another temple in the city. According to Aikau, Hawaiian people described the exodus as “our trail of tears” since they did not want to leave Utah and the heart of the church. Yet, they were required to leave due to the paternalism of the leadership and the plans to build the temple in La’ie.

“My understanding is that folks did not want to leave and that the church leadership had to force them to go,” Aikau said.

Pacific Islanders in Utah still visit Iosepa on Memorial Day and commemorate the town of Iosepa and their first settlers.

“Most of the commemoration is on Saturday and begins with a sun rising ceremony and a flag raising ceremony,” Aikau said. For the rest of the day, Pacific Islanders hold various activities, performances, presentations in a pavilion.

During Memorial Day weekend, some people go to the cemetery and clear debris from the graves. They then place leis in the graveyard, a type of Hawaiian wreath that symbolizes affection made by folks at the pavilion. On Saturday evening, they have a potluck style lu’au, a Hawaiian party, followed by a dance until late in the night.

“On Sunday morning, there is a sacrament and testimony meeting held at the pavilion,” Aikau said.

Nobody knows what exactly happened in Iosepa in 1917, yet, the abandoned town became a religious symbol of sacrifice and faith. In spite of many discussions for several years about mysterious history, Iosepa cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.

More stories about Pacific Islander’s migration and Iosepa can be found in “Chosen People, a Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’I” written by Hokulani Aikau, “Remembering Iosepa: History, Place, and Religion in the American West” written by Matthew Kester, and “A History of Iosepa, The Utah Polynesian Colony” written by Dennis Atkin.


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