Iosepa: Hawaiian ‘gem’ brightened Utah desert

Polynesians and Church leaders extolled the spread of the gospel among the peoples of the South Sea islands on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of a former LDS colony of Hawaiians in Utah.

The town of Iosepa (pronounced "Yo-SEH-pa") was founded Aug. 28, 1889, in Skull Valley, Tooele County, Utah, some 75 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. It was named after President Joseph F. Smith (Iosepa is the Hawaiian word for Joseph), who was loved by the Hawaiian Latter-day Saints for his missionary work in their islands.The desert colony flourished until January 1917, when it was abandoned as most of its residents returned to Hawaii.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated a monument with a bronze bust of a Polynesian warrior at the Iosepa graveyard Aug. 28. Elders William R. Bradford and Yoshihiko Kikuchi of the First Quorum of the Seventy also attended the dedication and spoke briefly.

The previous evening – Sunday – President Thomas S. Monson, second counselor in the First Presidency, spoke at a commemorative fireside in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

A week of centennial activities in Salt Lake City, Orem and Skull Valley included guided tours of the town site, luaus, a cultural dance evening, and ceremonies on the steps of the Utah State Capitol. The centennial activities were sponsored by the Iosepa Historical Association based in Sandy, Utah, and the Iosepa Historical Society in Laie, Hawaii.

"This memorial will stand as a fitting tribute to those who lived and died here and gave their lives as an expression of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ," President Hinckley said to about 200 people gathered at the town site for the dedication.

He remarked that to some, there could be no greater contrast than the one between the temperate climate of Hawaii and the dry desert of Skull Valley. Referring to the location of the Hawaii Temple, he said, "When Laie was first acquired, it was a barren place, and Joseph F. Smith – Iosepa – made a prophecy that if the people would be true and faithful, waters would become available to them and it should become a garden spot in the beautiful islands of the Pacific."

Similarly, Iosepa began as a barren place, but its residents made it fruitful and beautiful, President Hinckley said.

"What appears to many to be a desert was in effect a garden spot, a place of beauty, music, song, sociality, worship and love one for another as they established here a colony of Hawaiian saints," he declared.

"They came here willingly and with appreciation in their hearts. They worked diligently and faithfully, and they left reluctantly."

President Hinckley said he is grateful that the graveyard is properly fenced, with a concrete border around each grave to preserve the identity of those interred therein.

"This was not the desert we see today," he said. "This was once a beautiful community and a part of a large mosaic of communities that our people established all over the West, in Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Nevada and California; 500 communities, at least. And among them stood Iosepa as a gem, a paradise, brought from the islands of the Pacific to the desert of the West."

Attending the fireside Sunday, Aug. 27, were some former residents of Iosepa, friends and descendants of the settlers, and Church members of other Polynesian cultures, including Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan and Maori. The Polynesian Choir of Salt Lake City, seated in the gallery above the rostrum, performed several hymns in Polynesian and English languages.

Speaking at the fireside, President Monson said one of his first assignments as a member of the Council of the Twelve was to supervise the work of the Church in Polynesia.

"Wherever you find Polynesians you will find song," he said, recalling an occasion when the Church College of Samoa received new band instruments. The old instruments, he said, were sent to the village of Sauniatu, where LDS children were each allowed to select an instrument of his or her choice.

"Within a week or two, they were playing as a full-scale band in Sauniatu," President Monson said with a chuckle.

On another occasion, he said, he arrived with Burton Price, the mission president, on the Samoan island of Savai'i. The ferry brought them during the night, and they found the missionary quarters. At daybreak they were awakened. Representatives said a crowd of welcomers had overslept and missed the Church leaders' arrival. They were asked to go back down to the dock and get off the boat again so they could be welcomed with song.

"We did so. As we got off the boat, there were the brothers and sisters of Savai'i with a full-scale band, all of them barefooted. We marched with the group as they sang and played 'Onward, Christian Soldiers.'"

In addition to the gift of song, Polynesians have the gift of faith, President Monson said. He recalled being at a conference in Apia, Western Samoa, with President Hugh B. Brown, formerly of the First Presidency. During President Brown's talk, a messenger came from the rear of the building, President Monson remembered, and handed the interpreter a note with the message: "It is not necessary for you to interpret the remainder of President Brown's talk, for we are hearing him in our native tongue."

Such a rare gift – the interpretation of tongues – can only be found among people of great faith, President Monson commented.

Among several speakers at the fireside and dedication service were two historians, Don Rosenberg and Dennis Atkins, who outlined the history of Iosepa.

Rosenberg said the Hawaiian converts began to gather to Utah in the 1870's to participate in the gathering of Zion and to do temple ordinance work. By then, the colonization of communities along mountain streams had already occurred, and there was no place for the islanders to settle as a group. After much investigation by the Church, the Skull Valley location was selected.

Water was conveyed to the settlement from the mountain canyons on the east via a rock and concrete ditch, Rosenberg said. Later a culinary system was installed to each street and lot, with fire hydrants along the way. A house and social hall were also constructed, Rosenberg recounted.

The town had its problems battling the elements and sickness, including pneumonia and leprosy, but it thrived, Rosenberg observed. At the height of the colony, 228 people lived at Iosepa. The lawns, flowers, gardens and trees won for the town the prize for the best kept and most progressive city in Utah in 1911, the historian added.

At the dedication ceremony, Atkins, author of a master's thesis on Iosepa, said President Joseph F. Smith announced after a visit to Hawaii that a temple would be built at Laie. Many of the Iosepa residents decided it was their temple and they must go back to Hawaii to help build it, Atkins related.

The attitude of the First Presidency at the time was that they should be allowed to go back, that those who did not have money to make the trip should be assisted, and that, most important, they be encouraged to go where the Church was strong and that they remain strong in the gospel, Atkins said.

Even so, it was with reluctance that they abandoned their beloved town. Rosenberg quoted Alf Callister, 12 years old at the time, as saying that when the wagons were loaded to take the settlers away, the women refused to ride. Instead, they walked the distance to the railroad station, and with big tears running down their faces, kept looking back at their homes and uttering "Goodbye Iosepa, Goodbye Iosepa." Today, the cemetery is the only remnant of the town.

The monument was constructed with money raised from luaus and concerts. Eddie Kamauoha, president of the Iosepa Historical Society, recalled visiting the graveyard in August 1987 with President Hinckley. A brush fire had burned the wooden grave markers. As part of the memorial, the graves were marked.

The monument features a bronze bust of a Polynesian warrior sculpted by Jan Fisher, an LDS sculptor in Laie, Hawaii. The bust sits atop a granite shaft with plaques telling the story of Iosepa and listing the names of the original settlers. Also listed are as many names as have been recorded of the 79 people interred in the graveyard.

The plaque inscription ties the Iosepa settlement to subsequent events of the Church in Polynesia. It reads, in part: "The seeds of our Polynesian pioneers bore fruit in Hawaii – the Laie temple, Brigham Young University – Hawaii, and the Polynesian Cultural Center. Holy temples stand firm in New Zealand, Western Samoa, Tonga, and Tahiti as monuments to the testimonies of the faithful Polynesian pioneers."