Iosepa: The Polynesian Colony of Utah

Iosepa, Utah, residents celebrating Pioneer Day, August 28, 1914. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved.

by PENI TAGOAI

History—The LDS Church sent missionaries to the South Pacific as early as 1844, three years prior to the pioneers settling the Salt Lake Valley. When the first LDS missionaries arrived in Hawaii and other Polynesian islands, they were unsuccessful. None of the native Hawaiians and Polynesians were interested in their message. As the missionaries were able to learn the language and culture of the people they served among, they began to see more Polynesians interested in their message and eventually many of them joined the LDS Church. The Hawaiians, Samoans, and other Polynesians who were converted to the LDS Church desired to join the saints in Utah in the settling of the Salt Lake Valley. Unfortunately, due to the laws of the Hawaiian government, they were not able to leave the islands until the laws relaxed in or around 1875. (Panek)

By 1889 there were about 75 Polynesians in the Salt Lake Valley. With the majority being Hawaiian, they settled in Warm Springs, Utah (Beck’s Hot Springs). Language barriers and culture differences made it difficult for these Polynesians to adapt to life in Utah. As a result, this led to difficulty in finding employment, which then led to a difficulty in providing for their families. (Panek)  Also challenging for these Polynesians was the fact that rumors had spread about the islanders having leprosy. The Salt Lake Herald reported on June 20, 1896, that “although rumors prevail to the effect that one had appeared ere they were settled on the lands composing the small settlement.”

On May 16, 1889, the First Presidency of the LDS Church put a together a committee to find a permanent home for these Polynesians. This group included three men: Harvey H. Cluff, William W. Cluff, and Fred A. Mitchell. They presented the plan to the Polynesians in Warm Springs to find them a home. The Polynesians selected three men of their own to join this committee: J. W. Kaulainamoku, George Kamakaniau, and Napela (First Hawaiian convert and first Hawaiian to visit Utah). (Atkin) This plan was welcomed warmly and with excitement to have a place they could call their home.

The land unanimously voted on as the home for these Polynesians is located at Skull Valley in Tooele County. Tropical landscapes filled with beaches and greenery were traded for desert farm land. George Fredric Stratton of the Salt Lake Herald described a trip into Skull Valley in 1915 from Salt Lake City: “Forty miles to an early breakfast at Granstville [Tooele County], then another forty miles across the desert took them into Iosepa.”

The land in Skull Valley was owned by John T. Rich. Chosen over three other locations from Utah, Cache, and Weber counties, it provided the best farming land that could potentially provide financial means and accommodate growth. Their new home was named Iosepa after the boy missionary, Joseph F. Smith. He was called to serve a mission to the Hawaiian Islands when he was 15 years of age. The colony was named in his honor using the Hawaiian translation of Joseph. (Atkin)

Life in Iosepa—The Polynesians, numbering about 50 people, moved into their new home August 28, 1889. Work immediately started on the layout plans of the town. In an interview with the Daily Enquirer November 5, 1889, Harvey H. Cluff pointed out that the newly established colony was part of an incorporated company named the Iosepa Agricultural and Stock Company (IASC). Cluff pointed out that the colony would have the opportunity to work for IASC and in turn have a more comfortable home. He added that a public square had been laid out, four center streets designated, a day school had been planned, and homes were being built for the community’s increasing numbers.

In time Iosepa expanded and the LDS Church purchased 800 additional acres. This increased the land that was being cultivated from 200 acres to 400 acres. The ability to provide sufficient water played a major role in this expansion. On November 9, 1908, the Deseret Evening News reported that the irrigation canal that was under construction was now complete. The newspaper describe the irrigation engineering as “remarkable, of passing through the mountains with the canal by which the waters of the different streams were intercepted and brought together.”

Due to financial pressures, the LDS Church and Iosepa were tempted to rent out part of their farmland to Samuel Woolley of Grantsville who would hire the Polynesians to work the land in return. (Panek) In 1904, colony president Thomas A. Waddoups spoke about the signs of self-sufficiency. The Deseret Evening News reported on the productive harvest of the year: 1,000 tons of hay, 250 beeves [beef], several hundred stock of cattle, 5,200 bushels of wheat and barley, 800 bushels of potatoes, 50 tons of squash, 600 bushels of corn. Similar to other colonies, there are financial difficulties at first and it can take time to become self-sufficient. The Iosepa colony of the LDS Church was no exception.

Life in Iosepa was affected by the economic circumstances because of the need to survive. The need to educate the people of Iosepa was also made a priority within the first year of its existence.The Daily Enquirer interviewed Harvey H. Cluff, who was  then president of the Iosepa colony, on November 1, 1889. He said,  “A day school will be set in operation as soon as the people are properly located for the winter, when such class instruction to the more advanced male and female population as will conduce to the improvement of the people socially, religiously, morally, and in cleanliness, will be given from time to time.”

On September 3, 1910, 21 years after that initial interview with Harvey H. Cluff, the Deseret Evening News reported that the school in Iosepa had been very successful. “All these years a good free school has been maintained…. The native Hawaiians make rapid progress from 6 years up to 16 and 17 years, outstripping the white children.”

They also had to make sure their culture and identity remained intact.  Social activities were planned around LDS Church activities because the colony was under the direction of the LDS Church. Every year the same important dates took place:

  • Hawaiian Pioneer day, August 28
  • New Years Day
  • Christmas Day
  • Polynesian day, celebrated every time LDS Church officials visited—about four times a year. (Atkin)

Festivities included a pig roast, traditional Polynesian food, and traditional Polynesian music and dance from each island represented in Iosepa. The Deseret Evening News reported on September 2, 1905, about one of the annual celebrations commemorating the Polynesian’s first arrival into Skull Valley: “7 o’clock this morning two dressed pigs weighing over 100 pounds each, were placed whole in a pit, where a fire, hours old, had heated stones in the bottom to an intense heat…. At 8 o’clock a dance commenced in the amusement hall of the colony, and the fun was furious until 12 o’clock midnight.” By cooking in the methods of their homeland, they preserved their culture and educated their youth about their native cultures.

In 1915, the LDS Church announced the building of the Laie, Hawaii Temple on the island of O’ahu. This announcement ushered in the closing of the Iosepa colony along with the offer from the LDS Church to pay the settlers’ fares back to Hawaii. (Atkin) By 1916, several of the Polynesian residents of Iosepa returned home. The Maui News reported on November 3, 1916, that 17 of the Iosepa pioneers arriving on the ship, Sierra, as “going old and gray-haired” moving into yet another “Mormon colony” this time in their homeland located at “Laie, windward O’ahu.” By 1917, Iosepa was almost entirely abandoned save a few residents (Atkin), breaking up one of the oddest pairings of the 20th century: the tropically-grown people of Polynesia and the desolate farmlands of Utah.

Peni Tagoai is a senior at the University of Utah, graduating in August 2012. His major is in speech communication with a minor in international studies. He grew up on the North Shore of O’ahu.

Sources

“Iosepa, The Kanaka Colony in Tooele County,” Daily Enquirer, November 1, 1889.

“Leprosy in the Kanaka Settlement,” Salt Lake Herald, June 20, 1896.

“Conference at Iosepa,” Deseret Evening News, November 26, 1904.

“Iosepa, Hawaiian Celebration,” Deseret Evening News, September 2, 1905.

“Big Event for Iosepa Colony,” Deseret Evening News, November 9, 1908.

“Hawaiian Village of Iosepa Celebrates Twenty-first Birthday,” Deseret Evening News, September 3, 1910.

George Frederic Stratton, “From Salt Lake to South Sea Islands,” Salt Lake Herald, September 5, 1915.

“On The Other Islands,” The Maui News, November 3, 1916, 5.

Tracey E. Panek, “Life at Iosepa, Utah’s Polynesian Colony,” in Proclamation to the People: Nineteeneth-century Mormon and the Pacific Basin Frontier, ed. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp and Reid L. Neilson (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2008), 170-81.

Dennis H. Atkin, History of Iosepa, The Utah Polynesian Colony (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1958).

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