The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traces its beginnings to Joseph Smith, Jr on April 6, 1830 in Western New York. He and five others incorporated The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fayette, New York.
As early as 1844, missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly called the Mormons) were working among the Polynesians in Tahiti and surrounding islands.
“The Mormons are said to have commenced their mission (in Hawaiʻi) in 1850. Their converts are scattered over all the islands. They number about nine per cent of all those who in the census returns have reported their religious affiliations.” (The Friend, December 1902)
In the summer of 1850, in California, elder Charles C Rich called together more elders to establish a mission in the Sandwich Islands. They arrived December 12, 1850, but within six weeks, only half stayed. Later, more came.
Church membership grew 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.
In 1889, a group of three Hawaiian converts and three returned missionaries was assigned to choose a location. After considering possibilities in Cache, Weber and Utah counties, they selected a 1,920-acre site in Skull Valley, known as the Quincy Ranch or the Rich Ranch (about 75-miles southwest of Salt Lake City,) as a gathering place for the South Sea Islanders.
According to some accounts, Skull Valley received its name from buffalo skulls found there, and some Indian tales relate that Tooele County was a favored ground for buffalo before the coming of white men to the area. (Blanthorn)
On August 28, 1889, lots were drawn for plots of land that had room for a home, garden, barn and corral. (August 28 was later designated as Hawaiian Pioneer Day.)
A sawmill was purchased and the Polynesians built homes, a chapel/assembly hall, a school and a store in their community.
The colony was organized as a joint stock company, the Iosepa Agriculture and Stock Company, owned by the LDS Church.
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. (Poulsen)
The Polynesians raised pigs and fished for the carp that grew in the ponds in the vicinity to add to the crops they grew. A few Anglos resided in the town, working as supervisors on the Skull Valley farm. (UtahHistoryToGo)
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.” (Poulsen)
Although they managed to get by most of time, much of their food was imported from Salt Lake City. New hopefuls came from the Islands only to turn away after seeing what life was like in Iosepa. (GhostTowns-org)
Gold was being mined in the nearby mountains. Many of the men departed the colony to work in the mines and did not return. As deaths from pure hardship outnumbered births, it was only a question of time until the town itself would die. (GhostTowns-org)
In addition to economic difficulties, there were other problems for the settlement. In 1896 three cases of leprosy were discovered and the victims were isolated in a special house, although fears of the spread of leprosy were unfounded.
The harsh environment – burning heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter – took its toll on the settlers, as witnessed by the large number of graves in the cemetery. (UtahHistoryToGo)
Utah’s Iosepa Colony lasted as a community until 1917, at which time the residents returned to Hawaiʻi where the Hawaiian Mormon Temple was under construction – from that point, Iosepa 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. (Poulsen)
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 BYU organizations who did a little repair work. (Poulsen)
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. (Poulsen)
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. (Poulsen)