TOOELE COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – Iosepa may not look like much, the ghost town about 75 miles to the west of Salt Lake City is little more than a graveyard, a few fire hydrants, and a bronze statue of a Polynesian warrior.
The sign marking the territory adorned with a palm tree and the greeting ‘ALOHA,’ may also seem out of place.
However oddly placed the tropical symbols might be, the land deep within Utah’s Skull Valley carries a deep history of Hawaiian natives attempting to bring a piece of paradise to their new home.
Tooele resident Hema Heimuli Jr. knows the history well, a few of his ancestors are buried in Iosepa’s graveyard, including his great great grandmother, Helen Halemanu. He visits her grave and gathers with other families with roots in Iosepa to celebrate with a luau and cultural celebration every year on Memorial Day.
That Warrior statue overlooking the cemetery was dedicated by Gordon B. Hinckley, the late President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and shaped by the same artist who created the iconic “Duke” figure at Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach always sits at the heart of the festivities.
For families like the Heimulis, remembering their ancestors who lived in Iosepa, carries memories of both good and bad times.
“It’s kind of a symbol that’s twofold for people that are related to people that lived there,” he explains. “It’s a terrible memory of racism and loneliness and being separated from where you’re from, but it’s also like a testament to strength and resourcefulness.”
The town, which no longer has any residents, was founded in the late 1880s by a small group of Native Hawaiians who had moved to Utah after converting to the LDS faith by missionaries in their homeland. Wanting to be near the center of the Church’s activities and leadership, they made the journey from the tropical islands to the Intermountain West but were greeted with severe mistreatment from those who had already settled in Utah 40 years earlier.
“When they moved to Utah, a lot of the pioneers here were very unfamiliar with Polynesia, and spread rumors that weren’t entirely true,” Heimuli explains when speaking of his ancestors.
The mistreatment towards the Native Hawaiians was well documented in the annals of Utah history. Many historical records of the time state that the Polynesian people were often refused service at Salt Lake City restaurants and hotels. As a result, Church leaders, feeling a responsibility to its new members that had left their home behind, decided to set aside some land for a Hawaiian enclave in the Utah desert.
“They thought they were like an unclean in like a gospel sense as a people,” Heimuli says of the Utah settlers who clashed with his ancestors. “And that’s why they kicked them out of Salt Lake proper and moved them all the way out to the west desert.”
A piece of land in Tooele County was chosen in 1889 and given the name, Iosepa, a Hawaiian form of Joseph – named after Joseph F. Smith, a church leader and nephew of its founder, Joseph Smith, who was one of the first missionaries to serve in the islands.
Although the area – and its climate – was an extreme departure from the paradise that the Natives knew from their homeland, they did their best to put a piece of the Polynesian Islands in the Beehive State.
A history written by Iosepa Historical Society President Richard Poulsen shares that the township, which grew to a population of 228 Hawaiians, Samoans, Maoris, and well as immigrants from Portugal, Scotland, and England, built one of the neatest and most unique places in the state. Hundreds of walnut and fruit trees were planted in the village, along with an aggressive irrigation plan that brought lush green grasses and even a small reservoir to give the residents of Iosepa some sense of living near the water.
There were, however, obvious challenges for a group of island natives that had been abruptly relocated to the Utah climate. Crop failures and illness ravaged the community, leaving the graveyard that currently occupies the land as a harsh reminder.
When Joseph F. Smith, the community’s hero who had then risen to the mantle of President of the Church announced plans to build a new temple in Laie, Hawaii in 1915, many of the Natives who had come to Utah to be near the Salt Lake Temple saw this as an opportunity to continue their faith where they were most comfortable: home.
It didn’t take long for the residents of Iosepa to leave the desert behind. By 1917, it had become a ghost town.
More than a century later, the Polynesian community still has a strong presence in Utah. The state says that more than 38,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders make their home in the Beehive State, with 85% of those living in Salt Lake and Utah Counties.
One of the biggest drivers of Polynesian culture in Utah comes from a pipeline of football players with Pacific Islander roots. That’s how Heimuli’s family found a home in Utah; his father, Lakei, was recruited from Kahuku High School in Hawaii to play at Brigham Young University in the 1980s, where he set many school rushing records before a brief career in the NFL. Many of the Polynesian families in the state have some tie to a college football program, such as BYU, Utah, or Weber State, and make their home in the area after their playing days.
While his ancestors may have struggled to make a life for themselves in Utah, Heimuli, who also has family ties in New Zealand, is comfortable in the state. He also feels the local Polynesian culture is a vibrant piece of the entire picture in Utah.
“Living locally, there’s Polynesians everywhere,” he states. “I feel as close to like Hawaii as I do to New Zealand or Utah. They’re all home to me, in my opinion.”