SALT LAKE CITY » Lost in the vast desert of Skull Valley, 65 miles west of Salt Lake City, is a small cemetery where headstones from the turn of the 20th century bear Hawaiian names.
The view from the western foothills of the Stansbury Mountains over a sea of sagebrush offers scant evidence beyond the 88 well-tended graves that a town called Iosepa once stood here. But according to lore, the spirits of its settlers linger still.
Downslope from the headstones under a white canopy, Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam, and 10 students dig in sandy soil in the 90-plus degree heat. They are excavating the stone foundation of a house built shortly after 46 Hawaiian converts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in this desert wilderness on Aug. 28, 1889.
With the help of trowels, buckets and sifting screens, they find tiny relics — parts of hair combs, buttons, shards of dinnerware and bottle fragments, including a whiskey bottle, and even pieces of porcelain dolls — that the researchers hope will eventually create a clearer picture of how these Polynesian pioneers lived in their desert Zion.
The archaeologist sought permission to dig from the land’s owner, The Ensign Group, a ranching interest.
But before digging, Pykles also talked with Utah Polynesians, including some who have historic ties to Iosepa, because, he explained, Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders hold dear their ancestors and the land on which they lived. They arranged a special ceremony and called out to the spirits for approval.
"The ancestors become part of the land," Pykles said. The descendants "chanted and prayed to the ancestors in an acceptance and healing ceremony."
With the spirits soothed, Pykles’ team dug up such things as peach pits, corn cobs and chicken and fish bones. The settlers apparently raised carp where nearby springs pool so their diet could somehow resemble that of their island home. They dubbed the small pond Lake Kanaka.
A 1908 plat map he secured from the Tooele County Surveyor’s Office reveals that Iosepa’s founders did, indeed, have big plans. The map shows a town square of 17 acres. By contrast, Temple Square in Salt Lake City is 10 acres.
The avenues running east and west have place names, such as Honolulu and Waimea, according to the map. The streets going north and south have people names, like Napela Street, named for John Napela, the first prominent Hawaiian to join the LDS Church.
Not far from where his students dig, Pykles points to remnants of the stone foundation of what he believes was a church meetinghouse and a school. At the edge of town stands a lone fire hydrant from a 1908 water system funded by the LDS Church. Little else remains.
Settling in the west desert must have been challenging, said Jonathan Reeves, 20, a senior majoring in archaeology at SUNY Potsdam. The summers were hot and dry. The winters were snowy and cold.
"The first few winters were very tough. They didn’t leave home at all," he said. "This town is a testament to the perseverance these people had."
Iosepa is Hawaiian for "Joseph" in honor of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the LDS Church.
But according to historian Matthew Kester and others, in the late 1880s racial tensions in Salt Lake City between whites and Polynesians were sparked in part by fears that Polynesians carried leprosy.
That could explain why church leaders hatched a plan to create the Iosepa Agricultural and Stock Co. The Hawaiians would work for the outfit in Skull Valley raising cattle and sheep.
Few of the settlers owned stock in the company, Pykles said. Still, they planted trees and vegetable gardens and even raised roses.
Estimates put the peak population of Iosepa at 228 residents in 1915. As many as 100 structures were built, most of them frame dwellings made from Stansbury Mountain timbers. Iosepa had its own sawmill.
But a quarter-century into the project, the cattle company continued to be unprofitable. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the church hierarchy announced plans to build a temple in Hawaii, and the residents of the small west desert town were invited to move to Oahu to build it. By 1917 all but two families had left, and Iosepa was soon a ghost town.
But there still are Utah residents who can trace their family’s lineage through Iosepa.
Among them is Stan Sadowski a descendant of the Mahoe family. In fact, the excavation centered on the house owned by Sadowski’s grandfather John Mahoe.
Mahoe returned to Hawaii with his wife and many children in 1917. Sadowski came to Utah for the first time in 1974 to attend Brigham Young University. Today he lives in Provo and is well-versed in his family’s sojourn to Skull Valley.
"It’s a fascinating story," he said. "They really did make the desert bloom."