Polynesians in the Desert

Today nearly 25,000 Pacific Islanders – Tongans, Samoans, Guamians, native Hawaiians, and others – enrich life in Utah. Polynesian roots run almost as deeply into Utah history as those of any other group.

Mormon missionaries sailed to the Pacific Islands in 1843, four years before Brigham Young arrived in Utah. Converts in Hawaii gathered at Palawai and Laie, anticipating eventual relocation to Utah – “I hookahi na puuwai a hui ma Ziona” (“Let us be of one heart till we gather to Zion”) was an oft-repeated motto. Until 1884, however, Hawaii’s monarchs prohibited emigration.

Despite such prohibition, a few Hawaiians, traveling individually or in very small groups, made their way to Utah. One of the first arrivals was Kahana, a teenage boy who came to Fillmore by 1876; in 1877, he moved to Kingston, Piute County. There Kahana was a full member of the United Order community, which held all its property in common. Kahana labored at ranching, farming, and freighting and was ordained to the Mormon priesthood.

Not all Pacific Islanders were welcomed so warmly. In 1883 the San Francisco Chronicle published an account of the arrival of missionaries with a small group of Hawaiian converts, alleging that a 10-year-old boy was leprous. A reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune met the train on its arrival, demanding to have the boy examined by a local doctor, who diagnosed fever sores, not leprosy. Nevertheless, in a stunning blend of racial and religious bigotry, the Tribune railed against “Mormon lepers” and “the filthy kind of people landed in Utah by Mormon tramps.”

The Hawaiian colony in Utah numbered at least 16 in 1884, when they and former missionaries gathered for the funeral of an island girl, Kahanaumanu. The young girl had been treated for some time in the Mormon-owned Deseret Hospital and is buried in the City Cemetery.

By 1889, Hawaiians had lived in Utah long enough to desire U.S. citizenship. Four men appeared before the federal court on June 2 of that year. The first was admitted without problem. When the second man, Kamana Niau, stood to be examined, however, the Liberal (anti-Mormon) Party, taken by surprise, had had time to rally. They objected to the admission of Hawaiians to citizenship, claiming that only white men and men of African descent were eligible. Although their arguments were phrased in racial terms, religious opposition was probably as large a concern. The territorial Supreme Court eventually barred Pacific Islanders from citizenship until well after the turn of the 20th century – Niau was again denied citizenship in 1900 on the same racial grounds.

The town of Iosepa (named in honor of former missionary and future LDS president Joseph F. Smith) was founded in 1889 in Tooele County. Some Hawaiians chose to remain in Salt Lake City; many others moved to Iosepa. Just as Danes and Swiss and Welsh immigrants had formed their own Utah communities a generation earlier, the Hawaiians at Iosepa gathered in a unified colony to maintain cultural traditions and speak their native language.

Iosepa grew to encompass homes, gardens, a school, a chapel, a store, and a sawmill. Ten years after its founding, the town boasted hundreds of trees, including fruits, nuts, and ornamentals. Flowers (particularly yellow roses), grapevines, berry patches, and green lawns graced this oasis in the desert. A reservoir provided not only drinking and irrigation water, but was also a source of fish. Residents celebrated with luaus, wearing native costumes and performing Island songs and dances, occasionally exchanging performances with their Goshute neighbors. The Hawaiian Troubadours and other musical groups based at Iosepa performed frequently in Salt Lake and elsewhere.

By 1917, following the construction of an LDS temple at Laie, most of Iosepa’s residents returned to Hawaii. Others remained in Salt Lake as the nucleus of an ever-growing community of Polynesians. Few other mainland cities can boast the Pacific Islander heritage that Salt Lake City enjoys today.

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MLA: Parshall, Ardis E. "Polynesians in the Desert." Keepapitchin.org, 16 Aug 2008, https://keepapitchinin.org/2008/08/16/polynesians-in-the-desert-utah-history/.

APA: Parshall, A. (2008, Aug 16). Polynesians in the Desert. Keepapitchinin.org. https://keepapitchinin.org/2008/08/16/polynesians-in-the-desert-utah-history/

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7 thoughts on “Polynesians in the Desert”

  1. “only white men and men of African descent were eligible” – Wow.

    In a day of virulent racism, being Polynesian was ranked below “African” by the anti-Mormons, while the reverse was true within the Church itself. People really can justify whatever they want to justify.

  2. They are currently doing archeological work out at Iosepa. Someone came and presented on their findings as well as gave a common history of that settlement last summer–it was quite interesting.

  3. Ray, I would imagine that the immigration policy was a relic of the slave trade.

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that Iosepa received some awards for being a model city or something like that.

  4. When I took the senior seminar in history at BYU just over 30 years ago, one of other students wrote a short paper about Iosepa. Other than finding out that such a place existed (which thing I never had supposed), I don’t remmeber anything else about the paper, or the student who wrote it.

    I’m sure that he doesn’t even remember the subject I wrote about either, so I guess we’re even.

    As to the arguments against naturalization, I suspect that Ardis is right about underlying anti-Mormon motives. I don’t think the slave trade drove 19th century biases regarding immigration, naturalization or citizenship. It was just plain old garden-variety bigotry.

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