Secret SLC: The Lost Hawaiian Colony

Salt Lake is a city built on secrets. Its origin tale is wrapped up with the “Bible 2.0” Exodus of Brigham Young and his followers, the Latter-day Saints, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (officially) or the Mormons (colloquially and historically). The Mormons first arrived here in the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, after a long and insanely dangerous trek from Nauvoo, Ill. Technically it was Mexican territory, but the Mexican-American War was about to get underway and much bigger dogs than Brigham and his rag-tag band of Mormons were squaring off for a fight. Brigham wanted his followers to be left alone to practice the LDS faith and, yep it gets weird, to establish a short-lived autonomous nation called the Kingdom of Deseret (which got as far as developing its own language and currency, BTW). It is, as we say around here, a heck of a story.

In the late 1800s, federal troops, sent here to put the kibosh on this whole Kingdom thing, discovered rich veins of copper and silver and paved the way for the age of the silver barons and more outside influence. The east-west railroad brought an influx of laborers who would add diversity to the mix, and Utah’s admission to the United States, in 1896, brought even more changes. Still, Utah remained apart with a dominant religion, which often dictated politics and individual conscience. The point is: this whole delicious frontier mix of history made an atmosphere perfect for the cultivation of mushroom-like secrets.


What: An abandoned Hawaiian settlement in Utah’s Skull Valley

Where: From Salt Lake City travel west on I-80 to exit 77. Travel south of Utah Highway 196 for 15 miles. A large sign marks the dirt road that leads to the cemetery.

In 1845, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent its first missionaries to the South Pacific Island of Tahiti. The Mormons weren’t alone. It was a period of zealous Christian proselytizing in the Pacific Islands. But the LDS missionaries had remarkable success in the South Pacific. A good number

In 1879, LDS Church leaders established a colony for Hawaiian immigrants to Utah in Skull Valley, an ominously named and arid place in the western desert near what is today the military proving ground and chemical weapons disposal base Dugway. The settlement was named Iosepa, the Hawaiian word for Joseph. It was named after Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his descendant, LDS church president Joseph F. Smith, who went to Hawaii on a church mission in 1854.  

It’s hard to imagine Hawaiians coming from such a lush and green island ever feeling quite at home in Skull Valley. But religious zeal (and ample support from Salt Lake City) sustained them in a hardscrabble existence where they farmed, ranched cattle and raised pigs.

By 1917, the church abandoned the experiment and many of the residents returned to their native islands, drawn back to help work on the LDS Temple being built in Laie on the island of Oahu. At its height, nearly 228 Pacific Islanders lived in Iosepa. The site is a ghost town today on the National Register of Historic Places. There are informational markers, remnants of some structures and a forlorn graveyard that continues to bear testimony to the harsh conditions in Iosepa.

Secret Salt Lake City

ABOUT THE BOOK: Secret Salt Lake opens a window into the weird, the bizarre, and obscure secrets of Salt Lake, that are often hiding in plain sight. The guidebook, written by Salt Lake magazine editors Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf is a collection of odd tales, urban myths, legends and historical strangeness here in the Beehive State. Get your copy from Reedy Press today and read more about the secrets and oddities of Utah.

Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf
Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf
Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf are the co-authors of Secret Salt Lake City: A guide to the weird, obscure and strange secrets of SLC. Availalble from Reedy Press and wherever books are sold. Jeremy is currently the editor of Salt Lake Magazine. Mary sadly passed away in 2020 but her work and words live on here at

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