Saturday, June 11, 2011


Sea turtle petroglyph, Iosepa, UT.
Photograph by Benjamin Pykles.

In the last few months I have posted comments of a number of rock art sites I visited on a trip to Hawaii. What I had never expected was the fact that I could have visited Hawaiian rock art considerably closer to my home in Colorado.
Sea turtle petroglyph, Iosepa, UT.
Drawn by Peter Faris, after a
photograph by Benjamin Pykles.

In Skull Valley, Utah, west of Salt Lake City, Benjamin Pykles of the State University of New York at Potsdam has conducted archaeological investigation of the former site of the town of Iosepa. Pykles was assisted by Jonathan Reeves, an archaeology student at SUNY Potsdam. They recorded a remarkable group of petroglyph on the slope of Salt Mountain, overlooking the site of Iosepa and they presented their findings during a Society for American Archeology conference on April 1 in Sacramento, Calif. What makes these petroglyphs remarkable is the fact that they are mostly of tropical marine themes, and were done in a very Hawaiian-looking style.
Fish petroglyph, Iosepa, UT.
Drawn by Peter Faris, after a
photograph by Benjamin Pykles.

Subjects pictured in the 26 petroglyphs are reported to include fish, sea turtles, palm trees, a whale, and even what seems to represent a jellyfish, as well as more expected images such as a jackrabbit. The town of Iosepa had been founded in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the Mormon Church who had moved to Utah with returning Mormon missionaries and settled in the Salt Lake City area.

Richard Poulsen, the President of the Iosepa Historical Society described the founding of the town in

“In the late 1800's the Mormon Church was expanding rapidly around the world due to the dedicated efforts of many diligent missionaries. Church membership grew especially 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. Soon arrangements were being made to undertake the journey, and these members began trickling into Utah as they accompanied missionaries returning to Utah from the Sandwich Islands. These pioneers settled into the Salt Lake Valley and its surrounding areas.

In 1889 a group of three Hawaiian converts and three return missionaries chose a section of land on Skull Valley's Rich Ranch for the purpose of forming a colony of Polynesian Saints. This colony was called Iosepa, the Hawaiian equivalent of Joseph, in honor of Joseph F. Smith, who had served a mission in the Hawaiian Islands.

On August 28, 1889, these Polynesian Saints moved to Iosepa, where lots were drawn for plots of land that had room for a home, garden, barn and corral. A sawmill was purchased and the Polynesians built homes, a chapel/assembly hall, a school, and a store in their community.”

The town developed steadily, and, with irrigation, became a thriving oasis in the Utah desert. The population grew to 228 souls and it was considered to be one of the great success stories in the colonization efforts of the church. Plantings thrived and included 300 walnut trees, 300 fruit trees, over 100 ornamental trees, grass, grape vines berries and flowers, especially noted were its yellow roses (Poulsen).

Poulsen continued “In 1915, Joseph F. Smith, then president of the Mormon Church, announced plans to build a temple at Laie, on the North Shore of Oahu. Some of the Hawaiians decided to return to the Islands, where they would now have more opportunities to perform sacred ordinances than they did in Utah, since the temple in Salt Lake City was 75 miles away. Church officials did not advise the colonists as a group to return, but did offer financial assistance to those who needed it. All of this had a snowballing effect, with more and more families deciding to return to Hawaii. Soon, even those who wished to remain in Iosepa were uncertain of the town's future. By January 1917, the town was virtually abandoned.”

Although these have to be considered historic (not prehistoric) images there is apparently no record of their purpose or any possible meaning. They may have been an appeal to remembered ancestral spirits to watch over the settlement, or perhaps just a vestige of homesickness on the part of one of the colonists. In any case, the petroglyphs of Iosepa are a record of a fascinating historical episode.


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating!!! Utah is one of my favorite places for petroglyphs but I would never have expected these there!! Thanks for the artical!Deb