Slana & Lake Minchumina: America’s Last Federal Settlement Areas

During 1982 and 1983, the Bureau of Land Management, under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, opened the last three blocks of federal land in America to settlement claims by private citizens.  This was the continuation of a pattern of land openings that had started in the 19th century when Congress passed various laws to promote the settlement of the nation, including the passage in 1862 of the Homestead Act. 

The 1982-83 land openings at Slana and Lake Minchumina were in effect for around four years.  Until October 21, 1986, American citizens could file land claims for federal land for establishing rural residences and rural-based businesses.  These claims could only be made in three designated areas in central and eastern Alaska.  For decades before this, into the early 1970s, these types of claims (and also claims for agricultural homesteads) could be made in many parts of the state on federal land.  In all, just over 40,000 acres were opened by BLM during this final federal land opening in 1982-83. 

Turn for Nabesna Road off Tok Cutoff that leads to South Slana Settlement Area, Aug 2012. Photo by Robert King
Turn for Nabesna Road off Tok Cutoff that leads to South Slana Settlement Area, August 2012. Photo by Robert King

By the time the program ended in the fall of 1986, while over 1,000 claims had been initially filed, fewer than 200 would end with the land going to the claimants.  Many had been unsuccessful in “proving up” by meeting all of the requirements to receive the land.  But many others had  left due to the climate, remoteness, or other personal reasons.
 
When the settlement program ended on October 21, 1986, with the final claims filed with the BLM just days earlier, so did this chapter in America’s land settlement policies.  All but a handful of these claims have been resolved statewide as of 2012.  Today, BLM still manages the majority of the lands in these final settlement areas and continues to work with settlers there on various issues of common interest.
 
What happened at Slana and Lake Minchumina starting in the early 1980s and continuing today, is a unique final chapter in the larger story of how America was settled and continues to evolve today.  

Read more about the three unique final settlement areas in America: North Slana and South Slana (together 10,500 acres), and Lake Minchumina (30,000 acres).  

Also, you can read about the 3 types of settlement claims that were possible in those areas:
 
  1. Homesites:  Up to five acres for residential tracts. 
  2. Headquarter Sites:  Up to five acres for Headquarters Site – land needed as the headquarters for a rural business. 
  3. Trade & Manufacture Sites:  Up to 80 acres for a Trade and Manufacture site – land needed for the operation of a rural business.    

Slana Homes. 2012. Photo by Robert King
South Slana settlement homes. Photo by Robert King

For more information about the laws that made these three types of claims possible click here.  

For more information about how homesteading in Slana was progressing in 1984, click here

Are the Slana and Lake Minchumina settlers homesteaders? 

(There can be many types of Alaskan homesteaders!)
 Many people who received federal patents to Homesites, Headquarter Sites, and even Trade and Manufacture Site in Slana, Lake Minchumina, or elsewhere in Alaska in earlier years consider themselves “homesteaders.”   Also, other rural settlers in Alaska who bought land from prior residents or from the State of Alaska under its various settlement programs also consider themselves “homesteaders” when they similarly lived in rural areas and survived with fewer comforts than available in modern society. 
 
Yet “homesteader” also is a term that traditionally is associated only with people who received “free” agricultural tracts of land claimed under the federal 1862 Homestead Act (and extended by law to Alaska in 1898).  These “homesteaders” had to meet specific requirements under federal homestead law, including cultivating part of their claims to receive them.  The last farm homesteads on federal land in all of America were patented in the 1980s in Alaska, with no more possible since all federal homestead laws were repealed decades ago.
 
So, who are “homesteaders?”  Just those who got federal farm homesteads?  Or most anyone living in a rural area?  Perhaps it is a matter of personal preference.  What broadens the use of the word “homesteader” for some people is a recognition of the commonality of much of the “homesteader lifestyle” that typically demanded a higher degree of self-sufficiency among nearly all settlers who lived in rural Alaska in undeveloped areas regardless if the land was federal or non-federal.  By lack of alternatives, many of these people had to live off the land relying on their own skills and ingenuity in ways similar to how pioneers survived in frontier areas throughout the entire nation in the past generations.  From this more expansive view, many people in Alaska today, and even some who will be settling here in future years in rural areas to “live off the land,” may justly claim to be “homesteaders”!