History of Homesteading in Alaska
General requirements for homesteading in Alaska
When homesteading started in Alaska in 1898, the general requirements for a homesteader were to:
- Be age 21 or older, or the head of a household, or served in the military
- Be a US citizen or filed a declaration to become one (had to be a citizen before the homestead could be patented)
- Live on their claimed land for most of five consecutive years (after June 6, 1912 it was decreased to three years)
- never borne arms against the USA or aided its enemies
- Live in a habitable dwelling (a tent would not count)
- Cultivate at least one-eighth of their land (grain or vegetable crops were typical, but raising hay for horses was allowed since it was a commercial crop)
Women: Single women could homestead if they were the head of a household. If a woman married, she no longer could claim a homestead in her own name separate from her husband. Together they could make only one homestead claim, with the majority of such claims coming under the husband’s name. A married woman if widowed could obtain the homestead of her deceased husband if not yet patented to him. If a husband became disabled causing his wife to become the head of the household, she could file a homestead in her name if neither one had previously filed for a homestead.
Second homesteads: If a homesteader had filed for a homestead and received it, that person generally could not obtain another homestead. An exception was possible when a homesteader had not originally claimed the maximum amount of land allowed for a homestead. For example, after July 8, 1916, when the maximum size of a homestead claim was 160 acres, homesteaders who had claimed less than 160 acres for their homestead could apply for a second homestead, although the size of the two added together could not exceed 160 acres.
These requirements changed at different times in Alaska’s history.
#1 Homestead size:
- 80 acres: From May 14, 1898 to March 2, 1903, people could claim only up to 80 acres for a homestead.
- 320 acres: From March 3, 1903 to July 7, 1916, people could claim up to 320 acres for a homestead.
- 160 acres: From July 8, 1916 to the 1980s, people could claim no more than 160 acres for a homestead.
#2 Time living on the claimed land:
- 5 years: Except for short stays off the claim for medical reasons, short-term work, or short vacations from May 14, 1898 to June 5, 1912
- 3 years: Except for short stays off the claim for medical reasons, short-term work, or short vacations from June 6, 1912 to 1950s
- 3 years: Not less than 7 months per year from the 1950s to 1986.
#3 Required cultivation & veterans’ preference:
- No cultivation required on claims by qualified veterans with over 19 months of military service for a 160-acre homestead, until June 18, 1954.
- One-sixteenth of claimed land cultivated: After June 18, 1954 and the end of World War II, veterans who met special circumstances could cultivate just one-sixteenth (instead of the standard one-eighth) of their claimed land to get their homestead.
Overall, after World War II, veterans had first preference for a certain amount of time to claim homesteads in areas opened for homesteading in Alaska.
Non-agricultural “homesteads” in Alaska
Amendments to the 1898 law allowing homesteading in Alaska allowed people to claim up to five total acres (up to 10 acres if they met requirements for both dwellings or business types) without cultivating the land. This type of 5-acre homestead claim included:
- Dwelling-type homestead or “homesite”: Claimants had to live on the land for three years, have a habitable dwelling, and pay $2.50 per acre at the end of the proving up process.
- Business site (a “homestead,” but later termed a “headquarters site,”) claimants had to show that the full amount of land (up to five acres) was needed for business purposes. Claimants paid $2.50 per acre and could not receive title to the land until they used the land for three consecutive years for business needs. In Alaska, it was also possible for non-homestead claims up to 80 acres for trade and manufacturing purposes for business needs.
Read more about the important homesteading laws in Alaska>
Homesteading before the 1970s
|Alaskan Homestead cabin. Photo © Alaska Railroad Collection, Anchorage Museum, AEC.G998|
One reason few homesteads in Alaska were awarded based on cultivating the land is because farming was hard or impossible in many areas of the state. People could farm in some parts, like portions of the Matanuska and Tanana river valleys and around Delta.
Other factors facing Alaska homesteaders included remoteness, cold weather, short growing seasons, high expense for supplies, problems marketing crops, few roads or other access, and the lack of desire for many twentieth century Alaskan settlers to become farmers. Unlike when the Homestead Act was first passed in 1862, by the mid-twentieth century Americans had moved on from the era when the "American Dream" involved a small subsistence farm.
The lack of roads didn’t prevent some early homesteaders from filing claims in remote areas with limited access. Over 100 years ago, Henry Beckus claimed the only homestead on the Seward Peninsula. His 319.96-acre homestead on the Pilgrim River, including Pilgrim Hot Springs, was 70 miles north of Nome. He received patent on September 24, 1908, at a time when 320-acre homesteads were possible before World War I, and less than a decade after the start of the Nome Gold Rush.
The building of railroads in Alaska in the early 1900s, the opening of the Alaska Highway in 1947, and better roads in the 1950s increased accessibility in some areas, like Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and spurred more homesteading. The Alaska Highway allowed people to drive to Alaska by car and to haul trailers.
The final decade (1976-1986) of homesteading
In the early 1980s, the BLM opened 40,250 acres of federal public lands in three final blocks to a form of homesteading. One block (about 30,000 acres) near Lake Minchumina, northeast of Mount McKinley, offered three land openings from 1981 to 1983. The other two blocks (10,250 acres) were near the old village of Slana and separated by the Tok Cutoff, a part of the Glenn Highway. These tracts were the North Slana and South Slana settlement areas opened in 1983. When the Oprah Winfrey show in 1986 Oprah Winfrey TV discussed the “end of homesteading in Alaska” and the late Paul Harvey broadcast a nationwide radio show about it, thousands of people throughout the U.S. and the world expressed interest in homesteading these three areas.
These three settlement areas were the last in America to be opened for homesteading by the federal government. They remained open for homesteading until they closed to new claims on October 21, 1986. Only a few 5-acre, non-agricultural homesteads and a few trade and manufacture sites were eventually patented. At the end, the combined totals for North Slana and South Slana includes 119 homesite patents, 30 headquarter site patents, and eight trade and manufacture site patents. Lake Minchumina area had even fewer numbers of these types of land patents.
In this way, homesteading ended in Alaska (and in America’s history) with some unexpected twists involving popular culture that would have been impossible to predict when homesteading began over a century earlier.
When homesteading ended in Alaska on Oct. 21, 1986, very little land had been available for homesteading for more than a decade. Tens of millions of acres of federal land were withdrawn from homestead entry to allow the State of Alaska and Alaska Native corporations to select millions of acres under terms in the 1958 Alaska Statehood Act and the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Other federal lands that BLM had not evaluated as suitable for cultivation remained closed to homestead entry.
Alaska’s homestead experience represents the final chapter in the longer Homestead Era that began in 1862 in American history, five years before Alaska even became a U.S. Territory. There were relatively few homesteads awarded in Alaska between its start in 1898 and its end in 1986 when Ronald Reagan was President. Homesteading remains important to many Alaskans today, and many homesteaders or their families still own original claims.
Nationwide, over 1.6 million homesteads were granted in 30 states, with hundreds of thousands of homesteaders and their families getting an economic boost in America through receiving federal land for “free” as homesteads. Today, some remains of older homesteads are historic archaeological sites. The terms for granting homesteads in certain states other than Alaska left the federal government with ownership of the mineral subsurface or other special land management situations. Homesteading truly played an important part in creating the Nation we have today.