Kenneth Deardorff in front of his cabin in Alaska (NPS Photo)
The Last Homesteaders in Alaska and the Nation
By Robert E. King
When it was purchased in 1867 from Russia, the area known as the Department of Alaska had little federal management, and homestead legislation did not apply there. As the population grew, the area became known as the District of Alaska, and the need for ways to privatize land increased. Congress passed special legislation allowing the first homesteads in 1898. For the next 88 years, until 1986, homesteading was possible in Alaska under terms of several homestead laws or amendments, with some applying only to Alaska.
The earliest homestead claims, starting in 1898, were filed under the 1862 Homestead Act, but only a maximum of 80 acres was initially allowed. This was later changed to a maximum of 320 acres in 1903 and decreased down to the more standard 160 acres in 1916.
In 1927, more legislation specific to Alaska added the possibility for two nonagricultural types of 5-acre claims, also originally termed “homesteads.” One was to provide for a residence (these were later called “homesites”) and the other was for business purposes (later called “headquarters” sites). The last claims for these unusual forms of homesteading, which required payment of $2.50 per acre, were made in October 1986, just days before all forms of homesteading were repealed for Alaska. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, passed on October 21, 1976, repealed all other homestead laws for the lower 48 states but allowed a 10-year extension for Alaska.
Since 1988, homestead legislation has sometimes been used by the BLM as the authority for issuing land patents, such as in a 2010 case in Alaska, which was to correct an error in an earlier homestead patent. Similarly, there are other known “late homestead” cases in other states to correct errors or for other technical reasons. In early 2011, five homesite and two headquarters site claims were still pending.
As for the homesteads in Alaska that required cultivation under terms of the 1862 Homestead Act, the final ones were patented in the 1980s. The last woman to receive a homestead of this type was Elizabeth M. Smith, a widow, who had relatives that homesteaded earlier in Nebraska. She was one of a group of 10 people, which included her son, William Smith, who filed homesteads near Big Delta, an area near the Delta River about 90 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska. All received them, with hers awarded last on October 18, 1984. She received patent to 116.32 acres of land that is part of a large island. Only 15 more homesteads were awarded in Alaska after hers.
The final homestead in Alaska—and the nation—was patented on May 5, 1988. It went to Kenneth W. Deardorff, a Vietnam veteran who had personally fulfilled the requirements of the 1862 Homestead Act. Deardorff filed his application for a homestead on May 16, 1974, for land near Lime Village in western Alaska, located 400 air miles south of the Arctic Circle and 200 air miles west of Anchorage. The amount of land he received in 1988 was less than 50 acres despite originally filing for more, partly due to the difficulties of performing the required amount of agriculture on his claim. Due to various circumstances, including the relatively remote location of his homestead with no nearby road, the issuance of a homestead patent to Deardorff was delayed until 1988. Today, history books report him as America’s “Last Homesteader.”
Robert King has been the BLM's state archaeologist for Alaska since 1986. When he moved to Alaska in 1981, some of the last homesteading was still occurring, which, along with his own family's homestead roots, sparked his enduring interest in the subject.