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Logo bar of the Alaska Public Lands Information Center which are located in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Tok and Ketchikan
Black and white photo of a small log cabin and stilted cache surrounded by tall brush and spruce trees. Taken near Denali in 1946.
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Homesteading & The Homestead Act in Alaska
 
"An allusion has been made to the Homestead Law. I think it worthy of consideration, and that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefitting his condition."
- Abraham Lincoln, 1861
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A family stands outside their sod hut homestead in north dakota in 1895.
Library of Congress
A sod hut homestead in North Dakota ca. 1895

The Homestead Act of 1862
In the mid 1800's, with economic and social changes gripping the developed eastern states of the union, people were increasingly looking west to the vast underdeveloped lands and the romantic vision of a new opportunity. The US government had tried in the past to make land in the west available for private purchase but the costs were still prohibitive for many families and settlement of the west had been slow. The idea to provide free land to homesteaders willing to develop the land was eventually introduced and met with some resistance, but finally in 1862 president Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into existence and the law took effect on January 1st 1863. The new legislation made 160 acres of land in one of the western states or territories available to people willing to live on the land for 5 years, develop the land for agriculture and build a house on the land. At the end of 5 years, if those requirements had been accomplished, that person could then receive full ownership of their 160 acre parcel. This opportunity would continue for over 123 years and prove instrumental in not only developing the western states but allowing millions of Americans to own their own private parcel of land.

Find out more about the history of the Homestead Act



Kenneth Deardorff, the last homesteader, stands on the porch of his homestead cabin in Alaska.
NPS
Kenneth Deardorff at his Homestead Cabin

Homesteading in Alaska
Although the Homestead Act was enacted in 1862, it was not until 1898 that special legislation extended the provisions of the act to the territory of Alaska. Even with the lure of free land however, homesteading in the remote territory was slow to start due to poor weather and poor soils and by 1914 less than 200 homestead applications had been filed in Alaska. A surge did come however in Alaska homestead applications after WWII and the Vietnam War. Those 20th century pioneers were looking for the same land ownership opportunity that had lured settlers out to the western states 100 years before. They also encountered many of the same hardships as their homesteading brethren of the 19th century such as lack of transportation, harsh weather, and even the danger of local wildlife. The Homestead Act was finally repealed in 1976, but a provision of the repeal allowed for homesteading to continue in Alaska until 1986.

The last Homestead to be awarded under the provisions of the Homestead Act was in 1988. The owner of that land, Kenneth Deardorff originally filed for his 80 acre parcel on the Stony River in Alaska in 1974. He and his family built a life in the remote roadless Alaska wilderness through persistence and by subsisting off the local landscape. By the time Kenneth Deardorff finally received the patent for his land in 1988, 3,277 homesteads had been conveyed in the state which equaled over 360,000 acres or less than 1% of the total land in Alaska.

Find out more about the Last Homestead



A homestead house sits empty on the praire.
BLM/Dennis Linghor
A relic of a past era

150 Years of Heritage
The Homestead Act proved to be one of the most influential pieces of legislation in development of the American west. The effects of millions of Americans picking up their lives and moving to new strange lands where they had to make a new life with little more then their own sweat and persistence has been far reaching in the history of the country. By 1988 when the last homestead land was finally conveyed, roughly 10% of the total land in the U.S. had been given away as homesteads and estimates put the number of descendants of homesteaders alive today at 93 million people (as of 2007).

2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Homestead Act and many federal agencies are hoping to commemorate the impact that the millions of homesteaders had on the American west. The National Park Service manages the Homestead National Monument in Nebraska which serves as an homage to the many homesteads of the west. Homestead National Monument will be celebrating the 150th anniversary with several events throughout the year. The Bureau of Land Management is also commemorating the sesquicentennial. After all, the BLM's precursor, the General land office was the original administrator of homesteads. Specifically, the BLM is looking for stories from descendants of homesteaders from several of the western states. 

Find more information about Homestead National Monument's celebration of 150 years of the Homestead Act
Find more information about BLM celebrating 150 years of the Homestead Act



Classic Video: Matanuska Dairy

a 1935 opportunity for farming families


Note: This Embedded video resides on the official Alaska National Parks YouTube channel
Transcript:
The first time anyone sees farms of the Matanuska Valley, they are amazed at the contrasts; rugged stormy mountains and tranquil milk cows.

>>The ruggedness of Alaska in the 30’s must have been even more amazing to the colonists who started these farms.

>>In 1935, the New Deal administration, to help farmers get off relief, imported 202 families to Alaska from the midwest.

>>Promoters thought the farmer’s northern-european background would help them endure the Alaskan climate.

>>Railroad interests wanted the valley settled to improve their business.

>>The experiment was not a great farming success.

>>Although 80 of the first settlers left and were replaced, the colonization did settle the valley and established a local dairy cooperative.

>>These farmers arrived with little but hope. They were expected to clear and subsist on 40 acres while living in tents.

>>Many did manage to settle, build homes and barns, and begin a community.

>>The government required the settlers to buy and sell through a socialistic style cooperative.

>>This was met with opposition from independent-thinking farmers.

>>Eventually a cooperative began that was controlled by the dairy farmers themselves.

>>The government continued to help the colony with federal aid of over 5 million dollars.

>>Of the historic 202 families, by 1953, 65 were still Alaskans, and 25 of those remained farmers.

>>Today there are few of the small family-style farms.

>>The components for continuing dairy growth, however, are all in place here.

>>Matanuska Valley has access to the University of Alaska’s breeding research.

>>There is reliable transportation to processors, available equipment and repairs, local grain and fish protein for feeds, and a processor and distributor right in Anchorage near the consumers. 

>>Dairies here in Alaska are not that different from modern dairies in the Midwest.

>>The cows are bread from the same bulls and produce comparable milk.

>>The climate is not a problem. Cows are more adversely affected by heat than cold.

>>The local dairy co-op, Matanuska Maid, can offer Alaska fresh milk for long distance travel.

>>After processing in Anchorage, its products are flown to stores in Alaska’s northern villages.





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