BLM-Alaska Celebrates 150 Years of the Homestead Act
Anchorage—Alaska Governor Sean Parnell has declared May 20, 2012, Federal Homestead Day in Alaska. In addition to the Governor’s proclamation, BLM-Alaska is marking the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act with several local events and a new Webpage. Grab the family and jump in the wagon (or station wagon!) this 4th of July and join BLM-Alaska as we honor 150 years of the Homestead Act. BLM-Alaska will participate in the Anchorage July 4th Parade and will host a Homesteading in Alaska-themed booth at the Festival on the Parkstrip from Noon to 6:00 p.m. at the Anchorage 4th of July Celebration on the Delaney Parkstrip. The last female homesteader in America, Elizabeth M. Smith, and other Alaskan homesteaders will join us at the booth to talk about their experiences homesteading on the Last Frontier. The booth will also feature interpretive displays and materials on homesteading and its history. BLM-Alaska has also developed a Web page that covers the origins, opportunities and legacy of Homesteading in Alaska. The page features an interactive timeline, videos, photos and a downloadable poster. The page can be found on the BLM-Alaska website at www.blm.gov/ak.
Homesteading in Alaska began when President William McKinley signed legislation in 1898 extending homestead laws to the District of Alaska. In the rest of the United States, homesteading began when President Lincoln signed the 1862 Homestead Act, enabling over 1.6 million people to claim federal land intended for small farms. By the time the last Alaska homestead claims were made in the 1980s, approximately 3,500 people had homesteaded in the Alaska territory. Potential homesteaders traveled by boat, car, and later by airplane, some north of the Arctic Circle where grizzlies outnumbered humans, some to a plot accessible only by train, most settling near areas close to roads or where boats could land. They included Gold Rush era miners who resumed prior careers as farmers in the early 1900s, and some WWII soldiers returning to Alaska after 1945 having become enchanted with their memories of a sportsman’s paradise. Others came just wanting the adventure of Alaska, some arriving as late as the 1970s. Most Alaska homesteaders came overland, some dragging trailers up the Alaska Highway after it opened in 1947, they were the only ones who avoided building a house from scratch with no indoor plumbing. All faced the brutal Alaskan winters, some found it to be too much and abandoned their dreams of living in the wild, leaving Alaska or settling in a town where life was easier.
The distinction of being Alaska and America’s last female homesteader to receive a homestead requiring cultivation of the land belongs to Elizabeth M. Smith. She received a homestead patent on Oct. 18, 1984, for land near Big Delta, Alaska. The distinction of being Alaska’s last male homesteader, and the last homesteader in the entire nation to receive a homestead requiring cultivation of the land, belongs to Kenneth W. Deardorff. He received a homestead patent on May 5, 1988, to land on the Stony River near Lime Village in southwestern Alaska. He filed his homestead claim in 1974, but its remoteness caused delays in his receiving patent to the land until the spring of 1988. Descendants of homesteaders today are estimated at about 93 million Americans, with many thousands still living on farms claimed by their ancestors.