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Fischer: Free land on the frontier – America’s homesteading history

By Jen Fischer - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Mar 31, 2023

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Jen Fischer

“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

Free land. While unheard of today, back in 1862, due to the prohibitive cost of land for many families wanting to settle, the federal government passed the Homestead Act. Since repealed in 1976, I doubt the prohibitive cost of land today will result in the government granting any sort of extension on that.

Back to the old days … the federal government knew they would greatly benefit from the west being developed and settled. No one was buying, so they came up with a plan to offer it for free. This new legislation made it possible for individuals or families to stake a claim to 160 acres of land in one of the western states or territories.

However, since nothing is truly “free,” there was an acquisition process that one had to undergo in order to actually procure the deed to the property they landed. They had to file an application, develop and improve the land for at least five years, and then file for the deed of title. Since the country was new and the western territories were just fixin’ to get settled, there was no requirement that any person had to be an actual U.S. citizen. As long as citizenship was intended at some point and they had never borne arms against the U.S. government, that was enough.

Fast forward 114 years to 1976 when the Homestead Act was finally repealed. The great western frontier was settled enough for money to change hands again. Land was no longer free, with the exception of Alaska. In all fairness, they came to the game a little late. It wasn’t until 1898 that the territory of Alaska was invited to be part of the Homestead Act. Unfortunately, people in the lower 48 are too wimpy for the harsh elements and dangerous wildlife of the frontier (I would have been included) to take advantage of this offer. The first several years resulted in fewer than 200 homestead applications.

After World War II, however, there was a surge in applications. As the Alaskan frontier continued to grow, albeit slowly, the repeal in 1976 allowed for a provision in the case of Alaskan settlement. This provision continued until the year 1988 when the Homestead Act provision was revoked for Alaska as well. No more free land for anyone in the United States. The last person, arguably (depending on the source), to make a claim in the U.S. was Duane Ose, filing his deed in October 1986. Duane soon brought on a wife, Rena, who was up for the challenge of attempting to make a life and home in the wild landscape of remote Alaska.

This worked well for them until Rena’s health began to decline. In 2020, they were approached by the British Broadcasting Co. to choose a British couple to whom they would sign their homestead over. This became a reality television show called “Win the Wilderness.” Duane was paid well for his “participation” in the series (well into the six figures for his property) and the title was signed over to a couple of farmers from Warwickshire. Ironically, after Rena passed away, Duane wanted the property back; however, once a deed is signed over, the only way to force a sale is through eminent domain — which brings us to next week’s topic.

After all was said and done, 3,277 homesteads, covering 360,000 acres, had been conveyed in the state of Alaska. This was less than 1% of the total land in Alaska. Compare that to the over 1.6 million homestead applications processed in the lower 48. Either way, once a property is sold and the deed has been signed over, regardless of how it was initially obtained, it belongs to the person on the title … in most situations. Stay tuned.

Jen Fischer is an associate broker and Realtor. She can be reached at 801-645-2134 or jen@jen-fischer.com.


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