You’re not going to like this, but it’s the truth: you cannot get free land from the U.S. government in Alaska or any other state through the Homestead Act! Despite what you read on the Internet and in classified ads, homesteading as legally defined is suspended throughout the United States, most likely for good.
The Federal Homestead Act that allowed Americans to obtain 160 acres of unclaimed land by staking a claim, defining boundaries, and “proving up” over a five year period, is no more. It ended in 1976 in the United States, except in Alaska, where it lingered till 1986. The term “homestead” is still used, but it refers to property on which the occupant lives off the land as independently as possible. When my family refers to our homestead, that’s our definition. We did not and could not have legally homesteaded this property. It’s a homestead only in the sense that it provides us most of our living.
All of Alaska is now in the hands of either the Federal or State government, or private ownership. Land can still be had relatively cheaply in Alaska under certain conditions. The State of Alaska sells parcels over the counter and through competitive bids, but there are restrictions and requirements, one of which is that you must be an Alaska resident to participate. Another way to get inexpensive acreage in Alaska is to bid in the Mental Health Trust Land Office Auctions. Alaska funds its mental health needs by granting land to the Mental Health Trust, which auctions off property each year. These properties are undeveloped and nearly always remote, but the prices are low, and financing terms are excellent. Still, they are not nearly inexpensive enough to qualify as “free land” in any sense of the term.
And yet the pernicious belief that anyone can simply go to Alaska and “stake a claim” persists. The sad fact is that Alaska remains little known or understood by the rest of the United States or the rest of the world. It’s an easy place to exploit, and people do it all the time. A Google search will find you many, many people who are anxious to provide details on how to find free land in Alaska, almost always for a fee. You’ll also find scores of sites with misinformation about the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend. Again, many of these offer information for a “reasonable” fee. That money is better flushed down the toilet. Better yet, send it to me—either way, the results will be about the same.
The danger here is that, particularly in these troubled economic times, people actually do pull up stakes and move to Alaska, expecting to be handed a permanent fund check and the deed to prime land when they cross the border! Since many do this with their last savings, they end up stuck here, depending on Alaska’s social networks for food and shelter. Unrealistic expectations and some measure of desperation often lead to dissolution, and sometimes tragedy. Some are so eager to “rough it” that they strike out into the woods on their own. Eventually, we find their bones. If possible, we notify their next of kin. The lucky ones return to wherever they came from, poorer but hopefully wiser.
Still, dare to dream! If you long for a homestead in Alaska or elsewhere, it can be had, but the price—beyond hard work, determination, skill, intelligence, flexibility, and luck—includes an initial layout of funds for the land itself.