Homesteading in Jackson Hole

Land Ownership in the West
*The Acts listed below were the most popular land entries made in the valley, there were several others that were enacted at the time but weren’t as relevant to Jackson Hole.
*Most individuals succeeded in acquiring the deed to their land, although some spent more than five years attempting to “prove up” and satisfy the Bureau of Land Management. Others struggled for a handful of years, eventually filing a “relinquishment,” giving up on their homestead attempt. These were valuable parcels to purchase, being in various states of cultivation and often with some sort of infrastructure (cabins, fencing, barns, etc).
*Once a relinquishment was filed, the land was available to purchase at about $1.25/acre.

Homestead Act 1862: A system of public land management that allowed individuals traveling to the West to acquire land for free. There was a filing fee of $10-15 for each application. 160 acres was the maximum amount of land you could apply for under this act.
Live on land for at least 5 years, no absence being longer than 6 months.
Cultivate a minimum of 10 acres.
Build a structure larger than 12ftx14ft.
A Homesteader was an individual 21 years or older, the head of a household and someone who had never taken up arms against the United States government (the Civil War was in its first year when the Act was signed. The war later ended in 1865.) This even included women, excluding those who were married. Homesteaders were individuals who using legal means to acquire virtually free ownership of their land.
A Squatter was an individual who may or may not have met the requirements to be a homesteader but instead informally settled on a piece of land that did not belong to them. In Jackson Hole, some squatters settled on land that would become open to homesteading in the future.

Desert Land Act 1877: Up to 320 acres of “desert” land. This act was intended to “reclaim, irrigate, and
cultivate arid and semiarid public lands.” As the desert lands were not allowed to be cultivated, many valley residents and cattle ranches filed for second entries to gain additional acreage for grazing. There was no residency requirement and the land was purchased at $1.25/acre.

Timber & Stone Act 1878: Up to 160 acres of land unfit for cultivation but with possible logging and mining interests. Somehomesteaders would file under this act in order to increase their potential return on land investment.  This act was seen as controversial by those who opposed giving valuable forested lands to private ownership. The act was repealed in 1900.

Stock-Raising Homestead Act 1916: Allowed filing for up to 640 acres of land only suitable for grazing.
Some “range” improvements had to be made, but these requirements were unclear.


In 1884, John Holland and John Carnes arrive in the valley with the intent to establish homesteads and become the first permanent residents. They chose the best lands in the valley on the east side of the Elk Refuge. South Park was another area of early settlement. As more homesteaders came to the valley, settlement began to spread north. The majority of the homesteads were located on the east side of the Snake River, where the soil quality was higher and access to water was easier. The homesteading period would last until 1927, when Calvin Coolidge signed several Executive Orders closing more than 23,000 acres to public entry. No one could apply for private ownership on federal land.

They mountain ranges protecting the valley on all sides also prevented earlier settlement. Winters were harsh and closed the valley off for 6 months of every year. Over the border in Idaho, farmers had been aware of the available land in Jackson Hole for several decades. They would often drive cattle over the pass in the summer to use the open areas for grazing. Eventually the lure of open free land in Jackson Hole brought Carnes and Holland over the pass permanently. Their success meant that others quickly followed.

*Numbers are low estimates using census records. These only include those legally residing on the land, those willing to participate and those living in accessible areas.
1890: 23 people reside in the valley
1900: 639
1910: 810
1920: 1,381
*4th of July barbeques were held at Jenny Lake, a central and scenic location. In 1890 when just under 15 people arrived, “Old Man” Atherton (as he was known) announced that people were “too darn numerous” in the valley. He sold his land and moved deep into the Gros Ventre mountains and no one saw him after that.

Good soil was almost useless without a reliable supply of water for irrigation. Those who were fortunate to apply for parcels of land near creeks were often very successful. Others who had the time and ability to dig irrigation ditches would spend months struggling with the back-breaking work. Some ditches extend for miles, and many are still visible on the landscape. The oldest man-made structure in the park is an irrigation ditch.
For those less fortunate without access to water, dry farming was the only option. This meant relying on the natural rainfall to water the fields. The short growing season along with unpredictable weather patterns made this an extremely difficult practice in Jackson Hole.

Weather is unpredictable in the valley, due to its unique geography. Summer thunderstorms carrying hail ruined entire seasons of crops, along with severe droughts (in 1919). Frost was possible on any night of the year. Pest management was also a constant struggle. Ground squirrels one year were solely responsible for the loss of all crops on Mormon Row. Elk would decimate large haystacks left over winter in fields, intended for the livestock. This led to freezing nightly patrols to keep the Elk away, a chore usually delegated to the rancher’s oldest son. They would sleep in the center of the stack, with only a small oil lantern for light. Thankfully there are no accounts of anyone burning down a haystack. Livestock would also trample crops if they weren’t fenced in properly.

Native hay, brome grass, timothy, alfalfa, barley, oats, wheat.
Many also grew large kitchen gardens which included: potatoes, carrots, turnips, lettuce, cabbage, rutabaga, onion, berries, peas, beets and radishes. The women would tend to the gardens, often growing several hundred pounds of potatoes to sell at the markets in Idaho.

Also see: Cattle Ranching, Dude Ranching, Tourism, and Snake River Land Company.

Text by Samantha Ford, Director of Historical Research and Outreach