The Early History of the Sheldon Nunatak

1898-1980

In 1898 the Homestead Act provided statutory authority under a subsection for Trade and Manufacturing Sites, as well as other small tract sales, which were generally limited to five acres in size. Five years later in 1903, this program was extended to the then Military District of Alaska.

In 1912 the U.S. Congress approved a territorial government for Alaska, but still retained control of land, minerals, and fish and wildlife.

Map Credit: Rand McNally 1912

In 1917 Denali, then McKinley, National Park was formed as the first new park to be admitted to the National Park Service. The boundary reached south laterally through the summit of Denali, about ten miles (16km) northwest of the Sheldon Nunatak.

While still the Territory of Alaska, for much of the 1950s Don Sheldon and the explorer, mountaineer, photographer, and cartographer Brad Washburn operated from the nunatak as a primary control point for mapping the surrounding amphitheater and ultimately the Alaska Range over subsequent years. Our father registered his claim for a rectangular shaped 4.9 acres of land during this time. The area was just under the allowable 5 acres in order to be certain it would not be contested by the land office.

However, because statehood appeared to be nearing and would be granted to Alaska, there was a deluge of land filings so that certain territorial rights could be preserved that would not exist under statehood. The land offices were very leery of the potential for identical or cross staking and decided to work through all of the filings before releasing the pre-statehood land patents.

U.S. postage stamp celebrating Alaska statehood – 1959

In 1959 Alaska was admitted as the 49th State into the Union. To further frustrate the receipt of our land patent, from 1966-1971 most land transactions in Alaska were halted, pending settlement of Alaska Native land claims. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Udall informally began the “land freeze” in late 1966 and formalized it in 1969 with a public land order that remained in effect until 1971 when the Alaska Native Claim Settlement Act became law. So, the same year that I was born, our family received the patent for what we now call the Sheldon Mountain House and Chalet.

On January 26, 1975 Don Sheldon passed away. Governments representing both the State of Alaska as well as the United States considered naming a mountain in the Alaska Range for him. Finding this to be short in magnitude of the desired honor, the State of Alaska and US Government instead decided to name the 30 square mile (78 square km) amphitheater where the Sheldon Nunatak resides the Don Sheldon Amphitheater.

This map depicts Mt. McKinley, the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, and surrounding areas. The mountain was renamed Denali in recent years in part through the assistance of Roberta Sheldon’s careful records.

In 1980 Denali (then McKinley) National Park was expanded so that the new boundary encompassed the Sheldon Nunatak. The Sheldon family welcomed their new neighbor then, and continues to do so today.