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Homestead Act Stamp


One hundred years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, on this day, May 20, 1962, the Homestead Act Commemorative 4-cent stamp was released. The stamp featured John and Marget Bakken standing in front of their sod house in Walsh County, North Dakota.

John Bakken, born in Minnesota and Marget, an immigrant from Telemarken, Norway, had both settled in Dakota Territory as young children with their parents. It was on the Dakota plains they met and married in February of 1893, taking up residence with Marget’s brother. During their third year of marriage, in 1896, the couple took up their own homestead in Silvesta Township, Walsh County. John constructed a sod house, twenty feet long and six feet high, furnished with homemade benches and wooden beds stuffed with straw. This served as their family home for a decade.

Two years after its construction, in 1898, a photographer from Milton, ND named John McCarthy took a photograph of the Bakken family in front of their sod house. John is pictured leaning on a shovel while Marget, holding a washbasin, stands at the door. Their two young children, Tilda and Eddie, stand in the foreground, in front of the family dog.

The photograph then takes a few interesting turns on its journey to becoming a US postal stamp. Fred Hultstrand, a photographer in Park River, ND bought out John McCarthy, including the original plate of the Bakken picture. The photograph then made its way into a book called “The Pageant of America”; a15-volume series commemorating the nation's sesquicentennial in 1926. Charles R. Chickering, an artist for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing who had earlier designed the 6-cent Theodore Roosevelt stamp, discovered the Bakken photograph in the book. Based on this image, Charles Chickering designed the 1962 Homestead Act Stamp, albeit with a few changes.

According to a 1962 broadside advertising its release, the Homestead Act stamp was given a general coloring of bluish-gray to represent a late evening and emphasizing the bleakness of the plains. John is leaning on a shovel while Marget, still holding the washbasin, stands in an illuminated walk way stretching from the sod house door. However neither the dog nor the two children are present on the stamp.

Thirteen years later, the Bakken family and their sod cabin gained international recognition when the same photograph was used in Norway to issue a stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of Norwegian emigration to America. The 1975 Norwegian stamp however brought back the dog and the two children to their rightful place in the image.

A copy of the original photograph, the Homestead Act stamp and the Norwegian stamp can be viewed at the American Memory website of the Library of Congress as part of the Fred Hultstrand collection.

Written by Christina Sunwall


"The Homestead Act." Today in History, The Library of Congress American Memory, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/today/may20.html (accessed 18 April 2008).

Isern, Tom, "Bakken Homestead", Prairie Public Radio: Plains Folk http://www.prairiepublic.org/programs/plainsfolk/transcripts/bakkenhomestead.jsp (accessed 19 April 2008).

""The Pageant of America" Photograph Archive", New York Public Library http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/dgexplore.cfm?col_id=187 (accessed 06/25/2004).

Rod, Steven J., "6-Cent Roosevelt", Smithsonian National Postal Museum http://www.arago.si.edu/index.asp?con=1&cmd=1&mode=2&tid=2028967 (accessed 18 April 2008).

Walsh Heritage: A Story of Walsh County and Its Pioneers. Vol. 2: Walsh County Historical Society.