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Summer 2008: 1862 Homestead Act weaves a common thread

Posted by Andrea Winkjer Collin 10/31/2016 3:08:19 PM

As the country spends the next two years commemorating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's February 12, 1809, birth, North Dakota's ties to the 16th President center on a handful of Lincoln's actions that shaped the direction of Dakota Territory. Three of these are appointing the territory's first two governors and signing both the Northern Pacific Railroad charter and the U.S. Homestead Act. 

Dakota Territory had been established two days before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, one of the last official acts of his predecessor, President James Buchanan. 

Lincoln immediately appointed the first territorial governor, Dr. William Jayne, his personal physician from Springfield, Illinois. Two years later, Lincoln appointed the second governor, Newton Edmunds, a resident of Yankton, the site of the territorial capital.

Lincoln approved a bill for a northern railroad route across the country, signing the charter for the Northern Pacific Railroad on July 2, 1864. By 1873, track had been completed from Duluth, Minnesota, to Bismarck. 

When the U.S. Homestead Act became law on January 1, 1863, it began the eventual transfer from federal to private ownership a total of 10 percent of the United States, or 275 million acres of land in 30 states. An early wave of settlement brought more than 100,000 people to the northern part of Dakota Territory between 1879 and 1886. On the eve of statehood in November 1889, North Dakota still had 21 million acres of land available for homesteading. 

The original 1862 Homestead Act, bearing President Lincoln's signature, is now on display at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck through November 10. This is the first time in nearly 30 years that the document has been on public display. Rick Collin, North Dakota's liaison to the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, says the document is on loan from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Collin, who is communications and education director for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, says the front and back pages of the four-page document are on display as part of the Lincoln's Legacy in North Dakota exhibit produced by the Society. 

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora is also featuring a homestead exhibit in its Ranching Gallery, in partnership with the National Archives and the State Historical Society of North Dakota. This exhibit features actual claims filed and photos and stories of families who came to seek their share of the "American Dream." 

"The Homestead Act binds us all together," says Darrell Dorgan, executive director of the Cowboy Hall of Fame. "A significant number of the actual homesteads still remain under the ownership of the families that settled them and are being farmed and ranched today."

More information is available by calling the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame at 701-623-2000 or online at 

Lincoln, Homestead Act, North Dakota and Norway share a shining moment in 1914

Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act, North Dakota and Norway. A president, a piece of legislation, a state and a European nation. Tying them together is an exceptional event in North Dakota's history that took place the summer of 1914.

That year Norway was celebrating the centennial of the year it adopted a constitution and declared itself an independent nation. The nation was planning a grand celebration that summer that included an exposition, hoping to lure 200,000 people with ties to Norway back to the country to celebrate. Many of these people had emigrated to America because of the U.S. Homestead Act. 

North Dakota newspapers carried frequent reports about the centennial plans in the months leading up to it. "The North Dakota Legislature appropriated $10,000 to cover the cost of North Dakota to participate in the centennial exposition, the only state to provide public funds for it, " says Rick Collin, who is coordinating North Dakota's Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial observance. "Governor Louis Hanna formed a North Dakota Norway Centennial Commission to help him with the planning." Commission members were current and former legislators, C.W. Plain of Milton; H.H. Steel of Mohall; A.A. Stenehjem of Arnegard; Nels Lunneborg of Milnor, and A.J. Kirkeide of Churchs Ferry. 

Hanna was searching for an appropriate gift to present Norway from the people of North Dakota. "After attending a program on the 50th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg in 1913," says Collin, "he thought of the idea to present a heroic-size bust of Lincoln to the people of Norway." 

The Commission raised private contributions for the bust, and a search for a sculptor found 21-year-old Valley City Normal School student Paul Fjelde. "This was the start of a long and distinguished career for him," Collin says of Fjelde, who died in 1984. 

Replicas of the bust can be found on the lawn of the Traill County Courthouse in Hillsboro and at a museum in Geneseo, Illinois. The original plaster cast of the bust is now housed at the Allen Memorial Library at Valley City State University. 

Governor Hanna's official party of 20 set sail from New York on June 12, on the Kristianford ocean liner. Those in the delegation included former Grand Forks Herald editor George B. Winship, who sent frequent reports via cablegram to the newspaper, and Smith Stimmel, a Fargo lawyer who had been a White House bodyguard to Lincoln. Others from the state had traveled on their own. Several thousand people attended the July 4 ceremony. In addition to Hanna's speech, a poem, Abraham Lincoln, written by North Dakota poet laureate James W. Foley, Jr., was read, and Stimmel delivered a eulogy to the late president. A report to newspapers said, "The presentation of the statue further cements the friendship between Norway and the United States, and especially North Dakota, about one-third of the population of which is Norwegian." 

The bust still graces Oslo's Frogner Park, the only one not made by Gustav Vigeland, who has more than 200 sculptures there representing nude people of all ages in all sorts of life situations and stages. 

"During Germany's World War II occupation of Norway, the Lincoln bust became the site of silent anti-Nazi protests every July 4, from 1940 until the war's end in 1945," Collin says. "Thousands of Norwegians would gather around the statue, their heads bowed in silence and prayer. Typically, the Germans forbade any public gatherings or demonstrations, but they did not halt this annual event." 

2009 Norway trip will visit Lincoln bust

The July 4 program in front of the Lincoln statue have continued to be an annual event.

At next year's program, plans are being made to bring another group of people with ties to North Dakota to Oslo to take part in the ceremonies and to commemorate Lincoln's bicentennial. The trip is being organized by the University of North Dakota Nordic Initiative, North Dakota Horizons magazine, and Brekke Tours and Travel of Grand Forks, who specialize in Scandinavian travel. 

"This trip will be an opportunity for current and former North Dakotans to celebrate their heritage, the legacy of a great president and the close ties between the United States and Norway," says Char Rustan Brekke, owner of Brekke Tours and Travel. 

Brekke says in addition to many stops in the Oslo area, the trip will include an excursion to Norway's fjord country.

"The American Embassy in Oslo and other Norwegian-American groups are excited about working with us to make this a memorable event for everyone on the trip," says Bruce Gjovig, who heads the Nordic Initiative, which fosters closer ties between UND and Norway. 

More details about the trip will be available in September. Anyone interested being put on a mailing list to receive more information should contact Brekke Tours and Travel by calling 1-800-437-5302 or emailing


Other Lincoln Bicentennial Programs

The official state observance of Lincoln's birthday is being planned by a committee of legislators and staff from the State Historical Society, the North Dakota Humanities Council, the North Dakota Council on the Arts and others next February 12 during a joint session of the Legislature. It will be patterned after the centennial legislative program in 1909. Some other events include:

July 25-August 4
North Dakota Humanities Council Chautauqua Lincoln, Land, and Liberty performances in Bismarck, Fargo and Jamestown by scholars portraying Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman and William Jayne. Complete schedule and details are at

October 16
Valley City native Dr. James McPherson will discuss his new book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, at a free public program at the historic Fargo Theatre, 7 p.m. It will be broadcast a week later on Prairie Public Television and Prairie Public Radio. McPherson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for his Civil War book, Battle Cry of Freedom. The program is sponsored by the Read North Dakota program ( 

Throughout October
Lincoln, Land, and Liberty Symposia in Fargo-Moorhead, sponsored by the North Dakota Humanities Council, in cooperation with North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota and Concordia College.

November 7-8
20th Annual Governor's Conference on North Dakota History, at the North Dakota Heritage Center. The theme will be Lincoln Legacy: The Homestead Act.|

More information on these and other events can be found by calling the State Historical Society of North Dakota at 701-328-1476, or online at, and

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