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Did Minnesota legislator 'Jolly Joe' Rolette’s antics save St. Paul’s status as state capital?

Joseph Rolette is often recognized as the man who kept St. Paul from losing its status as the state capital in 1857, but his actions likely had little effect on the matter. He was memorable, though.

Joseph Rolette portrait header.png
This portrait of Joseph Rolette, wearing the clothes of a fur trader, dates back to 1842.
Contributed / State Historical Society of North Dakota (Item number 10737-00220)
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PEMBINA, N.D. – Legislators in Minnesota today are divided on key issues – recreational marijuana, taxes and the use of a massive government surplus – but it is unlikely any of them will take measures into their own hands and disappear with a bill before it can be signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz.

However, if a key legislator were to disappear, bill in hand, to prevent it from moving forward, the situation would not be unprecedented in the state’s history, thanks to a Minnesota territorial legislator named Joseph Rolette.

Known to some as “Jolly Joe” Rolette for his boisterous demeanor, Rolette served as a legislator from Pembina County from 1852 to 1857. At the time, Pembina County covered much of what is now North Dakota.

Rolette is known to many, especially in southern Minnesota, as the man who single-handedly kept St. Paul from losing its status as the state's capital by stealing a bill that would have made the small town of St. Peter the capital. In reality, he may not have been the reason St. Paul is still the capital, but he remains an important figure in Minnesota's economic and political history.

“He’s got a legendary reputation, and it is definitely overblown in some cases, but not entirely undeserved,” said Brian Hardy, outreach coordinator at the Pembina State Museum.

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Hardy says historians know some about Rolette, but without any of his personal journals, they are limited to the stories of others to piece together Rolette’s life.

While Rolette put on a rough and rugged frontiersman facade while living in Pembina, he was actually born into money.

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Rolette was born in 1820 in Wisconsin. He was the son of Jean Joseph Rolette Sr., French-Canadian fur trader in charge of the Michigan Department of the American Fur Company, a leader in the North American fur trade. Rolette went to school in New York and was personally tutored by Ramsay Crooks, then president of the American Fur Company. Rolette was brought to Pembina in the 1840s by the company to manage assets at the Pembina trading post.

But in Pembina, which was cold and frequently flooded, Rolette played the part. He dressed in furs and colorful beads, more like a fur trader than the garb of the business people who raised him. He married Angelique Jerome, a Metis woman.

“Despite living rough, he was very successful in the early years, in the early 1840s,” said Hardy.

From Pembina, Rolette organized the first Red River ox cart trains between Winnipeg and St. Paul, pulling business away from the Hudson’s Bay Company, American Fur Company’s biggest competitor.

Rolette was elected to the Minnesota Territorial Legislature in 1851. For legislative sessions, he traveled the 385 miles to St. Paul by dogsled or snowshoe. During his first territorial legislative session in 1852, he brought his dogs into the chamber with him.

“After about three days, the rest of the senators had had enough of it and under the guise of claiming that Pembina does not deserve double representation, had the sergeant at arms take his dogs out,” said Hardy.

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In the Red River region, Rolette’s legacy as a frontiersman, fur trader and ox cart pioneer endures, but in Minnesota, he is better remembered for his efforts to thwart plans to remove St. Paul as Minnesota’s capital city.

In 1857, Minnesota was on the brink of statehood, said Bill Convery, director of research at the Minnesota Historical Society. Legislators were tasked with deciding if the state would be oriented on a north-south axis like the state is oriented today or an east-west axis, which would have put St. Paul on the edge of the state. At the same time, many legislators and Gov. Willis Gorman owned land in St. Peter, a more centrally located city around 75 miles southwest of St. Paul.

“This is frontier business and political overlap at its finest,” said Convery.

A bill to remove St. Paul as the capital and move it to St. Peter had been passed in the Territorial House and Council, and just needed Gorman’s signature to become a law. At the time, Rolette was chair of the enrolled bills committee, which delivered bills that had been passed by the legislature to the governor’s office to be signed.

The bill was handed to Rolette on Feb. 27, 1857, but on Feb. 28, both Rolette and the bill had disappeared.

In the meantime, the territorial council was in deadlock and could not adjourn without a majority vote, needing Rolette to break the tie. For 123 hours, the council waited for Rolette’s return, camping out in the council chambers, before reaching a compromise to adjourn and meet the next day, March 6. However, Rolette could still not be found and the council session expired on March 7, before the bill could be signed. He showed up shortly after.

Nobody knows for sure what Rolette was up to for the five days he disappeared.

“What he did during that time is really the subject of the various stories,” said Convery. “Some versions say he hid out in the back room of a hotel where he played poker and possibly went on a three to four day drinking binge, some versions of it say that he hid out in a brothel in St. Paul.”

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During Rolette’s disappearance, newspaper The Minnesota Weekly Times reported he had taken a train to Washington D.C. with the bill, which turned out to be false.

Hardy said his favorite version of the story is one that says sergeant at arms, tasked with looking for Rolette, knew where Rolette was hiding and would play cards with him instead of looking for him.

Historians agree that Rolette’s actions did not really affect the outcome of the bill. In fact, a copy of the bill that was sent to the governor’s office and signed by Gov. Gorman was eventually struck down by a federal judge. Convery says the judge struck down the bill because moving the capital would require a public referendum, not just legislative approval.

But historians also agree Rolette’s actions make for a good story and are in line with his reputation.

“Joe being Joe had to make a scene,” said Hardy. “Everything else is history, as they say.”

After Minnesota became a state, the city of Pembina was no longer a part of it, meaning Rolette could no longer be a Minnesota legislator. However, that did not stop Rolette from showing up to the first legislative assembly for the state of Minnesota, according to Volume 2 of the Book Minnesota in Three Centuries.

“But when the legislature met in December, 1857, behold here was the ‘Gentleman from Pembina,’ with his credentials, as usual, and of course he was admitted,” the book reads.

It was his last legislative session before retiring from lawmaking.

During the Civil War, the fur trade in the region died down. Rolette died a poor man in 1871.

In Northeastern North Dakota, his name lives on. Hardy said any place with “Rolette” in the name, like Rolette County or the city of Rolette, is named after the legislator, fur trader and troublemaker “Jolly Joe” Rolette.

Since Rolette, other lawmakers have pulled similar stunts on occasion, said Convery. In 2011, 14 Democrats in Wisconsin fled the state to prevent a vote on an anti-union bill. In 2021, more than 50 Texas Democrats fled to Washington, D.C. to delay Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.

“Maybe he pioneered this idea of skipping out to prevent the legislature from doing its job, but he certainly wasn’t the last one to do this,” said Convery.

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Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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