Joseph Rolette was a fur trader and politician during Minnesota's territorial period. A colorful character in his time, Rolette is remembered for the drastic action he took to prevent removal of Minnesota's capital to St. Peter.
Rolette was born on October 23, 1820, in Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory, in what is now Wisconsin. His parents were Jean Joseph Rolette and Jane Fisher. Rolette's father was a prominent French Canadian fur trader who by the 1820s was employed by the American Fur Company. As a child, Rolette was taken to live in New York by some of his mother's relatives. He was educated at a private school there under the protection of Ramsay Crooks, the president of the American Fur Company. In 1836, Rolette's parents separated but did not divorce, since they were Catholic.
By 1840, Rolette had returned west and started working in the fur trade. He operated in the Red River Valley, conducting trade for his father's partners, Henry Hastings Sibley and Ramsay Crooks. Rolette proved himself a valuable partner when he rebuilt a trading post at Pembina near the Canadian border in present-day North Dakota. He defended the post and was responsible for business conducted there.
In 1842, Rolette created a line of trade carts that ran on the Red River trails. The trails allowed for efficient trade and communication between Pembina and St. Paul. The system of Red River ox carts made the American trade in the region more competitive. They also diverted business from the rival Hudson's Bay Company in British Canada. The commerce Rolette directed to St. Paul helped the city become the commercial hub of the region.
Rolette married a Métis woman from Pembina named Angélique Jerome in 1845. The marriage solidified his connection to the Pembina community. The couple had eleven children. In October, 1851, Rolette's political career began when he was elected to represent Pembina in Minnesota's territorial legislature. His first trip to the legislature took him eighteen days by dogsled. When he arrived, his dogs famously entered the capitol building with him. As a Democrat, Rolette was reelected to the territorial House three times and served until 1856. In January of 1856, he began serving on the Territorial Council and became the chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee.
It was as chair of this committee that Rolette made his most famous contribution to Minnesota history. In February of 1857, a bill to remove the capital of Minnesota to St. Peter passed the territorial legislature. The bill was sent to the Enrolled Bills Committee, and had to pass through Rolette before it could be signed by the governor. Rolette came into possession of the bill on or before February 28, 1857, a few days before the end of the legislative session.
Once he had the bill in hand, Rolette disappeared. The sergeant-at-arms of the council searched St. Paul for the missing chairman. Legislators waited for him to be found and endured a 123-hour session, during which many of them slept in the chamber. Rolette opposed removing the capital to St. Peter and seems to have been aided in his disappearance by some citizens of the city.
Many versions of this story exist. Some state that Rolette spent his time drinking and playing cards with friends in a hotel after depositing the bill in a bank safe. Others state that the hotel was actually a brothel.
The claim that Rolette’s actions “saved” the capital for St. Paul is untrue. In reality, the process of removal continued until a federal district judge ruled the removal act unconstitutional.
In June of 1857, Rolette was elected to serve as a delegate to the first Minnesota State Constitutional Convention. Under the laws of the new constitution, Pembina ceased to be part of the state, and Rolette was no longer a legislator. When the legislature met in December of 1857, Rolette appeared anyway and was admitted. He was elected to office a final time, serving in the Minnesota Senate from December of 1857 to December of 1859.
During the Civil War, Rolette was unable to obtain a military commission, and throughout the 1860s his fortune dwindled. He served as a postmaster at Pembina and as a United States customs officer. His health deteriorated and on May 16, 1871, he died in Pembina.
Joseph Rolette Letters and Biographical Data, 1845–1890
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Letters from Rolette to his uncle concerning family activities. Included are remarks by Isaac V.D. Heard at the presentation of Rolette's portrait to the Minnesota Historical Society.
"A Frontier Figure." St. Paul Daily Globe, April 15, 1890.
"A Short Frontier Story." St. Paul Daily Globe, July 9, 1899.
"Hon. Joseph Rolette's Famous Coup in Favor of St. Paul as Viewed by a Legislator of Early Days." St. Paul Daily Globe, June 8, 1893.
Lass, William. "'Utterly Stupid, Blind, and Absurd': Minnesota Press Reaction to the Capital Removal Attempt." Minnesota History 63, no. 7 (Fall 2013): 281–293.
"Removal of the Capital." St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat, March 3, 1857.
"The Capital Bill." St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat, March 5, 1857.
Thompson, Neil B. "A Half Century of Capital Conflict: How St. Paul Kept the Seat of Government." Minnesota History 43, no. 7 (Fall 1973): 238–254.
Folwell, William Watts. A History of Minnesota. Vol. 1. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1922.
White, Bruce M. "The Power of Whiteness, or the Life and Times of Joseph Rolette." Minnesota History 56, no. 4 (Winter 1998–1999): 178–197.
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. Rolette, Jr. Joseph "Joe."
Winship, George B. "Early Politics and Politicians of North Dakota." Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 13, no. 3 (April 1923): 254–267.
In February of 1857, Joseph Rolette takes possession of a bill meant to remove the capital of Minnesota to St. Peter. He disappears for the rest of the legislative session.
Joseph Rolette is born in Prairie du Chien, Michigan Territory on October 23.
Rolette is educated at a private school in New York.
Rolette works as a fur trader for the American Fur Company.
Rolette marries Angélique Jerome, a Métis woman from Pembina.
The first of Rolette's six consecutive terms in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature begins.
Rolette takes possession of a bill removing the capital of Minnesota to St. Peter and disappears for the rest of the legislative session.
Rolette serves as a delegate to the Minnesota State Constitutional Convention.
Rolette begins his first term in the Minnesota Senate.
Rolette finds work as a United States customs officer.
Rolette dies in Pembina on May 16.