PEMBINA, ND — Minnesota lawmakers today are divided on key issues — recreational marijuana, taxes, and the use of a massive government surplus — but it’s unlikely any of them will take action into their own hands and go away with legislation before that possible is signed by Governor Tim Walz.
However, if a key lawmaker disappeared with a 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 lawmaker named Joseph Rolette.
Known to some for his boisterous demeanor as “Jolly Joe” Rolette, Rolette served as a Pembina County legislature from 1852-1857. At the time, Pembina County comprised much of what is now North Dakota.
Rolette is known to many, particularly in southern Minnesota, as the man who single-handedly saved St. Paul from losing its status as the state capital by stealing a bill that would have made the small town of St. Peter the state 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.
“It has a legendary reputation, and it’s definitely overdone in some cases, but not entirely undeserved,” said Brian Hardy, public relations coordinator at Pembina State Museum.
Hardy says historians know something about Rolette, but without one of his personal journals they are limited to the stories of others to piece together Rolette’s life.
While Rolete donned a rough and gruff frontiersman facade during his life in Pembina, he was actually born into money.
Rollette was born in Wisconsin in 1820. He was the son of Jean Joseph Rolette Sr., a French-Canadian fur trader in charge of the Michigan division of the American Fur Company, a leader in the North American fur trade. Rolette went to school in New York and was tutored personally by Ramsay Crooks, then President of the American Fur Company. Rolette was brought to Pembina by the Company in the 1840s to manage assets at the Pembina Trading Post.
But in Pembina, which was cold and often flooded, Rollette played the part. He dressed in furs and colored beads more like a fur trader than the clothes of the businessmen who raised him. He married Angelique Jerome, a Metis woman.
“Although he led a rough life, he was very successful in his early years, in the early 1840s,” Hardy said.
From Pembina, Rolette organized the first Red River ox-cart trains between Winnipeg and St. Paul, stealing business from the Hudson’s Bay Company, American Fur Company’s closest competitor.
Rollette was elected to the Minnesota legislature in 1851. He traveled the 385 miles to St. Paul by dog sled or snowshoe for the legislative sessions. During his first territorial legislature in 1852, he brought his dogs into the Chamber.
“After about three days, the rest of the senators had had enough of it, and under the guise of claiming that Pembina didn’t deserve double representation, the Sergeant at Arms had his dogs taken out,” Hardy said.
In the Red River area, Rolette’s legacy as a frontiersman, fur trader, and ox-cart pioneer remains, but he is better remembered in Minnesota for his efforts to thwart plans to remove St. Paul as Minnesota’s capital.
In 1857, Minnesota was on the verge of statehood, said Bill Convery, director of research for the Minnesota Historical Society. The legislature was tasked with deciding whether the state would be oriented on a north-south axis, as the state is oriented today, or on an east-west axis, which would have placed St. Paul on the state’s fringes. At the same time, many legislators and Governor Willis Gorman owned land in St. Peter, a centrally located city about 75 miles southwest of St. Paul.
“This is border business and political overlap at its finest,” Convery said.
A bill to remove St. Paul as the capital and move it to St. Peter had passed the Territorial House and Council and needed only Gorman’s signature to become law. At the time, Rolette served as chairman of the enrolled Audit Committee, which submitted bills that had passed the legislature to the governor’s office for signature.
The bill was delivered to Rollette on February 27, 1857, but by February 28 both Rollete and the bill were gone.
Meanwhile, the Territorial Council was at an impasse and could not be adjourned without a majority vote, leaving Rollette to break the tie. For 123 hours the council waited for Rolette’s return and camped in the council chambers before reaching a compromise to adjourn and convene the next day, March 6. However, Rollette still could not be found and the council meeting ended on March 7. before the bill could be signed. Shortly thereafter he appeared.
Nobody knows exactly what Rollette was up to during the five days of his disappearance.
“What he did during that time is really the subject of the different stories,” Convery said. “Some versions say he hid in the back room of a hotel where he played poker and possibly drank for three to four days, other versions say he hid in a brothel in St. Paul.”
During Rollette’s disappearance, The Minnesota Weekly Times newspaper reported that he had taken the train to Washington DC with the bill, which turned out to be false.
Hardy said his favorite version of the story was one that said the Sergeant at Arms tasked with finding 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 actually affect the outcome of the bill. Indeed, a copy of the bill sent to the governor’s office and signed by Governor Gorman was eventually struck down by a federal judge. Convery says the judge rejected the law because moving the capital would require a public referendum, not just legislature approval.
But historians also agree that Rolette’s actions make for a good story and live up to his reputation.
“Joe, being Joe, had to make a scene,” Hardy said. “Everything else is history, as the saying goes.”
After Minnesota became a state, the city of Pembina was no longer a state, meaning Rolette could no longer be a Minnesota legislature. However, this did not prevent Rolete from appearing at the first Legislative Assembly of the state of Minnesota, according to Volume 2 of the book Minnesota in Three Centuries.
“But when the legislature met in December 1857, lo and behold the ‘Gentleman of Pembina’, with his credentials as usual, and of course he was admitted,” says the book.
It was his last term before retiring from the legislature.
During the civil war, the fur trade in the region came to a standstill. Rollette died a poor man in 1871.
His name lives on in northeastern North Dakota. Hardy said any place with “Rolette” in its name, such as Rollette County or the town of Rollette, is named for lawmaker, fur trader, and troublemaker “Jolly Joe” Rollette.
Since Rollette, other lawmakers have occasionally pulled similar stunts, Convery said. In 2011, 14 Wisconsin Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote on an anti-union law. In 2021, more than 50 Texas Democrats fled to Washington, DC to prevent Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.
“Perhaps he was the pioneer of this idea of preventing lawmakers from doing their job, but he certainly wasn’t the last to do so,” Convery said.