The Legend of Joe Rolette: The Most Interesting Man in Minnesota History

scan from 4x5 color transparency on Epson 10000XL

Joe Rolette // Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

There’s a thing called ghosting, in which a person breaks off all communication with the world, ignoring all texts, calls, e-mails, semaphore flags, ASL, telegrams, etc. (Parents: Ask your kids if this is still unclear.) The New York Times discovered it when Charlize Theron went AWOL on Sean Penn. You may remember that Wisconsin legislators also up and vanished rather than vote on Governor Scott Walker’s plan to gut the state’s public sector unions. But long before cell phones, Oscar-winning actresses, and Dairyland politicians, there was Joseph Rolette.

Try and picture a Minnesota where St. Paul is not the capital city, but just another suburb of Minneapolis. As strange as that sounds, it almost happened. And although the facts don’t always line up with the legend, Rolette’s 123 hours on the lam are assuredly the most colorful part of this story.

Back in the 1850s, before Minnesota was even a state, there was a movement afoot to change the territory’s capital city from St. Paul to St. Peter, a town 75 miles southwest of St. Paul along the Minnesota River. The reason was not to be closer to the Schell’s Brewery or Vikings training camp (since neither existed). Rather, a more central location was desired by some residents outside the triangle of the then-territory’s three major settlements of St. Paul, St. Anthony, and Stillwater. Also, and almost definitely more importantly, money was involved.

“It was all land speculation,” says the Minnesota Historical Society’s Brian Pease. “People were buying up plots, with the assumption being that wherever the capital wound up, people would put their homes and businesses there.”

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

The state of play at the time: Democrats dominated Minnesota, as your angriest uncle has no doubt mentioned at some point, though the territory had seen an influx of Republicans and Whigs from Ohio and Indiana. Farmers from Kandiyohi County wanted the capital city to be closer to their farms. Governor Willis Gorman, a Democrat, was receptive to moving the capital to St. Peter, where he just so happened to own land. Land he thought would be perfect for a state capitol.

In 1857, Gorman and the St. Peter faction won out, and a bill passed the territorial legislature that would make St. Peter the capital city. That bill was handed to the Chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee. The Chair’s name: Joe Rolette.

The first thing to note about Joe Rolette is that, for someone who played a major role in Minnesota history, he wasn’t technically from Minnesota as we know it today. Rolette represented Pembina, a mere 16-day dog sled ride from St. Paul. It is, quite literally, the last stop before Canada. It’s also on the west side of the Red River, which means when Minnesota was finally granted statehood, Pembina and Rolette were in what would become North Dakota.

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llustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Rolette was born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1820. The family business was fur trading—Joe Rolette, Sr., was a bigshot at the American Fur Company—and business was good. Rolette was educated out East at private schools before returning to the Midwest and dipping his toe in the fur trade. He settled in the Red River Valley, married a Métis woman, started a family, and established a line of ox carts that helped drive commerce from the far northwestern part of the territory to St. Paul.

Despite his privileged upbringing, Rolette “looked and dressed the part” of a fur trader on the frontier, says Pease: “big, barrel-chested, fringe buckskin pants, frock coat.” (FACT: Joe Rolette had the homebrewer look down before it was even a thing.)

Rolette entered politics in 1851 as the Minnesota Territory’s representative from Pembina. He acquired the nickname “Jolly” Joe Rolette, which, given his physical description and a fully decked-out dog sled—the Wahpeton and Breckenridge Daily News claimed it was “gaily decorated”—makes sense. (He was likely less jolly when he had to make the roughly 400-mile journey on foot.)

The Pembina Democrat rose through the territorial legislature’s ranks, winning three elections before becoming Chair of the Enrolled Bills Committee in 1856.

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llustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

If you’re wondering what an Enrolled Bills Committee does, just know that it was their responsibility to send whatever bill was passed by the legislature along to the governor to be signed into law. Like, say, a property tax bill, or a bill moving the entire capital city. It was this committee that received the aforementioned bill from the territorial legislature in February 1857. The chair would send it along to Governor Gorman, who would no doubt be thrilled to sign a bill that doubled as a personal financial windfall.

That bill never got to him.

Rolette received the bill in the waning days of the legislative session. Rolette was also firmly in the camp of legislators and land owners who wanted to keep the capital in St. Paul. Put another way: This situation absolutely required a really stupid and futile gesture be done on somebody’s part, and Rolette was just the guy to do it. So, in an attempt to run out the clock on the move, Rolette ghosted. For 123 hours.

A very important thing to note here: Legend has it that Rolette’s vanishing act prevented the capital’s move and saved St. Paul. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry for St. Peter, in particular, is still not amused by Rolette’s actions. However, the fact is Rolette’s disappearance ultimately did not succeed in keeping St. Paul as the capital. But the subsequent legislative and legal processes actually responsible for keeping the capital in St. Paul are sort of boring. Rolette’s quixotic vamoosing is a much better story.

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

What does one do in St. Paul for 123 hours when hiding from the law, you ask? Per Pease, there is no definitive accounting of Rolette’s five-plus days off the grid. “The best story I’ve heard is that the sergeant-at-arms who was appointed to go look for Rolette would just go play cards with Joe at the hotel where he was hiding out,” he says.

Among the other stories, all of which should be read with an implied “allegedly”:

  • The hotel in question was also a brothel.
  • The 123 hours were an epic bender.
  • The bill itself was secreted in a bank safe while Rolette dodged the limelight.
  • The people of St. Paul did a suspiciously good job of not finding Joe Rolette.

While Rolette was (playing cards/boozing/mingling with sex workers/all of these things at once), the legislature waited five long, mid-winter days for him to show up. As the session wound down, a second bill to move the capital to St. Peter was passed. Once it was, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that Joe Rolette made his grand reappearance in the chambers. He probably didn’t smell very good. (Again, allegedly.)

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Although Rolette’s efforts were in vain, the proposed move was struck down on the federal level. Things did get far enough down the line that construction began on a new capitol building in St. Peter, which ultimately became the Nicollet County Courthouse.

As for Rolette, his game attempt to keep the capital in St. Paul via carousing and hiding was not forgotten. When Minnesota became a state later that year, Rolette was essentially grandfathered in to represent the decidedly not-in-Minnesota city of Pembina in the new state’s legislature through 1859. Additionally, his fellow territorial legislator, Charles Flandrau, commissioned paintings of this figurative savior of St. Paul. One is in storage at the capitol, while the other one hangs at the Minnesota Club. I’m not saying you should sneak into the club to catch a glimpse if you happen to be running around St. Paul after a Wild game, but I’m not not saying that, either.

Sadly for Rolette, beaver pelts weren’t a growth industry and he lost much of his fortune as the fur trade waned in the 1860s. He spent his remaining days as a postmaster and customs officer, and passed away in 1871. His misremembered legacy lives on.

 
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