Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Jolly" Joe Rolette

Joseph Rolette (23 October 1820 – 16 May 1871) was a well known American fur trader and politician. His father was Jean Joseph Rolette, often referred to as Joe Rolette the elder, a French-Canadian and a trader himself. Joseph Rolette’s mother was Jane Fisher, and the couple divorced after Joseph was born. Jane's relatives took young Joseph to New York. As his sense of adventure developed he headed back west in 1840 and by the time he was 21 he was working for his fathers partners in the Red River valley area of Minnesota. Some of the best-known names in Minnesota history (Henry Hastings Sibley and Ramsey Crooks) were active and running a fur trading company in the area. While in their service Joseph Rolette rebuilt a trading post at Pembina. He was responsible for the building and the defense of the post as well as managing the business being conducted there.

In 1842 young Rolette put into a place a unique method of transportation. He created a line of carts that ran on the Red River Trails between Pembina and the head of Mississippi navigation at Mendota, Minnesota. As a result a substantial portion of the trade enjoyed by the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada was diverted to the United States. Rolette ran this concern with his mother's brother. By this time the trading post had grown and a Canadian native, Norman W. Kittson, was managing it. Kittson adopted the system of Red River ox carts, growing and adding more lines until it consisted of several thousand vehicles.

During the late 1840s Rolette also had a hand in defending the posts, both from commercial rivals and unfriendly Native Americans. At one point he burned down a rival post which was trading whisky for furs, a transaction that was illegal during that time. In 1845 he married Angelique Jerome (sister of my great grandfather, Andre Jerome). Together they had eleven children.

In 1851 he was elected to the Minnesota Territorial Legislature and served four terms. It was from his time in the legislature that the best-known story about him originates. A bill making St. Peter the capital of Minnesota was about to be enacted and, as he was chairman of the enrollment committee, bills of this nature had to pass through him. Rolette took physical possession of the document and disappeared for the rest of the session, not returning until it was too late to pass any more bills. St. Peter did not become the capital and it ended up in St. Paul where it remains today. According to the story, he spent the week away from the legislature drinking and playing poker in the Fuller House Hotel with some friends.

During the Civil War he was unable to get a commission in the Union army and by the end of the war had lost much of his fortune. His health declined and he died on May 16, 1871.