Thursday, April 28, 2011

Joe Rolette



Most everyone who has read about Minnesota history has seen a story about how Joe Rolette was responsible for the state capital remaining in St. Paul when Minnesota became a state. Usually, the story tells about this jolly half-breed from Pembina who stole the bill when the territorial legislature passed it and held it hostage until it could no longer be signed to make it law. This simple telling of the story is misleading about the actual facts of that incident in our history, largely because of differing political reasons for telling it in that way.

Lost in the short explanations is the description of the racial demographics of that time and place. Pembina County, represented by Joe Rolette, had a population majority which was made up of people involved in the fur trade. These were mostly Indian or mixed blood French-Indian people, often called Metis. The same was true of much of the Northern part of the territory. A major discussion among politicians of the day involved around questions about who should be allowed to vote, with European settlers doubting that those non-whites were civilized enough to be allowed to participate in elections.

Joe Rolette was a well educated, wealthy, young man who came from Wisconsin to Pembina to open a fur trading post. He was a generous and well-liked person in that community. Although not a Metis himself, his ties to that group were largely derived from his marriage to Angelique Jerome, sister of Andre Jerome, who was of mixed Cree Indian and French ancestry. He championed the cause of these people and represented them well in the territorial legislature. Together they raised eleven children.

A number of legislators preferred the future state of Minnesota should have its northern border much further South than where it ended up and to have its capital near the center of that area in St. Peter. They arranged speculative land purchases there in order to obtain some benefits from the relocation of the state capital. The governor, who wanted to sign the bill, was among those speculators who would benefit. However, the state borders ended up quite differently, but the bill to move the capital was passed. In his role as the legislative committee chairman who was charged with the responsibility to certify the validity of the bill which had to be signed, Joe Rolette legally had the bill in his possession. Some historians believe there were technical problems with the writing of the bill. Others claim that Rolette simply did not believe it wise to move the capital from its St. Paul location. Whatever the reason, he withheld the bill from being presented for signature until past the deadline to make it law.

This action by Rolette made him a hero to the people in St. Paul. A prominant artist of the day painted a portait of Rolette in typical Metis dress which was hung in the State Capital for many years. This portrayal provides some emphasis for the well-circulated but misleading story of this famous incident. Historians have written about how this well-educated, wealthy trader would present himself to the St. Paul society in expensive tailored clothing obtained when he was in St. Paul on business. It should be noted that Joe Rolette was involved with Norman Kittson in establishing the train of Red River carts that provided the transportation of the fur trade products from the Red River Valley of the North to the growing business center at St. Paul. That transportation system ended with the building of the Great Northern Railway.

An interesting fact of North Dakota history is that Joe Rolette was the first person to file a homestead in North Dakota for property at Pembina. He made the first transfer of property by deed in North Dakota to James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway, for the purpose of building warehouses. He also donated the property on which the Assumption Catholic Church was built in Pembina.

Some of this background is described in an article published by the Minnesota Historical Society in The Power of Whiteness; Bruce M. White.

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