The Emblazoned Heart: The Minnesota Territory under
the bold guidance of Joseph Rolette, Jr.
Several weeks ago, fourteen Wisconsin senators walked out of a legislative session and disappeared in order to prevent a bill's passage. One hundred and fifty-four years ago, Joseph Rolette did the same thing: different context but identical action. Indeed, Rolette's life rings with remarkable stories of bravery, entrepreneurship, and gall that have spoken to the hearts of Minnesotans for decades. His contributions not only expanded the Minnesota Territory's economy but set St. Paul as the hub and capitol of Minnesota. Without Rolette, both the face and spirit of modern-day Minnesota would have been very different.
One of the most colorful characters in the Territory's history, "Jolly" Joseph Rolette (1820-1871) moved from
New York to St. Paul as a young man, becoming deeply involved in the American Fur Company and serving under such Territory legends as Henry Sibley and Ramsey Crooks. While Rolette did not become Minnesota's first governor like Sibley, nor was he a pioneering explorer like Crooks, his support provided them with the energy and backing they needed to make their great contributions to the Territory. In this way, Rolette is one of the Territory's unsung heroes.
In 1840, these men, recognizing Rolette's greatness, entrusted him with the vast county of Pembina, where Rolette promptly built a fort to defend the land. At age 22, Rolette was already controlling his own band of wild men, fighting rivals, and profiting in trade; indeed, he was well on his way to becoming one of the best known traders in the Northwest.
Not all was well, however. Canadian trade was harming the young Territory's profit, the lifeblood of the Territory. This was partly due to the Territory's lack of a transportation infrastructure. Therefore, in 1842, barely having taken over at Pembina, Rolette enthusiastically spearheaded a new method of transportation: a line of ox carts that moved goods from Pembina to his belowed former home, St. Paul. The Red River ox cart business exploded, and within just a few years, nearly 7,000 ox carts were rolling across the Territory in his service.
This masive increase in trade within the Territory not only diverted huge amounts of trade from the Hudson Bay Company in Canada, but it brought the Territory more swaurely on the map of importance for the rest of the United States. The Territory was teeming with resources, but without Rolette's entrepreneurial spirit, they would have been assimilated by those Canadian companies instead of nourishing the young Minnesotan economy and causing it to become a viable candidate for statehood. Even today, on a smaller scale, Minnesotans remember Rolette's ox carts through the Ox Cart Trail Park.
Clearly, Rolette hd no qualms about taking business into his own hands, and he boldly did the same with justice, encouraging the modern-day Minnesotan's attitude of responsibility toward integrity. In 1847, rival traders had brazenly set up a post not two miles from Rolette's lucrative Pembina fort, diverting business by illegally trading whiskey for furs, intoxicating the local Native Americans and wreaking havoc in Rolette's industry. Rolette, furious, demanded that the government step in, but the officials were passively unmoved. Rolette refused to let this injustice continue, so in 1847 he marched up to the fort, threw out their goods, burned the fort to the ground, and commanded the traders to leave. They did. Rolette's zeal for justice provided firm leadership in this critical time, meaning that 'in the early days of Joe Rolette and the Minnesota Territory, the balance o fpower was weighed and never found wanting.' When the territories did not have this balance of power, they struggled and fell victim to pettiness and strife; Rolette helped prevent this from happening in his beloved Minnesota.
With this brazen move and many more, Rolette endeared himself to the burgeoning Territory population who longed for heroes. They elected him to the Minnesota Territorial legislature in the House of Representatives in 1852, and, beginning in 1857, he energetically completed four terms in the Minnesota Territorial Council, where he served on no fewer than seven committees. This was despite the fat that, being perceived as a "half-breed" with a French heritage, he was prejudiced against and his enemies even tried to have him removed from office. Rolette, of course, would have none of this, boldly following his convictions. His bravery provided inspiration for the new generation of Minnesotans who were fighting their own battle for statehood and against raial discrimination, particularly in the form of slavery (seen in the Dred Scott case). Without his example, Minnesotans may not enjoy the racial diversity and freedom they have today with the Twin Cities being one of the most diverse places in America, boasting the largest concentration of Native Americans in the country.
Rolette's boldness aslso showed in other ways. Once, when a great commotion resounded down the street, residents drily remarked, "Well, it is either a big fire or else Joe Rolette is in town." Not to disappoint, Rolette would both snowshoe the 385-mile journey from Pembina to St. Paul as well as bring his sled dogs straight through the halls of the capitol. This can-do attitude had a deep impact on the Territory's government, shaping the course of Minnesota. Ultimately, "our cultural and economic development [owes] much to the syunergy Rolette helped to provoke in this region and in our states."
This synergy was seen in Rolette's living as a walking contradiction, able to unify seemingly disparate parts of the Territory. He dealt with Ojibwe and other native peoples, yet was equally involved with the settlers; his high education contrasted with his wild lifestyle; his occupation as a trader and woodsman was starkly distinct from his life as a politician; his penchant for justice seemed opposed to his willingness to bypass legality. In this way, Rolette provided a transitional figure for teh Territory from being a wild frontier to entering "civilized" America as a state, the hero-figure who led the people to greatness.
As such a strong figure, Rolette starred in one of the most legendary stories of the Territory. In 1857, just before the Territory was to make the thrilling leap to statehood, a bill was introduced to the Minnesota Territorial Council to make the capitol of the new state St. Peter instead of St. Paul. As the chairman of the Committee on Enrolled Bills, Rolette found the bill placed in his hands. Rolette could not imagine a capitol of Minnesota that was other than his beloved home and trade center of St. Paul and felt passionately that St. Peter was an unworthy alternative.
Therefore, instead of risking the bill's passage, Rolette simply stole it and vanished. The legislature erupted into turmoil, the police searching feverishly for Rolette for days while the Council tenaciously remained in session without recess for the next 124 hours. When the last day of the session arrived, Rolette was still mysteriously gone, and unable to do anything else, the session was forced to adjourn. Just as the gavel fell at midnight, closing the session and confirming St. Paul as the capitol, Rolette audaciously marched through the door,k having accomplished his patriotic mission, and likely for the better. If he had not stolen the bill, the Territory would have had to split its energies from the thriving trade center of St. Paul on the Mississippi to small St. Peter, weakening the young tate. Instead, today St. Paul boasts one of the most thriving culture and economies in Minnesota, unlike many state capitols that have fallen into disarray, largely thanks to Rolette's brazen loyalty.
Indeed, Rolette's courage, brazenness, and entrpreneurial spirit burned themselves deeply into the structure of the Minnesota Territory. From his empire of the ox carts to his support of famous Minnesotans, and from hero-figure status to his single-handed support of St. Paul, Joseph Rolette, Jr. deserves a foundational place in Minnesota history today. In the face of their own tumultuous political events like the Wisconsin walk-out, Minnesotans need to her his story, for Rolette proves that even in the midst of turmoil, he was - as each American today can be - an "individual making a difference where quotas and quorums govern." Thanks to Rolette, this individualistic spirit was sown deep into the soil of the Minnesota Territory, growing with it on Minnesota's journey to statehood and emblazoned across the hearts of Minnesotans today.