Saint Peter, MN

"Jolly" Joe Rolette and the 1857 Case of the Runaway Bill

Matt Reicher

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Joe RoletteGrowler Mag

"Remove the Capital to St. Peter, and I am worth $200,000 and the State is as poor as a mouse; keep the Capital in St. Paul, the State is rich, and I am as poor as a mouse." ~ Territorial Governor Willis A. Gorman

On March 1, 1856 the Minnesota Territorial Legislature incorporated the St. Peter Co. and authorized it to develop land and real estate in the town of St. Peter, within Nicollet County.

Land speculators, including the territory’s governor and legislators, believed the capital would be moved from St. Paul to the area. Buying the land now would make them each incredibly wealthy once legislation in favor of the move was passed.

Which, in 1857, it was.

On February 6, the legislature introduced a bill to move the capital to land in the town of St. Peter owned by the St. Peter Company. The council passed it (later known as Senate) 8 — 7 on February 12, and the House did by a margin of 20 — 17 on February 18.

St. Paul legislators offered an amendment to move the capitol building to Nicollet Island, but a vote of 18 — 17 defeated the measure. The four members from Hennepin County voted against the compromise.

With the legislation officially passed, Governor Willis Gorman—who was a member of the St. Peter Company—signaled that he would sign the relocation bill when it was presented to him. For all intents and purposes, the deal was done.

However, no one counted on the actions of the representative from Pembina, “Jolly” Joe Rolette.

Rolette, who opposed the move, was the chair of the Committee on Enrolled Bills. His hands were the last to hold a bill—any bill—before it made its way to the governor. On February 28, 1857, five days before the end of the legislative session, the enacted bill to move the capital came across his desk.

Instead of certifying the bill and sending it off for the Governor’s signature, he took it and disappeared.

The specifics get a bit muddied. But after sneaking out of the session, Rolette took the bill—wrapped in some of his personal papers—to a nearby bank and had it placed in a security deposit box. He then hid away on the second floor of St. Paul’s Fuller House.

When it was learned that Rolette had taken the bill, officials sent sergeant-at-arms John M. Lamb to find him. Legislators took a vote to dispense with the proceedings and pass the bill, and while they voted 14 — 5 in favor, the measure didn’t receive the two-thirds support necessary.

The legislature was placed on lockdown while Lamb searched for Rolette.

For the next five days, Rolette stayed hidden away at the Fuller House. He was surrounded by friends, and supplied with fine food and whiskey provided by the grateful citizens of St. Paul. Rolette played cards—legend has it with a group that included the legislature’s sergeant-at-arms, and ate and drank to his heart’s content.

While Rolette remained out of sight, legislators created a replacement copy of the bill and gave to the governor. However, since the Council Speaker refused to sign it, feeling that the hastily thrown-together document wasn’t proper legislation.

On March 5, 1857, at midnight, after one-hundred and twenty-three hours without Rolette, council president John Brisbin ended the session. Seconds before he banged the gavel, Rolette walked in with the bill in hand and sat down.

Legally, because the session was now at an end, the document could not be signed and legislation enacted. St. Paul remained the territory’s capital.

When his contemporaries asked him what happened, he told them he stuck the bill in his hat and stepped out into the wind. The wind blew his hat—along with the bill—halfway to his home in Pembina. Once he caught up to his hat, Rolette went the rest of the way home.

The St. Peter Company. led by Governor Gorman, believed otherwise. They took their argument to the Territorial Supreme Court, claiming the copy of the bill was enough to mandate the move. The court disagreed, ruling instead that the legislature didn't have the authority to change the capital.

The matter was officially closed.

In 1858, when the Minnesota Territory was named the 32nd State of the Union, St. Paul remained its capital. Plots of land in St. Peter, which speculators were buying for $1500 a piece at their peak, were worth $15 once the court made its decision.

Despite the fact that the court would have likely ruled against the St. Peter Company whether or not the original bill passed, Rolette continued to be celebrated for his "stunt." He remains a celebrated "friend of St. Paul" over one-hundred and fifty years after his death.

Sources

  • DeCarlo, Peter. "Rolette, Joseph (1820–1871)." MNopedia | Minnesota Encyclopedia. Last modified March 14, 2014. https://www.mnopedia.org/person/rolette-joseph-1820-1871.
  • The Minneapolis Star. "Woman Meets Some Long-Dead Ancestors." September 24, 1959, 60.
  • Minneapolis Tribune. "Joe Rolette? He Ran Away With Capitol." August 28, 1849, 21.
  • Stafford, Virginia. Minneapolis Star, November 6, 1940, 23.
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis). "Fur Trader Kept Capitol in St. Paul." March 2, 2003, B1.
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis). "Joe Rolette." December 7, 1975, 196,198.

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