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Rolette County


North Dakota’s Rolette County advertises itself as “The Sportsman’s Paradise.” It’s chock full of beautiful wilderness for hiking, hunting, and fishing. But just because there are only 15 people per square mile doesn’t mean they can’t have interesting stories.

Take the county’s namesake: “Jolly Joe” Rolette was a gregarious Pembina fur trader. Those who knew Jolly Joe found him very likeable and intelligent. So, he was elected to the Minnesota Territorial Legislature in 1851, 53, 55, and 57. (Today’s eastern North Dakota was then a part of the Minnesota Territory).

His most famous accomplishment was the prevention of the “big move.” In February of 1857, a bill that would move the capital of Minnesota from St. Paul to St. Peter was working its way through the legislature. Rolette realized that legislators were being paid off by the St. Peter Land Company. It was his job to take the bill to be signed by the governor, who he knew was also in on the corrupt deal. So, Jolly Joe took the bill…and ran. He came back exactly as the sixty day session was about to expire, so nothing could be done. St. Paul remained the capital. Many say he spent his time in hiding at the Fuller House Hotel, drinking and playing poker.

Jolly Joe died in 1871 with much of his fortune lost, but in 1872 Rolette County was named in his honor. And it continued with its own interesting history. The original County Seat was Dunseith, but there was competition for that designation from the town of St. John. In 1885, an election was held to determine the winner. Both sides campaigned heavily and many people had hard feelings on the subject. Although Dunseith and St. John both sent supervisors to watch over the other city’s voting, there was still a great deal of fraud. St. John was charged with casting 1,125 votes with only 225 voters! (Sadly, the large population of Chippewa was not included in this number because they were not enfranchised yet.) Before anything was settled, the people of St. John set up their own county government. Consequently, there were two governments running at the same time. Although St. John eventually won, the people of Dunseith were left laughing when, on their way back from retrieving county documents, St. John city officials dropped several of the important records into a creek.

And on this date in 1888, the townsite of Rolla, the underdog, filed for incorporation. Dunseith and St. John had to stop fighting when Rolla took the county seat title from both of them in 1890. And Rolla has managed to keep this honor without controversy for one hundred and twenty-one years.

Dakota Datebook written by Leewana Thomas