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ROLETTE (Rollette), JOSEPH, fur-trader and legislator; b. 23 Oct. 1820, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, son of Jean-Joseph Rolette* and Marguerite Dubois; d. 16 May 1871, Pembina, North Dakota.
Joseph Rolette Jr was the son of a pioneer French Canadian fur-trader of the upper Mississippi River region. After his education in New York under the guardianship of Ramsay Crooks, the president of the American Fur Company, for whom his father worked, he returned west to Fort Snelling (St Paul), Minnesota. In 1840 he was employed by the American Fur Company in the Pembina area under the supervision of one of its partners, Henry Hastings Sibley*, who was in charge of the fur trade of the northern Minnesota district. With his uncle, Henry Fisher, Rolette established a cart route between Pembina and St Paul as part of a plan of drawing furs from the Hudson’s Bay Company territories to the St Paul market.
By 1844 Sibley had formed new business associations, including a partnership with Norman Wolfred Kittson*. A post was established at Pembina, and Rolette, both clerk and trader, was placed in charge of it and several other posts along the international frontier. Three years later, during the fierce competition between American traders and the HBC for the border fur trade, he burned a post which the latter’s traders had established near Pembina. In 1853 Kittson moved his headquarters west to St Joseph (Walhalla), North Dakota. Rolette remained at the Pembina post, and when Sibley and Kittson withdrew from the border area the following year because they could not compete with the high prices which the HBC offered in its campaign to defeat them, he was left in charge as a semi-independent trader. By this time he had invested his own money in the fur trade as well as in land speculation in the Pembina area. Rolette lost heavily in both enterprises and by 1857, a year of depression, he was almost penniless.
In 1852 Rolette had been elected one of two representatives of the Pembina district to the territorial legislature of Minnesota and in 1856–57 was a member of the territorial council. He served later as postmaster at Pembina and from 1866 to 1870 was a United States customs officer. Throughout his life he was associated with this border community, and was a well-known and hospitable host to travellers in the Red River valley, as well as a familiar figure in the Red River Settlement where his children were educated. In 1845 he had married at Saint-Boniface Angélique Jérôme, a French-Chippewa woman; they had 11 children.
During the Red River disturbances of 1869–70 Rolette was one of a group of “correspondents” forwarding information on the events at Red River to the St Paul newspapers. They sought to make the disturbances a movement which had as its purpose independence or annexion to the United States. Along with other Americans in the Red River Settlement and at Pembina, including Enos Stutsman, he endeavoured to induce Louis Riel* to bring the settlement into the American union.
Rolette is remembered as a jovial and spirited frontier figure of enterprising and aggressive methods. Whether in an Indian fight, in relations with the Métis population, or in the highly competitive fur trade, he was both a capable and a daring adventurer.
Begg’s Red River journal (Morton), 9, 86, 165, 349. Minnesota Hist. Soc. Coll., XXIV (1912), 654. Manitoban (Winnipeg), 27 May 1871. Joseph Tassé, Les Canadiens de l’Ouest (2e éd., 2v., Montréal, 1878), I, 211; II, 31–40. A. C. Gluek, Minnesota and the manifest destiny of the Canadian northwest; a study in Canadian-American relations (Toronto, 1965), 85, 116–17. J. P. Pritchett, “Some Red River fur-trade activities,” Minnesota History Bulletin (St Paul), V (1923–24), 401–23. G. B. Winship, “Early politics and politicians of North Dakota,” University of North Dakota, Quarterly J. (Grand Forks), XIII (1923), 254–67.