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Rolette Advances The Use Of The Ox Cart


Leonard Jerome

"Golden leaves carpet an almost imperceptible mound in the Pembina cemetery west of this village. There is no monument or marker to identify the grave and few persons know that the noted Joseph Rolette, pioneer fur trader and legislator, lies in this unmarked spot."

I do not know who he is, I do not know what he looks like,I do not know what he did, except for what I read, because I'm only hisdistant relative. I was surprised to know he was related to me in any waybut as I asked relatives they each knew a little bit about him and throughtheir story telling I became interested in finding out more about my great,great, great, great, great uncle. He married the beautiful Angelie Jeromeand raised a big family of eleven. None of his children are living today.Everybody likes to have a hero of some type in the family and this is justthe way we feel about Joseph.

Many people are unaware of the fact that Joseph Rolettewas once a picturesque figure in Minnesota History because most of whatwas Minnesota territory then is now North Dakota territory. Joseph shouldnever be forgotten for the outstanding accomplishments he made during hisservice to the Minnesota Council.

Although Joseph made a great name for himself as a greatcouncil member he also had many other outstanding features too, he was courageous,daring, bonivant, jolly, and friendly to his friends and an enemy to hisenemies.

Because of his daring attributes he was sent to the Pembinaarea by General H. H. Sibley then the chief factor of the American Fur Company.Joseph arrived in the Pembina area in 1841 and thus wasted no time in beginninghis exciting career as a cart maker and council member.

Shortly after his arrival, Joseph and his mother's brother,J. H. Fisher, introduced the Red River Ox Carts in transportation of fursand supplies between Pembina and St. Paul.

The construction of these carts was very crude. The cartwas made entirely of wood, even the wheels and nails. Thus the cart hada great weakness, the wheels would not last very long and also the operatorwould just about be insane after a days travel from the screeching of thefriction between the hubs and the wooden axles. In his later models he replacedthe wooden wheels with iron wheels and thus overcame the carts greatestweakness. Joseph was a man who knew his occupational work well, he knewwood and its properties, and he knew which wood was the best for the constructionof these carts. As for tools, he had few. He had an ax, a saw, a draw-knife,and a vise. These were the tools used to build or repair the Red River OxCarts.

The carts were drawn by single oxen, hitched between thetwo shafts. The harness for the ox was made roughly of tanned ox or buffalohide. The oxen were steers which were about three years old.

Although Rolette is given credit for the introduction ofthe Red River Ox Carts as a practical transportation vehicle, Norman W.Kittson, the American Fur Company agent stationed at Pembina, made use ofthose carts on a larger scale.

As these two men were establishing their trade for theAmerican Fur Company, the Hudson's Bay Company began to try and take awaytheir business from the Indians, by setting up a post just two miles fromPembina. The Hudson's Bay Company notified the Indians that they would buyfurs and furnish them with unlimited amounts of whiskey. They knew thatthe Indians liked this fire-water. Joe could not stand to be cheated andthus took a dozen or so trusty half-breeds and drove out the traders andburned their buildings. Of this great daring and exciting exploit, NormanW. Kittson wrote to Sibley in Mendota.

"I fully approve of Joseph's conduct, though I don't know what the result may be."

Also, another time when Joseph was having trouble withthe Cut Heads, he wrote to Sibley:

"My half-breeds have had another fight with the Cut Heads. They only killed one. It was not a regular fight, but from all accounts the Sioux defended themselves well."

This isn't the only trouble Joseph and Norman encountered.They had to break trails for their carts to transport their furs and supplies.They had to find and experiment different routes to select an economicaland safe trail. It was said that the Indians were no great road builders.The Sioux were noted for their reluctance to cross any water that was unsafelooking and would thus pitch tents and wait patiently for the water to lowerbefore they would attempt to cross.

The trails opened by Rolette and Kittson and other trailfinders a short time later have become very historic. Kittson's first routewith the Ox Carts was along the west side of the Red River because it wasbelieved to be a lot higher and drier from flooding, and its streams andall of its tributaries to the Red were a lot easier to cross. But this routeseemed to take too long and another trail was sought by the trail finders.Time was thought to be saved if they crossed over to the Minnesota side.They crossed right at Pembina and traveled up the east side of the riverto a point near the mouth of the Otter Tail River. Saux Rapids is locatedon the Mississippi River and the march from there to Fort Snelling and toMendota was fairly easy.

The part of the trail that would be most interesting tothe people of our vicinity would be the part that passes through Kittsoncounty not far from the present site of the towns on the Great Northernline. It is interesting to know that I traveled over part of route my unclemade many years ago. I used to live on the Red River, and I heard some storiesof the Red River Ox Carts passing right by my house. Of course, I didn'tknow then that my uncle had traveled there but neither did any of the restof the family who is now living in the present area.

The trail then crossed the Red Lake River a short distancewest of Fisher at a point long known as "The Old Crossing of the RedLake River." From there it went on south through the western part ofPolk county, a distance of about fifty miles, which was the end of the trail.This trail was one of the many trails that developed during the exploitsof looking for safe, economical, and smooth trails to transport furs andsupplies. This route was known as the Western Route just to keep them distinguishedapart from one another.

After making such a big contribution to the welfare ofthe Minnesota territory, with the development of the Ox Cart overland transportation,Rolette was elected to the house of the Minnesota Territory Legislator.In 1851 he served his first term and he continued to serve until 1855 whenhe succeeded Norman W. Kittson to the council.

As a council member he served an exciting and very rewardingterm to what is now the State of Minnesota. Because at one time a bill wasbrought up to change the capital of Minnesota from St. Paul to St. Peter.But as chairman of the committee on enrolled bills, Joseph had possessionof the Capital removal measure and he remained unattended at the council'smeeting until the session ended. The session ended after waiting for Josephfor one hundred and twenty-three hours. The council remained there duringthat time with the members eating there and sleeping any place they couldfind. The President of the council, J. B. Brisbin ordered a sergeant tohave Rolette report to his seat but he was nowhere to be found, and alsothe sergeant was in favor of the St. Paul faction and didn't look too hardto find Joseph.

Joseph was a familiar figure on the St. Paul streets, C.A. Lounsberry, North Dakota Historian wrote of him:

"The old settlers who knew him all have pleasant memories of Joe Rolette. He was cheerful and jolly always a bonivant, a hail fellow and an enemy of only bad men, but almost criminally indifferent to his own welfare. He made many a trip from Pembina to St. Paul in the bitterest weather in a dog sledge, and generally made his entrance into town with his dogs in full cry and cherry shouts that rang from the upper end of Third Street to the lower landing. His sojourn in town usually was a round of merry making. It was a saying among some of the old burgers in St. Paul when a commotion was heard down the street: 'Well, it is either a big fire or else Joe Rolette is in town.' "

Joe Rolette was a very well known individual among hispeople. He was friendly and loved by all but his enemy so you can see heshould not be forgotten under that mound in which he lies, with an unidentifiedmarker.


Joseph Rolette, Unidentified newspaper, dated Sept 23,1934. Received from Minnesota Historical Society.


Joseph Rolette, Unidentified newspaper, dated Sept 23,1934. Received from Minnesota Historical Society.