St. Paul vs. St. Peter
The conflict between the saints
by Mason Witt
Published here by permission of the Houston County Historical Society. Originally published in their Spring 2009 Newsletter (Volume 22, Number 1 - ISSN 1092-8863)
No, this is not a religious brouhaha. This is about the attempt by St. Peter to, shall we say, steal the capitol away from St. Paul in 1857.
The act of Congress passed in March 1849 creating Minnesota contained the following proviso concerning the location of the capitol: “The legislative assembly of the Territory of Minnesota shall hold its first session in St. Paul, and at its first session the governor and legislative assembly shall locate and establish a temporary seat of government for said territory at such place as they may deem eligible, and shall at such time as they shall see proper prescribed by law the manner of promoting the permanent seat of government oJsaid territory by vote of the people.”
The state legislators, Dana F. Case, Houston, Martin
0. Thompson, Brownsville, representatives and Clark W. Thompson, 1-Jokab, council, were about to become pawns, in February of 1857, in a scheme to move the state capitol from St. Paul, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, to a site further upstream on the Minnesota River.
Late in 1856, while W. A. Gorman was still governor, a plan was conceived by a small group of people to remove the capita! from St. Paul to a site in Nicollet County on the Minnesota River. They contended, that according to the above proviso, the removal of the capitol did not need to be put to the vote of the people. Once they had everything more or less in place, the St. Peter Land Company was formed and its town site became a leading contender for the capitol, even though there was little more than a town plat and no other community was vying to gain the capitol. Most of the members of the St. Peter Land Company were select members of the territorial house and council (Senate), with Governor Gorman one of the major stockholders.
By the time the territorial session was convened in January, most everyone was aware of the attempt to be made to move the capitol, with St. Paul largely ignoring the situation. The first step was made by Representative Thomas, who gave notice of a bill for removal on the 5th of February 1857. Thomas’ bill disappeared when W.D. Lowry, Rochester, introduced a bill of removal in the council (senate) on the 6th of February. The people of St. Paul had blissfully ignored all the rumors floating about the city, but when the bill was introduced they were both indignant and excited. The St. Peter planners had done their groundwork well. There were charges of bribery, many of which were probably well founded, but no legal action was ever taken. The Panic of 1857
was in full force -- there was no money floating about, which did not bother the St. Peter group at all. The town site company didn’t have money, but it did have town lots. Town lots, if the capitol were moved to St. Peter, were as good as gold. The building boom that would ensue could make every wise lot holder a fortune. There is no record, but the accused never denied that every member of the legislature in favor of the removal, plus the governor, held deeds to town lots in St. Peter, with some of them going so far as to have them recorded in Nicollet County. Resolutions to investigate the accusations were introduced in both houses; both were sidetracked by the voting majority seven to six in the council (senate) and 20 to 17 in the house. Both chambers felt safer not investigating the activities of its members. I have found no record as to how Houston County’s representatives and council member representing District 8 voted.
In an attempt to make it look as though procedures were being followed, they delayed action until the 9th of February. The council (senate) acted first — the bill of removal was considered by the committee of the whole, which required three readings of the bill. After the third reading the bill passed to the floor by a 7 to 6 vote. Three days later it passed the council as a whole 8 to 7. The house read it twice in one day, the l6th, and the third reading came on the 17th and passed the house 20 to 17 on the 18th. A short-lived attempt at filibustering was tried in the house. One legislator from St. Paul, William Branch, attempted to re-title the bill, “A Bill for the Sale of Town Lots in St. Peter’s.” The town site planners were in a joyful mood, as they knew the governor would sign the bill. The potential was close at hand to make millions of dollars, if the capitol could be moved from St. Paul to St. Peter, The deed holders could almost feel the gold pieces in their pockets!
Enter a new player on the scene, one whom the St. Peter’s group apparently overlooked in their planning. Joe Rollette was a council (senate) member from Pembina, in the far northwestern corner of the state. He was thought to be a half- or quarter-breed Frenchman, when in reality he was probably full-blooded French Canadian. A very bright and intelligent man, educated in the East, and a strong friend of St. Paul. In Pembina, he generally wore the garb of an Indian, but in St. Paul, he was one of the most fashionably dressed men in the city. As chairman of the enrollment committee, Rollette suddenly became a key player in the unfolding drama. This committee determines that both bills are identical and there is no legal reason it should not be sent to the governor for signing.
By way of explanation of the legal aspects involved in what transpired I quote from H.P. Hall’s Observations, “In legislative proceedings, when there is a call ordered of a given body, no other business can be transacted unless by unanimous consent, save the production of the missing member or members; and consequently, so long as the call of the council (senate) was held to be good, nothing could be done until Joe was produced by the sergeant-at-arms.”
As chairman of the enrollment committee, Rollette received the removal bill on Friday the 27th of February 1857. It is generally thought he originally had no intentions of absconding with the bill, but as a friend of St. Paul, he wanted to throw a scare into the St. Peter crowd. Rollette was boarding at the Fuller House, on the corner of Seventh and Jackson Streets, the premier hotel in St. Paul. Truman M. Smith had a bank on the ground floor of the hotel and on his way to his room, Rollette stopped at the bank and gave a wrapped package to the banker. He explained he was leaving town for a little while and the banker should hold it until his return. Going into the hotel he told the owner, Mr. Long, he was changing his room to the top floor and to tell inquirers that he had left town. Whether this was a planned move or a spur of the moment decision on Rollette’s part will probably never be known. For the rest of his life, he never publicly discussed his actions of the next week.
What followed in the council chamber on Saturday can only be attributed to the eagerness of the St.
Peter’s group to close what appeared to be a done deal. They did not totally consider the full ramifications of their first move that day. They called for a call of the council (senate) and when the call was complete one member, Rollette, was missing. They were in a trap of their own making. Until Rollette was present and accounted for, the council could not adjourn nor go on to other business. John M. Lamb, the sergeant-at-arms, was sent to bring Rollette to the chamber. He returned empty handed. The president of the council was John B. Brisbin of St. Paul and when it was called to dispense with the call, he ruled it required a vote of two-thirds of the 15 members. Council member Balcombe, from Winona, spent half a day arguing that nine was two-thirds of 14 to no avail. Balcombe then committed another major blunder -- he read two resolutions from the floor. His first resolution called for Rollette, as chairman of the committee, to return the bill that day, and if he did not, authorizing Mr. Wales the next member of the committee to acquire another enrolled copy and report it to the council on Monday, March 2nd. A second resolution required Wales to secure the signatures of the speaker of the house and the president
of the council and take it to the governor for his signature. Balcombe’s mistake was in not presenting the resolutions to the secretary for reading. He offered to withdraw them, but the council president, Brisbin, ruled that since they had not been presented they could not be withdrawn. The council was at a stalemate. Sunday came and went with no action. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday still found the call in force, Finally on Thursday, March 5th, there was a gentlemen’s agreement to recess and the council would meet on Friday, March 6th, still under call. This recess ended a 123-hour continuous session in which all members remained in the council chamber. During this Saturday through Thursday session, no one had been allowed to leave the council chamber, as Hall wrote “even for the direst of needs,” unless accompanied by the sergeant-at-arms
. Again, an agreement to recess until the next day, March 7th. This is the critical point in time in the resolution of the stalemate.
The sergeant-at-arms was again ordered to produce Rollette to the council chamber. By constitutional limitation, the session would expire at 12 o’clock midnight still under call. When the hands on the clock reached the midnight hour Brisbin declared the session adjourned. At that point Rollette rushed into the room. Brisbin ruled Rollette too late, but he was allowed to read his report. What he said in a nutshell was there were errors and flaws in his copy so it could not be correctly enrolled and would remain in the possession of the committee.
Where had Rollette been for seven days? In his room on the top floor of the Fuller House! On realizing the excitement and consternation he had created, he became determined to stay as long as he could. My guess is he originally went into seclusion only for the weekend, maybe part of Monday. Someone apparently realized that if the St Paul group could hold their ground they could keep the bill from becoming law, and Rollette was not averse to doing his part. He was being wined and dined in high fashion by the St. Paul delegation and other citizens. Actually, he was being visited every evening by the sergeant-at-arms, who even sent out runners to Rollette’s homes in Pembina and Prairie du Chien. I would hazard the guess that he was rarely alone in his room except when he was sleeping. The miracle is that no one in the opposition figured out what was going on. Their supposedly well-organized plan hit a major roadblock, mostly of their own doing, and spiralled out of control and they had lost their ability to act rationally.
Despite all of the above, one last effort was made by the St. Peter crowd. A copy of the bill was taken to Governor Gorman who signed it, as did the Speaker of the House — but it could not become law without the President of the Council’s signature. Brisbin would not sign, but appended seven reasons why it was not a valid bill, which were printed in the session’s minutes, Not quite ready to give up the St. Peter Land Company, some citizens erected a frame building for state capitol purposes, only to have it serve as Nicollet County’s court house for many years. The building erected was nowhere near as grand as the one conceived on paper. On June 29th, 1857, the president of the St. Peter Land Company applied for a writ of mandamus from territorial judge R.R. Nelson to compel the removal of the capitol from St. Paul to St. Peter. In his July 12th decision Nelson concluded: “We are of the opinion, therefore, that there has been no law passed by the legislative power of the territory removing the capitol from St. Paul to St. Peter. The application for mandamus is therefore refused.”
The capitol would stay in St. Paul!
Needless to say the price of lots in St. Peter plummeted and it was some time before the effects of the Panic of 1857 were remedied. By then, there would be no more serious plans to remove the capitol from St. Paul, until 1881 when the capitol burned. But, this too came to naught.
H.P. (Harlan Page) Hall’s Observations, being more or less a
History of Political Contests in Minnesota from 1849-1904.
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library web site.
Minnesota Historical Society web site and reference desk.
Portrait of Joseph Rolette from the Minnesota Historical Society Visual Resources Database, Art Collection, anonymous artist, Pastel c. 1900 Location # AV1991.85.38 Negative # 85404