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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 12 2011

Eriksmoen: Republican tried to steal Pembina votes in 1857

It was reported that in 1857 an attempt was made to steal the certified election returns of all the North Dakota votes in a general election. Since it was believed that all of the voters in what later became a part of North Dakota would vote for Democrats, an “enthusiastic Republican” set out to snatch the election tallies before they reached the Capitol, where they would be added to the rest of the returns.

In 1857, Pembina County was part of Minnesota Territory. When it was created, the county extended west to the Missouri River and south to the 47th parallel (a line of latitude that runs just north of Interstate 94). It also included present-day Kittson County and western Roseau County in Minnesota. Living within Pembina County at the time of the election were a handful of whites and “about 1,500 mixed bloods.” It was customary for the “mixed bloods and even full-blood Indians” to vote in the elections.

The general election in Minnesota was fixed by law for November, but the territorial legislature changed the election date for Pembina County to the second Tuesday in September. The reasons were because it took nearly a month for the election results to be brought to St. Paul, and also, most of the inhabitants “were away on the annual fall buffalo hunt in November.” If there was a lot of snow, the election results were brought in by dog sled.

The attempt to steal the Pembina tallies was made known to the general public with the publication of “The History of Minnesota and Tales of the Frontier” by Charles E. Flandrau (often spelled Flandreau) in 1900. At the time of the election in 1857, Flandrau was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the territory of Minnesota.

The person responsible for bringing the Pembina election results to St. Paul was “Jolly Joe” Rolette, a fur trader who had served four terms in the Minnesota Territorial Legislature. When Judge Flandrau received word of the supposed plot, Rolette had already begun the 400-mile journey to St. Paul. Flandrau wrote, at “about two o’clock one night” an Indian trader, Madison Sweetzer, came to his home and informed him that Nathaniel E. Tyson, a St. Paul food merchant, had set out by horseback to intercept Rolette and seize the bundle containing the Pembina election results.

With this information, Flandrau and Sweetzer went to the home of Henry M. Rice, the U.S. Congressman representing Minnesota. Rice had also been a fur trader with the Chippewa and had been instrumental in negotiating a U.S. treaty with them in 1847. Flandrau wrote, Rice “diagnosed the case in an instant, and sent us to Norman W. Kittson.”

Kittson had lived in Pembina County until 1854 and knew what action needed to be made. Flandrau drafted a letter while Kittson “summoned a reliable Chippewa half-breed, mounted him on a fine horse, fully explained his mission, and impressed upon him that he was to reach (George B.) Clitherall or Rolette ahead of Tyson, if he had to kill a dozen horses in so doing.” Major Clitherall was a U.S. land officer stationed midway between Pembina and St. Paul.

The rider reached the major ahead of Tyson, and Clitherall then tracked down Rolette and relieved him of the election returns. Not knowing who all was in on the plot, the major took the returns to Fort Snelling. To disguise the nature of his mission, Clitherall summoned a lady to ride with him to the Capitol. “He gave her a bundle and asked her to care for it while he drove, which she unsuspectingly did,” and the Pembina tallies were delivered so they could be added into the rest of the results.

The newly formed Republican Party had a reason to be concerned about the heavily favored Democratic votes in Pembina County. Even though Gen. Henry Sibley was easily elected governor and James Shields and Rice were comfortably elected U.S. senators, the election of the members of Congress were very close.

There were six names on the ballot for Congress, three Democrats and three Republicans. Two of the Democrats were elected: William Phelps received 17.3 percent and James Cavanaugh received 17.2 percent of the votes cast. The other Democrat, George Becker, received 17.1 percent of the votes. Of the Republicans in the race, Henry Swift received 16.2 percent, and Cyrus Aldrich and Morton Wilkinson each received 16.1 percent.

The Pembina voters west of the Red River realized this would be their last election. Sen. Rice had succeeded in getting Congress to pass the Minnesota Enabling Act on Feb. 26, 1857, which would grant statehood to Minnesota beginning May 11, 1858. All of Pembina County west of the Red River would be excluded from Minnesota and would be listed as an unorganized territory until 1861 when it became part of Dakota Territory.

Rice served his six-year term as U.S. senator and then resigned to run unsuccessfully as governor of Minnesota. He was later appointed as a U.S. commissioner negotiating treaties for the Indians.

Rolette continued to haul furs from Pembina to St. Paul, tried to get a commission during the Civil War, and worked as a correspondent for a St. Paul newspaper.

Kittson became very wealthy after forming a partnership with James J. Hill. They ran steamships and barges on the Red River and then formed the Great Northern Railroad. Clitherall returned to his home in Alabama, becoming a Confederate officer in the Civil War.

Flandrau became a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and was acclaimed a hero when he assembled a military force that defended New Ulm, Minn., during the 1862 Sioux Uprising. In 1867, he was unsuccessful as the Democratic candidate for governor of Minnesota. In 1875, Flandrau was brought to Bismarck to settle a dispute over which individuals owned the property in the heart of the city.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.