Novel explains unexpected story of the prominent Jane Fisher Rolette Dousman*

Local author Marilyn Leys felt it was a peculiar story that must be told. The life of Jane Fisher Rolette Dousman, the first woman in Wisconsin Territory to file for a divorce, intrigued Leys initially almost three decades ago—many years before she herself would move to Jane’s hometown of Prairie du Chien. Finally, in December of 2013, Leys’ novel, “Madame Jane,” was published.

Just after the War of 1812, 14-year-old Jane married Joseph Rolette, the most powerful, ruthless fur trader in Prairie du Chien, the western outpost of the American Fur Company. After she was separated and widowed by Rolette, Jane married a second wealthy fur trader, Hercules Louis Dousman, who built a mansion that preceded the Villa Louis.

Jane, Rolette, Dousman—nearly all of the characters in Leys’ book actually lived in or visited the Prairie du Chien area, leaving paper trails she would come across nearly 200 years later while researching letters and legal documents for her hardcover.

“[My husband, Ron, and I were] living in Milwaukee and had a vacation cabin in Crawford County. We were here one time looking for things to do and we toured the Villa Louis,” Leys said. “About eight years later, we toured it again. Though the scripts were similar, I remembered what the interpreter told me during our first tour and I knew she had missed some important details.”

Leys’ theory is that the elements left out of the first script were omitted because Jane’s granddaughter, who wrote it, was embarrassed by a certain aspect of her grandmother’s life. Leys also discovered upon her second tour of the mansion a disparity regarding the end of Jane’s marriage to Rolette. A separation was mentioned the second time, and not a divorce.

At the time of her second tour, Leys had taught journalism and creative writing for 16 years. She was also looking for a project to pursue in order to qualify for a sabbatical leave from Milwaukee Public Schools. Thus, work on her novel commenced.

She didn’t do a lot of writing in the beginning, mostly research. She uncovered all the Dousman papers and other family papers and letters that helped tell portions of the stories of Jane’s life. She also got her hands on some European travelogues from the 1820s and 1830s, in which Jane was mentioned; the history of the American Fur Company, which of course provided occupational perspective; and a book owned by a friend whose day job was sewing accurate period costumes.

“After I wrote my first rough draft, I gave it to a friend who was a history teacher to read for historical accuracy,” Leys said. “When I went back to it a second time, I noticed there were portions written from several points of view, so I fixed that in my second draft. Then I put it aside again to interview people.”

Leys interviewed her 15-year-old granddaughter, Meagan, who later died of cancer. (“Madame Jane” is written in her memory.) When Leys told Meagan it was not unusual for girls her age to be married back in Jane’s days, Meagan wondered if Jane would have had a good friend to confide in with her thoughts and secrets. That is how Jane’s friend, Marie, got into the book. She happens to be one of the only fictional characters in the novel.

“I invented her because of things that could’ve happened in the plot,” Leys explained. “I’ve also included some of my own experiences, but that’s the great thing about fiction.”

Another memorable interview Leys landed was with a professor who studied 19th Century American church at Marquette University, Father William Leahy. From their conversations, she learned what a traveling priest would have carried in the post-War of 1812 era. More importantly, he put a finger on why Jane might have backed off on a divorce and settled for a separation.

“I gave him the dates and he asked if they were prominent people in the community at the time,” Leys recalled. “His immediate answer was that those were the days when Father Samuel Mazzuchelli would have been in Prairie du Chien.” Knowing the Rolettes’ wealth connected them to Fr. Mazzuchelli, that seemed to be some of the reason behind the separation settlement.

Expertise gleaned from Prairie du Chien historian  Mary Antoine and additional tours of the properties steered Leys research. In addition, she referenced sketches, photographs and paintings of the main “characters” as well as details from certain letters to create and describe individuals such as Jane, Rolette and Dousman in the book.

“One of the biggest hints I got was in a letter to Hercules Dousman, from his toupee maker. It said, ‘Because you sweat heavily, we’ve dyed your toupee a little darker,’” Leys commented, laughing.
Overall, the research and writing of “Madame Jane” took Leys about 27 years to complete.

During the early drafts of the book, the Leyses moved from Milwaukee to a farm in northeast Crawford County. Twenty years later, they moved into the city of Prairie du Chien, where Marilyn originally found Jane’s unexpected story that propelled her vocation to write the novel.

“To me, it was an isolated story. Who would’ve known I’d end up living here,” Leys said of her inspiration. “There’s a lot of history in this town. It’s one of the reasons I like living here.”

For the full, impressive story of Jane’s life, copies of “Madame Jane” may be purchased at the Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien, Paper Moon in McGregor, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.


* Permission granted by Correne Martin, Courier Press, 9/11/14.