OK, class, who was Minnesota’s first federal judge?

He was Rensselaer Nelson, and if you didn’t know, it’s not surprising. In a search of the Star Tribune’s files that go back to the 1940s, his name never shows up.

Nelson was nominated a federal judge by President James Buchanan in 1858.

“He was the son of a U.S. Supreme Court justice [Samuel Nelson] and that opened up doors for him,” historian William Lass told me. “Considering he was appointed federal judge when he was 30 years old, that tells you he was not appointed judge because of a long distinguished legal career.”

Born in New York in 1826 and reared in aristocratic surroundings, Nelson graduated from Yale College and came to St. Paul in 1850. The postmaster is said to have told him, “My dear friend, I sincerely pity you. There are 50 lawyers here, most of them starving. I advise you to take the next boat east, because you have no chance here.”

But in 1857 Buchanan appointed Nelson Supreme Court judge for the Minnesota Territory. In that role, he issued his most famous decision. The Territorial Legislature had passed a bill, moving the territorial capital from St. Paul to St. Peter. It was signed by Territorial Gov. Willis Gorman, who stood to make a financial killing. Gorman, his wife and son owned about 200 lots in St. Peter, Lass wrote in the fall 2013 issue of Minnesota History magazine.

Nelson ruled it illegal to move the capital. Though Nelson was “part of the St. Paul crowd,” Lass said, “I think he went by the rule of law.”

The Dictionary of American Biography calls Nelson “an unprejudiced and liberal-minded judge whose decisions were seldom reversed.”

From 1862 to 1864, while a sitting judge, Nelson was vice president of the St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Co., later taken over by tycoon James J. Hill. In 1882, Nelson and another judge ruled in favor of Hill in a squabble over a $15 million bond purchase. The two judges called it “a tangled web of fraud.”

When Nelson died in 1904, Hill was one of his pallbearers.