Who Was Our City's Founder Nathaniel Rochester? Why did he settle here?

Col. Nathaniel Rochester (1752-1831) Our city’s founder was born in Virginia, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a successful merchant in Hagerstown , Maryland and President of the Hagerstown Bank, where a portrait of him still hangs. He also attended the Constitutional Convention in 1776 in Philadelphia . Nathaniel Rochester with his two partners, Major Charles Carroll and Colonel William Fitzhugh, looking for land to invest in, purchased in 1803 a "One Hundred-Acre Tract" which was to become the city of Rochester . On May 8, 1821 Monroe County was launched, named for Colonel Rochester's friend James Monroe who became President of the United States from 1817-1825. Colonel Rochester was the first Monroe County clerk and a presidential elector. It interesting that we never built a monument to honor our city’s founder. There was a movement at one time to build a monument, in fact a small scale model was built but the actual monument was never erected. Ironically, his headstone says it all. The Latin inscription on it "Si monumentum circumspicie" literally translates "If you would seek his monument, look about you." The spot on Rochester hill at Mt. Hope cemetery at times of the year will permit a view of our downtown. Rochester became a city in 1834, three years after Nathaniel Rochester’s death.

Why did he leave Maryland at the age of 60 where he was very well settled, a respected member of the community and had a beautiful home for the unknown of the wild western frontier? This is a question which historians have pondered.

These are my thoughts on why. At the time Colonel Rochester was pondering whether to relocate to Genesee country there was a huge cloud over the United States , particularly on the eastern seaboard. The British and French were fighting each other again, and would not permit American ships into their ports, resulting in no trade. Even worse American ships and sailors were taken hostage and impressed into the British Navy. President Thomas Jefferson got Congress to pass the Embargo Act which essentially prohibited American exports to France and Britain hoping this would show our neutrality and bring an end to the madness. Unfortunately it had no impact on the British or French, but had a disastrous effect on the American economy. Many were out of work and saw no end in sight to the terrible economy.

As a result Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, whose older children were ready to start careers of their own, pondered a decision to head northwest to Genesee country. There a new settlement with the possibility of trade with Canada afforded endless opportunities for those not afraid of hard work. It would also be the time to follow through on the desire to free his slaves and raise his family in a northern pro-abolitionist state. These conditions set the stage for Colonel Rochester, at the age of 59, to give up all his friends in Hagerstown , his job as president of the Hagerstown Bank, a beautiful mansion, all the conveniences and travel 275 miles to the Genesee country to start over. This decision took a lot of courage, and with his positive attitude he would make it work for the benefit of his family and future Rochesterians.

Our city's founder Colonel Nathaniel Rochester lived to see the "100 acre tract*," which he purchased with Charles Carroll and Colonel William Fitzhugh in 1803, transformed from a swampy, primeval forest by the Genesee to a thriving flour milling city which became America’s first boomtown. He moved his family to the "100 acre tract" in 1818 and lived there the rest of his life. He was instrumental in getting the Erie Canal routed through the heart of downtown Rochester which was the spark which ignited Rochester 's prosperity.

Nathaniel Rochester died quietly in his home the morning of May 17, 1831 at the age of 79, after months of incessant pain and suffering, just three years before Rochester became a city. His last home at the corner of South Washington and Spring streets was torn down in 1910 to build the Bevier Memorial Building .  

*The "100 acre tract" was centered around the Four Corners of downtown Rochester , i.e. the corners of Main , State and Exchange streets.