Rochester was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His father, who owned Rochester House, died when he was two years old and five years later his mother remarried. In 1763, Rochester moved with all but his eldest brother to Granville County, North Carolina.
He found a job with a local Hillsborough merchant at age 16, and became partner in the business within five years. In his early working years, Rochester also served as clerk for the local vestry, as a committee member for a civic organization, and, most notably, as a delegate to North Carolina's first Provincial Congress.
Military, politics, and business
Hailed as a leader in local political circles, Rochester was appointed a Major in the North Carolina militia and served as a paymaster. He suffered a physical breakdown (likely exhaustion), however, and was forced to resign from the service.
Once recovered, Rochester returned to Hillsborough and was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly of 1777, where he served as county clerk. Also that year, Rochester was appointed Colonel of the North Carolina militia, and Commissioner in charge of building and managing an arms factory in Hillsborough. Once again, Rochester resigned from most of his duties (including vacating his Assembly seat) and entered into a business partnership with Thomas Hart, a notable and wealthy merchant and land speculator.
Rochester and Hart relocated to Hagerstown, Maryland in 1780, taking up an estate on the southern edge of the town. He served on the vestry of Saint John's Church. Here he married Sophia Beatty in 1788, and they had twelve children, among them Judge and Congressman William B. Rochester and Mayor Thomas H. Rochester.
Hart and Rochester owned and operated numerous businesses during their time in Hagerstown, including a slavery-dependent business, grist mill, nail and rope factory. Nathaniel Rochester was an early trucker taking wagon loads of goods up into New York State, where he located the land he bought that became Rochester. Although the partnership dissolved in 1792, Rochester continued to operate the mill.
Rochester served one term in the Maryland General Assembly, and two years as postmaster. He was elected as a judge in 1797, but recognizing that he did not have the proper legal training, resigned the post. He served as Washington County's Sheriff from 1804 to 1806.
In 1807, Rochester helped found the Hagerstown Bank, serving as its first president.
Two of the directors of the Hagerstown Bank, Colonel William Fitzhugh and Major Charles Carroll were, like Rochester, wealthy landowners interested in acquiring land in the new "frontier" of the U.S. In 1800, Fitzhugh and Carroll convinced Rochester to travel with them on a prospecting visit to the frontier lands of New York State, and specifically to the lands along the upper portion of the Genesee River. Fitzhugh and Carroll acquired land along the river on their trip, but Rochester, sensing the opportunity to develop a town, chose a 120-acre (0.49 km2) tract along Canaseragea Creek near the hamlet of Dansville. Upon a return trip to the area, they travelled farther up the river to a small abandoned tract of land near the river's Upper Falls. The men saw a business opportunity here as any goods which travelled up the river would need to be unloaded here and portage fees could be charged. They purchased 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land around the falls for $1,750.
Rochester's interest in the land he now owned along the Genesee, in part, prompted him to decide to relocate his family there in 1810. In early June of that year, the family reached Dansville and established a homestead.
Life on the Genesee
Rochester quickly became a leading citizen of Dansville upon his arrival, establishing numerous businesses and mills and playing an active role in the early politics of the town. So busy was his life in Dansville that he offered to sell his share of the Upper Falls tract to Major Carroll. Carroll, however, got Rochester to keep his interest.
In 1811 Rochester began the process of establishing a town on the Upper Falls tract. He laid out streets and established plots of land for municipal, church, and business use. Later that year, he began to offer the plots for sale and named the would-be settlement "Rochesterville" after himself.
The War of 1812 helped Rochesterville grow as settlers living along the coast of Lake Ontario sought to move farther inland. In 1812, Rochester moved his family from Dansville to Rochesterville to enable sale of the remaining Dansville property and to provide settlers in Rochesterville assurances that the settlement was here to stay. Numerous skirmishes and war activities were taking place throughout western New York and Rochesterville served as a waypoint for troops heading west as well as a depot for military supplies.
The exposure was good for the settlement, as many people who had travelled through it bought lots or tracts in or near the village.
In 1817 Rochester served on a committee to petition the state to build what would become the Erie Canal on a proposed northern route that included a route across the Genesee River at Rochesterville. The eventual decision by the state's government to accept this northern route became a predominant factor in the growth of the future city. In late 1817, Rochester helped petition the state for the incorporation of Rochesterville. Although the first petition failed due to opposition from neighboring jurisdictions, a second petition passed. Rochester's village was incorporated that year.
In 1821 Rochester played a pivotal role in the creation of Monroe County, which Rochester named after President James Monroe. When the county was officially formed, Rochester became its first county clerk and was elected as the county's first representative to the New York State Assembly.
Rochester remained an active participant in the growth of the town and county he founded, playing many pivotal roles in the development of its economy and status. He played an active role in politics, helped found churches and banks, and served as the first president of the Rochester Athenænum (which would later become Rochester Institute of Technology). During the last two years of his life, Rochester made few public appearances, but rather spent most of his time with his now rather large family, including his 28 grandchildren still living at the Colonel's 79th birthday.
Suffering from a protracted and painful illness, Rochester died May 17, 1831. He was interred at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. His gravestone features a paraphrase of Christopher Wren's epitaph: "SI QUÆRIS MONUMENTUM, CIRCUMSPICE" ("If you seek his monument, look around you").
Rochester Institute of Technology has a dormitory named Nathaniel Rochester Hall, the third tallest of the campus' four dormitory towers. The intersection of South Avenue and Alexander Street in the South Wedge neighborhood is home to Nathaniel Square Park, which boasts a statue of Nathaniel Rochester sitting on a bench.
- McKelvey, Blake (January 1962). "Colonel Nathaniel Rochester" (PDF). Rochester History (Rochester Public Library) XXIV (1). Retrieved 2009-01-26.
- Nathaniel Rochester (1752 - 1831) - Find A Grave Photos
- Duffy, Bob. "State of the City 2009". Rochester, New York. Archived from the original on October 15, 2010. Retrieved October 15, 2010.
- Rochester's Gravesite at Find A Grave
- North Carolina Historical Marker
- Sheriff Nathaniel Rochester's Records, Washington County, 1804-1806 Western Maryland Regional Library.