Seattle's growth from a village to a city was spurred by the fortuitous geographical location of the Queen City of Puget Sound, and by a steady stream of hopeful, ambitious men and women from elsewhere. Among newcomers to Seattle in the 1880s were three brothers out of the South: Junius C. Rochester, Percy W. Rochester, and George Alfred Caldwell Rochester. All three were to play key roles in Seattle's burgeoning education, public service, business, and arts activities, and several of their children took up the same scepters in following generations.
Coming to America, Heading West
In the 1660s, several Rochester family members emigrated from Essex, England, to Tidewater, Virginia, later the County of Westmoreland. They came with a Royal grant in consideration of “Services to the Crown.” The Tidewater area is sometimes called the “Northern Neck.” Records indicate that the first American Rochesters lived within a few miles of George Washington’s family. The Lees, Monroes, and other early American families also settled the area. The Rochesters, however, were farmers, not plantation owners.
Several family members supported American Independence (there is a John Rochester chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution), while others remained loyal to the crown. After the Revolution, and following the opening of the West, new opportunities appeared. Tidewater Rochesters moved through the Cumberland Gap to free land in Kentucky, Missouri, and elsewhere.
In 1850, Charles H. Rochester (1817-1894) married Mary L. Caldwell (1825-1902) in Kentucky. Among their seven children were three sons who, in the 1880s, would move to the Pacific Northwest and contribute significantly to Seattle’s growth. The names of those ambitious men were George Alfred Caldwell Rochester (known as G. A. C.), Junius C. Rochester, and Percy W. Rochester.
The eldest brother, G. A. C., and the youngest, Percy, used Kansas City, Missouri, as a jumping-off point for their western adventures. Since the 1830s, Kansas City had been gateway to the West, and the city expanded rapidly after the Civil War. Junius, who graduated in 1877 from the University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson), and Percy, a born entrepreneur, then followed the siren call of the Pacific Northwest. They both moved to Seattle and participated in the early halcyon years of the Puget Sound boomtown.
The record is silent regarding how the brothers traveled west. The Northern Pacific Railroad could have taken them to Tacoma, or they may have ridden the famous Transcontinental Railroad, which terminated in Sacramento, California. (The Central Pacific was its western leg.) It is unlikely that they went by ship through the wild waters off Cape Horn to San Francisco, and there is no evidence that the Rochesters used the Oregon Trail, which was almost a fading memory by the 1880s.
Seattle’s population jumped from 3,533 in 1880 to 42,837 in 1890. Trade by water was the city's economic mainstay. Seattle’s location was perfect for West Coast and Pacific Rim shipping. Besides timber (with heavy competition from Victoria, B.C.), among the major exports were coal, canned fish, wheat, cattle, and horses. Manufacturing was taking off, with products such as leather goods, clothing, soap, ironware, beer, and soda water. Henry Yesler’s wharf was at the center of this bustling port activity. Although the Great Northern Railroad would not arrive in Seattle until 1893, commercial interests were optimistic that the rails would soon find their way to the Queen City.
People From Everywhere
The three Rochester brothers and their wives were Southerners by birth and upbringing. Several Rochester family members had fought for the Confederacy. However, the Territory of Washington, despite a perceived Union bias, welcomed refugees from both the Gray and the Blue. In fact, Julia Gwynn Smith Rochester, G. A. C.’s wife, who was related by marriage to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, remained active in Seattle’s Robert E. Lee Chapter No. 885 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, serving as president and organizing “Dixie Day” at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
An intermingling of peoples, especially Americans from the East Coast, Canadians, and Europeans, characterized the city’s boom complexion. Irish citizens came in droves. Chinese found work and formed their own communities, until the 1880s anti-Chinese riots caused havoc throughout the Pacific Northwest. Unlike in Oregon, which had an anti-black law, the approximately 250 African Americans living in Seattle did not experience significant racial discrimination until much later. Perhaps the only disaffected people in early Seattle were local Indians, who were isolated in pockets of poverty and generally treated by whites as a dying breed.
It is unclear which of the three Rochester brothers was the first to arrive in Seattle; however it is known that G. A. C. was the last. Here’s a look at the brothers, one at a time.
Junius C. Rochester
Junius, after graduating from the University of Virginia, studied law in Louisville, Kentucky and was admitted to the bar on April 13, 1879. For a brief period he served as principal of a Louisville male high school. He practiced law in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for a year, and then moved to Seattle in 1884.
Seattle Illustrated magazine, a journal connected to the fledgling Seattle Chamber of Commerce, described Junius as quickly taking “a prominent place among the progressive men in this city.” For a time he practiced law with J. B. Metcalf. In January 1887, he was elected probate judge on the Democratic ticket. After one term he joined James Hamilton Lewis and L. C. Gilman in the firm of Rochester, Lewis & Gilman, becoming the senior member. Political ambition caused him to be touted by the Democratic party for high public office, including the governor’s job (Washington became a state in 1889).
A strange interlude along the way found Junius involved tangentially in Seattle's anti-Chinese riots of February 7-10, 1886. Stirrings of the riots had begun much earlier. In 1885, meetings of a group called the Anti-Chinese Congress had been held in Seattle and Tacoma. Chinese workers at Wold’s Hops Yard in Issaquah Valley had been attacked and killed. The attacking group was composed of unemployed and angry men who blamed low-paid Chinese workers for their problems. Workers in other western areas, such as the Wyoming coal mines, also drove Chinese workers off and murdered several.
Anti-Chinese rumblings in Seattle produced strong reaction from eminent citizens, including Assistant U. S. Attorney C.H. Hanford, Governor Watson C. Squire, and Prosecuting Attorney J. T. Ronald. Martial law was declared and U.S. troops were ordered out, first to keep an eye on the local militia and then to hold a mob at bay. After noisy public meetings, and while members of a frightened Chinese community were being escorted to a waiting ship, Queen of the Pacific, calm was restored. Junius Rochester may have been sympathetic with the Anti-Chinese Congress, as he acted as defense attorney for agitators who had been charged with violent acts. Whatever the facts, Junius’s name was attached to the unhappy events that occurred in and near Chinatown -- then at 3rd Avenue and Washington Street -- during February 1886.
The Rochester family of Virginia, Kentucky, and Kansas City had a deep interest in education, law, government, and the humanities. Junius was elected a Seattle freeholder in 1890. The freeholders wrote the city’s first charter. Among suggestions made by Junius was the establishment of a public library and a library commission. It was his and Roger S. Greene's idea to have the commission receive 10 percent of all City revenues from licenses and fees. Junius would serve on the first new library commission, and his older brother, G. A. C., would later become its chairman.
At an early age Junius’s health began to fail. In 1894, his behavior changed, likely as a result of illness. His penchant for gambling, specifically the game of faro, caused several embarrassing incidents. He was detained in Portland, Oregon, for drawing checks on banks in which he had no funds. Percy and G. A. C. made good on Junius's debts and immediately sought help for their brother. An October 5, 1894, Portland gambling incident was described by The Seattle Press-Times. The story noted that Judge Junius was “the best classical scholar in Seattle ... even brilliant at times and might have had the highest place in the esteem of any community in which he lived.”
Beginning in 1896, Junius spent several years in the Dakotas, and perhaps Minnesota, seeking treatment for what would be diagnosed as stomach cancer (called “stomach tuberculosis” at the time). Upon his return to Seattle, and enjoying a partial recovery of his health, he was appointed assistant dean of the University of Washington School of Law. After two years, his health again failed. He died at home on November 25, 1902, leaving his wife, Carrie (1860- ? ), and daughter, Lettie Lee (1894-1968). Lettie Lee would become an honor student at Seattle’s Lincoln High School, and had ambitions to become a lawyer, “like papa.” In May 1909, 14-year-old Lettie Lee Rochester was chosen to receive the first souvenir ticket to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in recognition of her academic performance,.
Percy W. Rochester
Percy’s professional and educational backgrounds are unknown. Nevertheless, of the three brothers he had the best knack for business. While his brothers attained recognition in the legal field, Percy was trying his hand in booming Seattle as an entrepreneur.
Percy Rochester and his wife, Emma L. Crampton, together with their son, Alexander Carroll, lived in Kansas City, Missouri, for eight years before arriving in Seattle. The Rochesters had also had an unnamed daughter, who died in infancy. As noted above, Kansas City had also been the residence of Percy's older brother, G.A.C.
According to Rainier Valley Historical Society records, Percy and John I. Wiley became investors in Columbia City, which then included the Lakewood, Hillman City, and Brighton neighborhoods. The team’s research and planning occurred in 1890, with Rochester and Wiley filing a Columbia City plat in August 1891. They were encouraged in this endeavor by E. K. Edmiston, described as a “local land salesman and promotor.” In fact, Edmiston helped bring the Rainier Valley streetcar, which eventually terminated at Rainier Beach, through Columbia City.
Credit is also given to Percy and Wiley for setting the theme of Columbia City. For example, many of the streets were named after famous explorers -- Ferdinand (Magellan); Hudson (Henry); Americus (Vespucci); and Columbia (Christopher). One imaginative version suggests that the town had been named for a local business, the Columbia Mill Company. Percy came up with the slogan “Columbia, Watch It Grow.” He also arranged for signs on Seattle streetcars and elsewhere, boosting his and Wiley’s lots ($300 to $750, $10 down, one dollar a week for 300 weeks, no interest).
Seattle Illustrated published an issue in March 1890 describing the mandate of the city's Chamber of Commerce. The subtitle noted that the issue contained “a careful compilation and review of the resources, terminal advantages, climate, and general industries of the ‘Queen City’ and the country tributary to it.” Percy Rochester was listed as one of 15 founding Chamber trustees. He was also on the Chamber's house, restaurant, and printing and advertising committees. Eminent Seattle names such as Holman, Kittinger, Leary, Chapin, Prosch, and Furth were among the other trustees. A contemporary photograph of Percy W. Rochester shows a young, handsome, black-bearded (probably red haired) individual in a high collar, looking over the photographer’s left shoulder.
Percy was a joiner, with the energy and enthusiasm to become immersed in several Pacific Northwest projects. In 1893 he served as the state’s deputy commissioner to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Washington state had a large exhibit at that show. At age 27 he was president of Northwest Printing Company and secretary and director of the State Savings Bank.
Later in his Seattle career -- about 15 years after his arrival -- Percy joined George M. Boman to form a real estate firm called Boman & Rochester. The partners’ offices were described as occupying “the ground floor, corner room, in the new Occidental block.” It is unclear what real estate projects Boman & Rochester were working on, but it was known that they confined themselves to safe investments.
Perhaps with excessive hyperbole, Seattle Illustrated described Percy as “one of the most substantial, wealthy and influential citizens of this city.” That same piece added that he was also a prime mover “in the construction and operation of the Mill and Jackson streets cable road, having been until recently Vice-President and one of the largest stockholders of the same.”
Not every story has a happy ending. The Panic of 1893 kicked off a four-year economic recession. Some observers used the term depression. Seattle, once called the “the boomingest place on earth,” was hit by failure of the stock market and the ensuing panic. Fourteen of Seattle’s 23 banks went out of business within a year. Among the losers were David Denny of Seattle’s founding family, and Peter Kirk, after whom Kirkland, Washington, is named. This sad picture only changed after the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush. Percy Rochester, with his investments and banking transactions all over the place, lost everything.
A coda to Percy’s predicament was illustrated by a sheriff’s sale on June 6, 1903. Property that he and Emma owned at Rainier Avenue and Yesler Street went on the block. The Superior Court of King County ordered the action to “satisfy a judgement, amounting to eighteen hundred twenty-four and 85-100 dollars, and costs of suit.”
Percy left town to run a firm in Portland, Oregon, which apparently also failed. He next appears in Alameda, California, in residence either with or near his son and daughter-in-law. In California, about 20 years after the crash, red-bearded, ambitious Percy W. Rochester, the family entrepreneur, took his own life.
G. A. C. Rochester
Born on June 28, 1855, in Boyle County, Kentucky, George Alfred Caldwell Rochester, the third oldest of Charles L. and Mary Letitia Rochester’s children, grew up during the tense years before the Civil War. His father, Charles, had been with Confederate General Braxton Bragg through Georgia and Louisiana until the war’s end. At that point, Colonel Rochester took an oath of allegiance to the Union government, which was filed on July 11, 1865, and signed by President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. Upon returning home, Colonel Rochester opened a grocery store and a livestock business in Stanford, Lincoln County, Kentucky. He and Mary had seven children, two daughters and four sons.
G. A. C. attended Bordentown Military Academy and won an appointment to West Point in 1872. Because of poor eyesight, he had to leave the Point and return to Stanford. After briefly attending Centre College in Danville, Kentucky (which had a small law school), he became a student in the law offices of Saufley & Warren. For a short period he was associated with the law firm of Hill & Acorn. He was admitted to practice in the mid-1870s, and in 1878, G. A. C. was elected municipal judge, resigning in 1879 when he moved to Kansas City, Missouri.
In 1886, G. A. C. married Julia Gwynn Smith (1860-1931), daughter of Dr. Robert and Sarah (Ruffner) Smith of Lexington, Kentucky. Julia Smith Rochester was an accomplished musician, having graduated in 1881 with a BA degree in “Vocal Arts” from the Elizabeth Aull Female Seminary in Lexington, Missouri. After moving to Seattle, Julia pursued her musical interests, giving performances in Washington and Alaska. She represented the State of Washington as a vocal artist at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair, winning a third-place medal.
After settling in Seattle in 1889, Judge Rochester joined his brothers, Junius and Percy, in the fast pace of a growing Puget Sound port city. An experienced attorney, with local connections through his established brothers, G. A. C. undertook a successful law practice. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him register in the United States Land Office in 1915, reappointing him in 1921 and adding the position of receiver of the land office. G. A. C. held those dual positions until the end of 1922, at which time he continued his general practice of law. Among his clients were investors in the Klondike Gold Rush. G. A. C. visited Alaska several times, once returning with a satchel of gold, which he promptly took to the assay office on First Hill.
G. A. C. was twice nominated as a Democrat for judge of the superior court, but he refused to run on one occasion and was defeated on the other. Despite the fact that he served only one term as a judge in Stanford, Kentucky, he was addressed as “judge” the remainder of his life.
G. A. C. was appointed to the Seattle library commission in January 1900. He served until April 1, 1912, and was chairman during his last five years there. Those five years were critical to the growth of the Library, with Andrew Carnegie contributing funds to build the imposing main branch at 5th Avenue and Madison Street. G. A. C. later negotiated an additional sum from Carnegie for the construction of three branch libraries. Seattle Mayor Hiram C. Gill joined G. A. C. for dedication of the West Seattle branch library on July 27, 1910, at which the mayor said that Judge Rochester was assured of a permanent place on the library board as long as he (Gill) was mayor.
G. A. C., Julia, and their children, Junius C. and Mary Louise, moved to a new home on 15th Avenue on Capitol Hill, across the street from Volunteer Park. Two more Rochester children were born in Seattle: Alfred R. and Julia Lee. The three eldest children served in France during the Great War: Junius as a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Service, Alfred as a Sergeant in the Engineers, and Mary Louise as an entertainer (piano and voice). The youngest, Julia Lee, had died on April 30, 1910, when a runaway coal car hit a Seattle, Renton & Southern Railway streetcar in which she was a passenger, at Rainier Avenue and Graham Street.
Judge Rochester died of a heart attack at his Capitol Hill home on July 29, 1929. Julia passed way in 1931 while staying temporarily at Seattle’s hilltop Sorrento Hotel. Presbyterian minister Mark A. Matthews (1867-1940), the noted firebrand preacher, conducted her funeral service.
After the three Rochester brothers were gone, memories of the volatile 1880s growth years of the Queen City began to dim. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War indelibly marked and changed Seattle.
G. A. C.’s children remained in Seattle, contributing their talents in the fields of law, government and the arts. Junius’s daughter moved back east and took up an academic career at a private Connecticut boarding school. Percy’s children claimed California as home.
The three brothers from Kansas City, Missouri, were participants in an extraordinary chapter in Seattle’s history -- riding a boom to its zenith, and then hanging on through the city’s first economic collapse. The brothers brought a Southern style and a taste for the humanities. They also contributed strong legal and business experience, always maintaining high hopes for themselves and their families in the burgeoning Queen City.
The question lingers -- why did the three brothers come to Puget Sound? Did they perhaps leave Kansas City to escape memories of the Civil War? Or was it humiliations related to Reconstruction, imposed on the South by a vindictive Congress? In any case, the three brothers joined a heady throng of visitors who quickly adapted to Seattle’s watery surroundings, nearby snow-capped peaks, stony beaches, challenging weather, giant trees, flotsam of characters, and, rustic conditions.
Today, Seattle’s life is the result of new teams of brothers and sisters -- from everywhere. It is likely that the 1880s Rochesters would have found the big city’s current challenges exciting and full of opportunity.