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New book fills gaps in Rochester history

“Rochester: An Urban Biography” explores Indigenous history, African American history and other gaps in the otherwise well-known story of the city.

Rochester An Urban Biography Book 2022.png
“Rochester: An Urban Biography” by Virginia Wright-Peterson.
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ROCHESTER — Most history written about Rochester says there is little to no evidence of any Native Americans living along this part of the Zumbro River before European settlers came to the area.

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Author and historian Virginia Wright-Peterson grew up hearing the same thing.

“I’m from here, I grew up here,” she said. “I just had this idea that they didn’t live here.”

Her research has shown otherwise and uncovered a larger role the city has played in the United States' history with Indigenous peoples.

“There is a fair amount of specific evidence,” Wright-Peterson said.


The city of Rochester played a role in removing Sioux from Minnesota during the Sioux uprising in 1862 by housing a militia in the city.

Wright-Peterson includes that history and other unknown facts about the city in her latest book, “Rochester: An Urban Biography.”

Finding less widely known history about the area isn’t new for Wright-Peterson. A book she published in 2017, “Women of Mayo Clinic: The Founding Generation,” focused on the role women played in establishing the Mayo Clinic and raising it to a world-class health institution.

Finding these stories takes work but isn’t hard if you know where to look, Wright-Peterson said.

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“You look for the gaps,” she said.

Wright-Peterson recalls visiting Oakwood Cemetery with family when she was young. While she and her family would visit relatives’ grave sites, Wright-Peterson remembers a bare grassy section of the cemetery.

Turns out it wasn’t as vacant as it appears. Hundreds, and up to more than 1,000 people, are buried in that section in unmarked graves, Wright-Peterson learned.

“It never occurred to me to wonder why that’s open,” she said.


The realization has inspired her to continue finding the stories that aren’t being told.

Virginia Wright-Peterson

“That became a metaphor for me,” she said. “That we don’t confront the gaps, we don’t see the empty spaces.”

Some of the gaps include uncomfortable facts including an active and operating chapter of the Ku Klux Klan that participated in civic events in the 1920s.

These gaps also persist because a much larger and positive story emerged from a tragic tornado striking the city in 1883, which eventually led to the events that founded Mayo Clinic.

“When you have one amazing story, that dominates the whole narrative,” she said. “The book really is for people who want the truth, who want the whole story.”

Wright-Peterson is holding a reading and Q&A at Garden Party Books, 602 Seventh St. NW, on Friday.

Shop owner Anna Smith said reading the book and talking with the author is an opportunity for people in Rochester to learn more about the community they live in.

“I hope people can just learn more about Rochester, the good and the bad, and that would inform them as they live in this community and as we all strive to make this a better place to live,” Smith said.


If you go

What: "Rochester: An Urban Biography" reading and Q&A.

When: 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

Where: Garden Party Books, 602 Seventh St. NW.

John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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