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DESRIVIÈRES (Trottier Desrivières), FRANÇOIS (François-Amable, Francis) (baptized Amable-François), businessman, militia officer, office holder, and jp; b. 5 Oct. 1764 in Montreal, son of Amable Trottier Desrivières and Charlotte Guillimin; m. there 19 Sept. 1791 Marguerite-Thérèse Trottier Desrivières Beaubien, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. there 16 March 1830.

François Desrivières’s father was a fur trader; he died in 1771, leaving his widow with two small boys. François’s mother was a daughter of Guillaume Guillimin*, a successful lawyer. When François was 12 years old, Charlotte married the rising Scottish merchant James McGill*, and François later entered McGill’s firm, Todd and McGill. About 1792 he became a partner in Todd, McGill and Company, which on the retirement of Isaac Todd* in 1797 became James and Andrew McGill and Company. By 1808 Desrivières was a property owner on Mont Royal, along with such prominent businessmen as McGill, Todd, Joseph Frobisher*, William McGillivray, and Pierre Foretier*. On 10 April 1810, following the dissolution of James and Andrew McGill and Company, Desrivières, Thomas Blackwood* (another partner in the McGill company), and Peter Harkness founded Desrivières, Blackwood and Company to continue the activities of the dissolved firm, including the fur trade in the southwest. Harkness retired in 1818 but the firm would continue operations until 1828 at least.

As his fortunes in business rose, Desrivières accumulated a number of government commissions, more valuable for the prestige they conferred than for any income they may have produced. An ensign in the British Militia of the Town and Banlieu of Montreal by 1790, he progressed through the ranks to become major in Montreal’s first Militia Battalion on 26 March 1814. He was also justice of the peace from 1800, warden of Trinity House in Montreal from 1805, commissioner to administer oaths to officers of government in 1807, and commissioner for the relief of the insane and foundlings from 1813.

In December 1818 Desrivières joined 13 other prominent Montreal businessmen, including McGillivray, David David, and John Forsyth*, in petitioning the Lower Canadian legislature for a bill authorizing them to dig a canal from Sainte-Marie current on the St Lawrence to Lachine. The scheme was audacious, inaugurating transportation as a new – and expensive – field of enterprise, and Desrivières’s participation in it indicates that he was in the forefront of the Montreal business community. On 26 July 1819 the shareholders of the Company of Proprietors of the Lachine Canal met to choose eight members to act as a management committee; Desrivières, who held 25 shares, was among those elected. Thereafter the company’s operations were conducted almost exclusively by the committee, chaired by John Richardson, but the firm soon ran into financial difficulty. In January 1821 Desrivières, Richardson, and Thomas Gillespie petitioned the assembly for additional legislative and financial support (the government had already purchased shares worth £10,000). The assembly refused, and in May the company’s assets were transferred to the province, which appointed ten commissioners, among them Desrivières, to oversee the project; construction began shortly thereafter. The firm’s difficulties may have affected Desrivières’s financial situation, for in August 1820 the sheriff of Montreal, on a court order obtained by Benjamin Beaubien, had seized property he possessed at Coteau-Saint-Louis for non-payment of debt.

In this period of possible financial strain, Desrivières engaged in a celebrated legal dispute in order to retain valuable property in his possession. In 1811 he and his nephew James McGill Desrivières had been named residuary legatees of James McGill’s immense estate. Following McGill’s death in 1813 François Desrivières had inherited £23,000 and extensive lands in Stanbridge Township. As residuary legatee, however, he stood to inherit yet more. McGill had left an estate called Burnside and an endowment of £10,000 to the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning for the establishment of a university, one college of which was to bear his name. Provisos were, first, that Mrs McGill and, after her, her son François would enjoy the usufruct of Burnside until the Royal Institution was ready to erect the college; secondly, that until the college was erected the endowment would be held by trustees; and, thirdly, that if the college were not erected by the tenth anniversary of McGill’s death, Burnside and the endowment would revert to McGill’s heirs, that is, to Desrivières and his nephew. Though in 1801 an act of the legislature had authorized a board of directors of the Royal Institution to administer public education in the colony, the board had still not been established at the time of McGill’s death, and its members were not named until 1818 [see Joseph Langley Mills]. In 1820 it was in a position to call upon the Desrivières to surrender the estate. This, however, they refused to do on the grounds that the Royal Institution had no funds with which to build a college and the government had given no undertaking to do so.

In 1820–21 the Royal Institution launched two suits against the Desrivières, one to obtain possession of Burnside and the other to receive the endowment. In 1821 it received a royal charter for McGill College and in court contended that as a result the college was “erected” in law, in fulfilment of the requirements of McGill’s will. The legal battle was between a strict interpretation of the language of the bequest and a broader one apparently more consonant with the public interest. To demonstrate the strength of their case on the strictly legal interpretation of the bequest the Desrivières engaged as their senior counsel James Stuart*, who had written the will for McGill. In any case, Desrivières, as a Canadian and a convinced Roman Catholic – he was a churchwarden of Notre-Dame and in 1818 had been charged by Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis with collecting donations for a mission in the Red River colony – did not have his stepfather’s dedication to an English-language university as an object of public interest. Bishop Plessis was at the time boycotting the Royal Institution as not proper to administer the education of Roman Catholics. Since at least 1814 that body’s monopoly of public education had been contested by the Canadian party as well, on the ground that it favoured the British population, and it was probably not a coincidence that the Desrivières also retained Louis-Joseph Papineau*, a leader of the Canadian party, as their attorney for a time.

The case was conducted in a period of considerable agitation over the possible union of Lower and Upper Canada, a plan opposed by both the Canadian party and Plessis, but strongly supported by the British commercial community of Montreal [see John Richardson]. The senior counsel for the Royal Institution, Stephen Sewell, was himself an ardent unionist and prominent member of the English party. Although Desrivières was much too closely involved with the British merchants to support the Canadian party generally, he was sufficiently independent of them to oppose actively their cherished project of union, and in 1822 at a popular meeting in Montreal he was elected to an 18-man committee to find ways of defeating it. Given his attachment to certain Canadian and Roman Catholic causes, he was not widely condemned for maintaining an anti-social position in fighting the Royal Institution, even though personal considerations, including possible financial difficulties, were the primary factors guiding him in the litigation. Indeed, he continued to have excellent relations with the British community in Montreal: in 1821 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel in the 1st Battalion of Montreal militia, a unit dominated by the British élite; the same year he was elected by the Montreal business community to an 11-man committee to petition for the unrestricted opening of the British market to British North American flour and grain; and from 1824 to 1830 he was a governor of the Montreal General Hospital.

The Desrivières lost both suits in Montreal and then again on appeal in the colony. Subsequently they appealed to the Privy Council in England. The case relating to Burnside was finally settled in favour of the Royal Institution in 1828, while a decision in that relating to the endowment, also in favour of the Royal Institution, was delivered only in 1835. François Desrivières never learned of his last defeat; he had died five years earlier.

Stanley B. Frost

ANQ-M, CE1-51, 5 oct. 1764, 19 sept. 1791, 18 mars 1830. McGill Univ. Arch., James and Andrew McGill journal, 1798–1813; Montreal General Hospital visiting governors’ book, 1822–28; Alan Ridge, “Genealogy of Desrivières family, from 1764 to 20th century” (1966); Royal Instit. for the Advancement of Learning, papers relating to Desrivières V.R.I.A.L., 1820–37; Will of James McGill. McGill Univ. Libraries, ms coll., CH143.S13, CH145.S15. PAC, MG 30, D1, 10: 766–69; RG 43, CIII, 1, vol.2453; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 213, 215, 278, 282, 339, 349, 353, 633. Quebec Gazette, 19 July 1792; 25 July 1799; 16 May 1805; 23 April 1807; 6 July 1809; 3 May, 12 July 1810; 2 Sept. 1813; 28 March 1816; 23 Oct. 1817; 19 Jan., 24 Sept., 7 Dec. 1818; 7 June, 5 Aug. 1819; 25 May, 18 June, 10 Aug., 7 Sept., 12 Oct., 23 Nov. 1820; 24 May, 5, 28 June, 27 Aug., 23, 25 Oct. 1821; 13 Jan., 30 June 1823. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Hubert et de Mgr Bailly de Messein,” ANQ Rapport, 1930–31: 250; “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” 1928–29: 114. Massicotte, “Répertoire des engagements pour l’Ouest,” ANQ Rapport, 1945–46: 315–16, 325. Quebec almanac, 1791: 45; 1796: 83; 1805: 46; 1815: 90. Thomas Chapais, Cours dhistoire du Canada (8v., Québec et Montréal, 1919–34; réimpr. Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1972), 3: 122. S. B. Frost, McGill University: for the advancement of learning (2v., Montreal, 1980–84). M. S. MacSporran, “James McGill: a critical biographical study” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., [1930]). G. J. J. Tulchinsky, “The construction of the first Lachine Canal, 1815–1826” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., 1960), 39, 48, 65. F.-J. Audet, “Montréal, l’université McGill et F.-A. Trottier Desrivières,” La Presse, 9 sept. 1933: 26. J.-J. Lefebvre, “La vie sociale du grand Papineau,” RHAF, 11 (1957–58): 479.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Stanley B. Frost, “DESRIVIÈRES, FRANÇOIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/desrivieres_francois_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/desrivieres_francois_6E.html
Author of Article:   Stanley B. Frost
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 25, 2023