François-Antoine LaRocque, elected first vice-president of the Mechanics’ Institution in 1830, had one of the more exciting young lives among the early members of that new organization, yet his life ended more quietly than most.
He was born in 1784, son of a prosperous fur-trading and commercial family in the town of L’Assomption, now about a half-hour’s drive from downtown Montreal. He was first sent to Collège de Montréal for his education then, following his father’s early death in 1792 and his mother’s remarriage to Hugh Munro, a young Loyalist from New York with strong Scottish roots, he was sent to school in the U.S. to learn English.
At age 17, he travelled to Grand Portage near Winnpeg where his uncle, Dr. Henry Munro, had until a short time earlier been the wintering partner for the North West Company before going to a new posting. There, LaRocque joined the XY Company as a clerk. A few years later he joined the North West Company, at which time his explorations and furtrading activities ranged from Grand Portage to Missouri, Montana and Wyoming. He wrote two respected journals, considered of significance particularly in the United States–the Missouri Journal and the Yellowstone Journal. He is reputed to have been the first white man to meet the native peoples in those areas, and was certainly the first to detail and comment on their surroundings and activities.
In 1805, LaRocque left exploration and furtrading in the the west for Montreal–perhaps coincidentally the same year as his uncle Dr. Munro. Like several others making the transition to Montreal from fur trading, he became a commission merchant, and invested in steamboats and railways. He joined other furtraders in the prestigious Beaver Club, where he became secretary.
He was a captain in the Chasseurs canadiens during the War of 1812, and was imprisoned by the Americans in Cincinnati for six months. He became chief warden of Notre-Dame Church and secretary of its building committee. He was a director of the Bank of Montreal from 1817-1826, a harbour commissioner, and vice-president of the Montreal Savings Bank. He was an 1822 charter member of the Montreal Committee for Trade (forerunner of the Board of Trade), a governor of the Montreal General Hospital, a director of Champlain & St. Lawrence Railway, and a trustee of the Lachine Turnpike Road.
Along with Louis-Joseph Papineau and Horatio Gates, F.-A. LaRocque was on the board of directors of the British & Canadian School during the 1820s. A secular, free or low-fee school for English and French working class boys and girls, some of school’s philosophy was carried forward into adult education at the Mechanics’ Institution.
Even with all his community and business activities, he was nevertheless arrested for a short time during the 1837-38 Rebellions in Lower Canada, apparently for distributing a newspaper article that had first appeared in London. His commission merchant company, LaRocque Bernard, went bankrupt in 1838. Three years later, in 1841, after his only son was married, he withdrew from business activities. In the early 1850s, he undertook an extended trip to the United States. He spent his last years in seclusion, from 1855 to 1869, at Hôtel-Dieu in Saint-Hyacinthe, an institution that was funded in part by his younger brother Joseph LaRoque, also an important figure in the fur trade, particularly on the West Coast, for both the North-West Company and the Hudson Bay Company.
In 1818, François LaRocque had married Marie-Catherine-Émilie Cotté, daughter of an important fur baron, Gabriel Cotté. She died in 1838. Their only son, François-Alfred-Chartier LaRocque, was active in Montreal church affairs, real estate and in businesses including City & District Savings Bank, was a member of the Mechanics’ Institute in the 1840s, and for a time—acting for his beneficent father-in-law Olivier Berthelet–was landlord of the Mechanics’ Institute.
F.-A. LaRocque’s name is still known in the American mid-west. Orland Ned Eddins, author of the 1997 Indian tale, Mountains of Stone, describes him as “an interesting man,” and LaRocque figures in the book as an honourable gentleman.