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Monday, April 5, 2021

The Legend of Laura Secord by Elizabeth Clements

 Queenstown, Upper Niagara Peninsula, June 21st, 1813

    Laura Secord winced, hearing another tankard slammed onto the oak table in the next room, followed by a roar of male laughter. She had to get in there and clear the table before the soldiers started breaking her prized china. Head down, avoiding eye contact, she meekly entered her dining room, careful to keep her face impassive despite the anger and despair raging in her heart. She resented having to billet these soldiers who had taken over her home since the battle of Queenston Heights last October. She had been lucky to find her husband amongst the dead and dying on the battlefield and bring him home to recuperate from his injuries, but it had come at a price. Their freedom. Their once safe home was now more like a prison.

    Bile burned in her throat upon seeing the carnage of wasted, half-eaten food on the plates. Didn’t they know…or care that people were starving during this siege? Carefully stacking the plates, she carried them to the kitchen and set them on the counter, then returned for the food platters. Firm fingers clamped her hand. “Leave the bread and cheese. And get more wine.”

“I have no more.”

“Then get more ale,” the officer snapped.

“I cannot. The shop is closed for the night.”

With an oath, he released her hand, allowing her to hurry back to the kitchen.

By the time Laura finished washing the dishes, the other room had slowly quieted as the men stumbled to the bedrooms they had appropriated like the rest of the house. She extinguished the lamp and was about to do the same in the dining room when she heard a muted conversation. Intrigued, eager to overhear even a morsel that could help the Loyalist cause and get rid of the hated enemy, she crept closer to the doorway, yet careful to stay hidden in the shadows. A shiver ran down her spine. A plot was afoot and boded death for the Loyalists living along the Niagara Peninsula. She had to get to the outpost to warn James FitzGibbon of the planned attack by 500 American forces . There was no time to lose. Not even time to wait to extinguish the lamps.

She worried about her husband, still recovering from his battle wounds, but perhaps it was best he didn’t know her plans. She shuddered at what might happen to him when the soldiers found her missing, but perhaps he could come up with an explanation for her absence. Her duty now was to her country and the safety of her fellow citizens.


Careful not to make a sound, she grabbed her cloak from the hook at the back door. Keeping to the shadows, she crept across the yard and slipped into the woods. Her heart thumped so hard that at times she had to stop and hold her breath to listen for any sound. With only the light of the stars, she walked all night, alert for any soldier wandering about, fearful of every movement. Her keen sense of direction, plus knowing the layout of the land, guided her steps to Beaver Dams, approximately 30 km from Queenstown.

Approximately 17 hours later, Laura was stopped by the sentries at the outpost. Praying they’d believe her, she took a deep breath and said, “Please take me to Lieutenant FitzGibbon. I have information of the utmost urgency to give to him.”

And thus, the story of her trek, her bravery, and her patriotism became legendary…and Laura Secord became mythologized in Canadian history.

For some readers, the name Laura Secord may sound familiar from a history class, or a play or even a poem. Or, maybe it’s because you may have savored a box of delicious Laura Secord chocolates? You’d be right on both counts. Laura did make that fateful trek the night of 21-22 June 1813. And isn’t it interesting that a century later, Frank P. O’Connor began a small candy business in Toronto and chose the name, Laura Secord, for his hand-made chocolates. He believed Laura Secord "was an icon of courage, devotion and loyalty."

It’s interesting to learn that Laura’s experience served another purpose, thus making her the stuff of legends. Historian Cecilia Morgan argues that the Secord story became famous in the 1880s when upper-class women sought to strengthen the emotional ties between Canadian women and the British Empire. She writes that they needed a female heroine to validate their claims for women’s suffrage.”  


Laura Secord, née Ingersoll, was born 13 September 1775 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where her father had a hat business. She stood 5 feet 4 inches tall, had a slight frame, and a delicate appearance with brown eyes and a fair complexion. She was skilled at needlework, dressmaking and cooking.

Photo courtesy of vitacollections.ca

While in Massachusetts, her father, Thomas Ingersoll, rose in the military ranks during the 1775 American Revolution, but by 1795, had become disillusioned with the treatment of Loyalist supporters. Thus, he jumped at an opportunity to move to Canada where land grants were available to develop new settlements. He moved his family to the Niagara Peninsula where he ran a tavern in Queenston while land was being cleared and roads built for the proposed settlement. His log cabin was completed in 1796 and he moved his family there. But his joy was short-lived.

“After Governor Simcoe returned to England in 1796, opposition grew in Upper Canada to the "Late Loyalists", such as Thomas, who had come to Canada for the land grants. The grants were greatly reduced, and Thomas's contract was cancelled for not having all of its conditions fulfilled. Feeling cheated, in 1805 he moved the family to Credit River, close to York (present-day Toronto), where he successfully ran an inn until his 1812 death following a stroke”.

Laura Ingersoll remained in Queenston after her parents and siblings moved away. Research indicates she married James Secord, a wealthy merchant, in June (?) 1797. His family were Protestant Hugenots who had fled persecution in France a century earlier. They had changed their name D’Secor or Sicar to the Anglican version, Secord, to avoid further persecution in America. They founded New Rochelle, New York in 1688. At the time of the American Revolution, Loyalist members of the family anglicized their surname to Secord. The Secords lived above their shop in Queenston. In 1799 the first of six daughters was born; they only had one son.

The Battle of Queenston Heights

(painting by James B. Dennis, courtesy Library and Archives of Canada/C-014614)

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, James Secord enlisted as a sergeant with the 1st Lincoln Militia on October 13th, 1812. James was severely wounded in the shoulder and leg at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Somehow Laura managed to rescue him, possibly by begging help from (ironically) three American soldiers? When the Secords arrived home, they discovered their home had been fired upon and looted. After the war, with their Queenston store in ruins, the family was impoverished. “Only James's small war pension and the rent from 200 acres of land they had in Grantham Township supported them.”

“On 27 May 1813, the American army launched an attack across the Niagara River, and captured Fort George.  Queenston and the Niagara area fell to the Americans. Men of military age were sent as prisoners to the U.S., though the still-recuperating James Secord was not among them. That June, a number of U.S. soldiers were billeted at the Secords' home.”


Photo by uppercanadahistory.ca
It seems entirely logical that in this close, daily proximity, Laura overheard a private conversation and felt compelled to report it. With her husband too injured to make the trek, Laura undertook the mission herself to warn FitzGibbon by “taking a circuitous route through inhospitable terrain to avoid American sentries and being helped by a group of First Nations men she encountered along the way. She reached FitzGibbon at his headquarters in the house of John De Cou, probably on 22 or 23 June. On 24 June 1813, American troops under Colonel Charles Boerstler were ambushed near Beaver Dams by 300 Caughnawaga who were joined by 100 Mohawk warriors led by Captain William Kerr. FitzGibbon arrived with 50 soldiers from the 49th Regiment and persuaded Boerstler to surrender. The official reports of the victory made no mention of Laura Secord.”To be factual here, the exact details of this incident are uncertain, nor did Laura ever reveal how she learned of the planned attack, but certainly there was opportunity with soldiers billeted in her home. However, it has been confirmed she did take a message to FitzGibbon. It’s just not clear who arrived first with the information: Secord or Mohawk scouts? Photo courtesy of amazon.com

Over the years, as Laura aged, her own accounts to her children and grandchildren of her “walk in the wilderness” varied, adding further blurring of the facts. A theory is also presented that Laura Secord’s name was deliberately not revealed in order to protect her family and/or the indiscreet American soldier who was overheard. After all, their Queenston home had been fired upon and looted during the battle at Queenston Heights a few months earlier. (The Secord home was restored and reoccupied by the Secords). To the present day, the home still stands in Queenston, fully restored, and is now a museum and gift shop operated by the Niagara Parks Commission. Another attraction in Queenston is The Laura Secord Legacy Trail, which covers the 32- kilometer route she undertook to deliver her message to Lt. FitzGibbon.

Laura Secord’s application to the government for a pension in 1820 was denied. However, her second petition was granted in 1827 when FitzGibbon testified that on June 22nd, 1813 Mrs. Secord had given him information of an American attack that caused him to “position Aboriginal warriors to intercept the Americans.”

While visiting in Canada in 1860, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), learned of Laura Secord’s part in the War of 1812. Veterans of the war had prepared a memorial that described their service. Laura’s signature was included in the address to the Prince.  He later sent her a reward of £100, (equivalent to $9,462 in 2019—a considerable sum in those times.

Laura Secord has been historically made part of “Canadian mythology and employed to foster Canadian nationalism. Secord has been memorialized in books, plays, music and even a postage stamp. Historian Pierre Berton asserted that her story would be "used to underline the growing myth that the War of 1812 was won by true-blue Canadians.”

James Secord died of a stroke on 22 February 1841. With his death, his war pension ended, leaving Laura destitute. She was unable to profitably maintain her land and was forced to sell much of it to exist.

Laura Secord died in Chippawa, Ontario (Niagara Falls) on 17 October 1868 at the age of 93.  She was interred next to her husband in the Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls. Her grave is marked by a monument with a bust on top. The inscription on her grave marker reads:

“To perpetuate the name and fame of Laura Secord, who walked alone nearly 20 miles by a circuitous difficult and perilous route, through woods and swamps and over miry roads to warn a British outpost at DeCew's Falls of an intended attack and thereby enabled Lt. FitzGibbon on 24 June 1813, with fewer than 50 men of the H.M. 49th Regt., about 15 militiamen and a small force of Six Nations and other Indians under Capt. William Johnson Kerr and Dominique Ducharme  to surprise and attack the enemy at Beechwoods (or Beaver Dams) and after a short engagement, to capture Col. Bosler of the U.S. Army and his entire force of 542 men with two field pieces.”

    It's been so much fun reading about this brave woman that it's been hard to curtail this. I encourage you to do a Google search and learn more than I was able to share here.


www.elizabethclements.com





9 comments:

  1. I had never heard of this remarkable woman. Thank you for introducing this story to me.

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    1. I can't begin to imagine how awful it must have been to billet the enemy, let alone have the courage to undertake that long walk to the outpost. She's truly what it takes to be a heroine. Thanks for stopping by, Christine.

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  2. I've never heard of her, either. More research is in order. Thanks for the great blog, Elizabeth!

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    1. Research is fun....and addictive, Tracy. There is so much written about her and about the War of 1812 that it makes fascinating reading. There was so much more to write, but as usual, I had procrastinated too long and then had to rush to get it posted. So glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by, Tracy.

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  3. This was such an interesting perspective of history. I had never heard of Laura Secord until I read this post. Because of the close relationship America has with Canada now, it's hard to imagine a time when the countries were enemies. Thank you for the rich and interesting piece of history, Elizabeth. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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    1. Like best friends, even countries can have their uneasy moments. I've wanted to write about Laura Secord for a long time. Had I known sooner that March is Women in History month, I would have posted it last month. I didn't know that until after my blog posted. So glad you enjoyed my blog. For a change of pace, I wanted to start with a little bit of what Laura must have experienced that fateful night. How brave and how scared she must have been living amongst the "enemy". There is so much information available that it was hard to draw the line. Thanks for stopping by, Sarah.

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  4. Really interesting, Elizabeth! Your write about Laura so vividly.
    Thanks for sharing

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  5. Thank you, Lindsay. I thought I'd start my blog a bit differently by slipping into Laura's shoes and show what she was going through. I wanted to write more FitzGibbons, too, but had to focus on Laura instead. There is so much information on the internet about that war. Too late, I learned last month was women in history month and should have written it for March. Thank you for popping by, Lindsay. You are always so supportive.

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  6. What an amazing woman - one I had not heard of before reading your post. Thank you for introducing her so expertly.

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