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Secord, Laura (1775–1868)

Secord, Laura (1775–1868)

Canadian hero who walked 20 miles to warn British and Canadian troops of an impending American attack, thus paving the way for an end to the War of 1812. Born on September 13, 1775, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts; died on October 17, 1868, at Chippawa (Niagara Falls), Ontario, Canada; daughter of Thomas Ingersoll and Elizabeth (Dewey) Ingersoll; married James Secord, in 1797; children: Charles, Mary, Charlotte, Harriet, Appolonia, Laura, Hannah.

Born in the United States but moved to Canada with parents (1795); retrieved husband from the battlefield after he was wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights; walked 20 miles to warn British and Canadian troops of impending attack (1813); remained unrewarded and unrecognized for over 20 years after her heroic deed; received payment from Prince Edward Albert (1860) as recognition for her contribution to the war effort.

On June 24, 1813, during the War of 1812, an American force led by Colonel Charles Boerstler planned to surprise a contingent of fewer than 50 British soldiers under Lieutenant James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams and destroy the stock of ammunition and supplies under their guard. Instead, Boerstler and his troops were ambushed by a force of Mohawk and Caughnawaga warriors. After a number of American soldiers were killed, FitzGibbon convinced Boerstler and his entire force of almost 500 men to surrender. Although this event did not signal the end of the war, it prevented American domination of the Niagara peninsula and eventually paved the way for a peace settlement in 1814. What was not recognized for at least 20 years after the Battle of Beaver Dams was that FitzGibbon would have been unprepared and unaware of the American advance had he not been forewarned by a woman who had walked through 20 miles of forest and swampland to do her patriotic duty; her name was Laura Secord.

Laura Secord was born on September 13, 1775, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. While she was still a child her father Thomas Ingersoll sided with the rebels during the American Revolution and fought against British troops. By the time the war was over, eight-year-old Laura was dealt a severe blow when her mother Elizabeth Ingersoll died. For a short time, Laura was responsible for tending to her three younger sisters until their father remarried a year later, in 1784. Unfortunately, Laura's stepmother died four years later leaving the young girl motherless yet again. Shortly thereafter, however, her father was married for the third time, to Sarah Whiting . Although there is no record of Secord's feelings during this time, it must have been both sad and confusing for a child to have had three different mothers by the time she was 13 years old. Nevertheless, it appears that Secord had a strong sense of duty and was prepared to deal with life's trials and tribulations.

Although Secord had spent most of her early life in America, times were difficult after the revolution. Having learned that land in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) was available under generous circumstances, Thomas Ingersoll presented a successful petition for a township grant to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe in 1793. Two years later, the Ingersolls moved to Queenston while waiting for a survey and road to be completed in the new township, Oxford-upon-the-Thames. Her father then ran a tavern in Queenston. Little is known about Laura's activities during this time except that at some point she met and became engaged to James Secord, a merchant whose family had come to Canada during the American Revolution. Sometime in 1797, 24-year-old James and 22-year-old Laura were married. They first settled in St. David's and later moved to Queenston.

During their early years together, the couple went through some difficult financial times. James' ability to manage the financial aspects of his mercantile enterprises was relatively weak and, by 1801, he had to mortgage the family farm to pay off a large debt. In addition, Laura signed away the dower rights she had to those lands. This meant that when James died she would have no financial claim to any income from the farm. While the couple no doubt saw this as only a temporary measure, Laura's situation as a widow years later would leave her in dire financial straits, and the lost income from the farm would obviously contribute to her financial woes. Nevertheless, the Secords attempted to live comfortably on his income as a wholesaler of flour, potash and other products, and they resided with their five children in a modest clapboard house in Queenston. The house, which still stands on the northwest corner of Queen and Partition streets, has been restored and is now known as the "Laura Secord Homestead Museum."

Thus did a young, delicate woman brave the terrors of the forest … to do her duty to her country, and by timely warning save much bloodshed and disaster.

—Lieutenant James FitzGibbon

The Secords were not the only members of Laura's family who were experiencing financial difficulties. Laura's father lost his contract for the Oxford township on the grounds that he had not fulfilled his part of the agreement. Under the terms of the original grant, Thomas Ingersoll and four others had agreed to bring in a minimum of 40 families as settlers within 7 years. Each family would receive 200 acres of land for a nominal land fee and Thomas was granted 1,200 acres for his efforts. By 1805, however, none of Ingersoll's associates had materialized. Consequently, when his contract was revoked he and his family moved to Port Credit where he opened up another inn known as Government House. He lived and worked in Port Credit until he died seven years later.

The year of her father's death, 1812, was an important one for the Secords. Not only was it the height of the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, but the United States also declared war on Britain. Because Canada was the only British possession on the North American continent, the Americans fought for domination and most of the skirmishes took place along the international border. Although most of the inhabitants of Upper Canada were American in origin, having emigrated to Canada after the revolution, the War of 1812 strengthened the country's ties with Britain and was instrumental in creating the first sense of national community among Canadians. When war was declared, the British and Canadian forces were badly outnumbered by the Americans but were better prepared for war, due to the influence of Major-General Isaac Brock, administrator of Upper Canada. For Laura Secord and her family, the war became particularly close when Queenston was attacked by American forces on October 13, 1812. Brock was mortally wounded during the attack, and Laura's husband James, who was a sergeant in the 1st Lincoln militia, was also wounded. Nevertheless, when the Battle of Queenston Heights was over, almost 1,000 American soldiers were taken prisoner and, despite the loss of Brock, the victory helped to raise the morale of Upper Canadians and convince them that they could resist an American conquest.

Laura's concern was more immediate, however. When she heard news of the battle and of her husband's wounded state, she immediately went to his aid and helped remove him from the battlefield. Legend has it that he was about to be clubbed to death by American soldiers when Laura arrived to rescue him. While colorful, this particular version of the event has no basis in historical fact. Nevertheless, Secord's willingness to enter a battlefield demonstrates both her devotion to her husband and her outstanding courage. Eight months later, her courage and determination were to be tested even further.

After the battle, Secord moved her husband and children to St. David's where they spent the winter of 1812–13. By spring, the war had gathered momentum once again, and by April the Americans had seized Fort York (present-day Toronto) where they burned the Parliament buildings and Government House. The Americans abandoned Fort York and on May 27, 1813, their fleet captured Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. The British troops escaped, and eight days later Lt.-Col. John Harvey led a British and Canadian militia in a surprise attack on 3,500 invading American troops encamped near Stoney Creek. Although both sides suffered severe losses, the Americans withdrew to Fort George when two of their brigadiers were taken prisoner. Both sides now set about regrouping and planning their next moves. James FitzGibbon, a lieutenant in the British army, obtained permission to set up an outpost of about 50 soldiers at a house just outside of the settlement at Beaver Dams. This house not only served as a supply depot for weapons and ammunition but also provided an advantageous position for observing the movement of American troops. FitzGibbon was determined to stop American raiding parties from harassing Canadian settlers and capturing loyal British subjects. Learning of this new threat, the American Colonel Boerstler was ordered to capture the small British force and destroy the house. What the colonel did not know was that a woman had learned of his plans and was prepared to prevent the raid from taking place.

It is not known exactly how Laura Secord gained knowledge of Boerstler's plan. In all probability she overheard the Americans speaking about the plot when they demanded a meal at her house on June 21, 1813. Secord immediately informed her husband what she had overheard and suggested that someone warn FitzGibbon. Since James was still incapacitated from his wound, Laura decided to take the news to her half-brother Charles Ingersoll who was recovering from a fever at his home in St. David's. Hoping that he had recovered, she assumed that he would make the journey to Beaver Dams and relay the information to FitzGibbon.

When she set out for St. David's at dawn on June 22, Secord had no intention of becoming a hero. At age 38, she was slightly built, with auburn hair and delicate features. For her journey, she wore a long plain cotton print dress with orange flowers and shoes and stockings. According to popular legend, Secord supposedly took a cow with her part of the way in order to distract the American sentries and, on encountering difficulty with one sentry, milked the cow in his presence to allay suspicion. She then took the cow into the woods and left it there as she proceeded on her journey to St. David's. Although this is an image that many still hold, Canadian historians have confirmed that it was the invention of 19th-century historian William Coffin, who wrote an account of her journey in 1864. Why he felt the addition of a cow necessary is unknown, but it has endured in some popular accounts.

Secord reached St. David's within an hour and was dismayed to learn that her half-brother had not recovered sufficiently to make the journey. She resolved to continue on and take the message herself. Although Beaver Dams was only ten miles away, Secord knew that she could not take the main roads without being seen by American soldiers. Consequently, she took a circuitous route through forest and swampland.

The distance ended up stretching to 20 miles. For the first part of the trip she was accompanied by her niece, Elizabeth Ingersoll . As the day wore on and the weather became warmer and more humid, Elizabeth, who had always been weak, could not continue, and Laura faced the remainder of her long trek alone.

By early evening Secord was near exhaustion but knew that she was nearing the end of her destination. Suddenly and without notice she stumbled into a group of Native Indians. Wrote Secord:

Upon advancing to the Indians, they all rose and with some yells said "Woman," which made me tremble. I cannot express the awful feeling it gave me, but I did not lose my presence of mind. I was determined to persevere. I went up to one of the chiefs, made him understand that I had great news for Capt. FitzGibbon, and that he must let me pass to his camp, or that he and his party would all be taken. The chief at first objected to let me pass, but finally consented, after some hesitation, to go with me and accompany me to FitzGibbon's station, which was at the Beaver Dam, where I had an interview with him.

FitzGibbon was undoubtedly surprised to see an exhausted woman dressed in torn and dirty clothes. Fearing a trick, he was, nonetheless, convinced of the truth of her statements and began preparations to thwart the American attack. Several years later, FitzGibbon wrote of his impressions upon seeing her: "Mrs. Secord was a person of slight and delicate frame and made this effort in weather excessively warm, and I dreaded at the time that she must suffer in health in consequence of fatigue and anxiety, she having been exposed to danger from the enemy, through whose line of communication she had to pass." Secord made similar remarks many years later, wondering "how I could have gone through so much fatigue with the fortitude to accomplish it."

She did, however, accomplish what she had determined to do and, in essence, paved the way for an end to the War of 1812. When FitzGibbon learned of the planned American attack, he took precautionary measures by enlisting the help of the Native Indian forces that had arrived two days earlier. Boerstler and his American troops arrived at night on June 23, 1813, unaware of what lay in store for them the next morning. Approaching the house where FitzGibbon was stationed, they were surprised by a force of Caughnawaga and Mohawk warriors and a three-hour battle ensued. FitzGibbon persuaded the American colonel to surrender by convincing Boerstler that a much-larger British contingent lay just beyond the trees and that he might not be able to control the "savagery" of the Native Indian forces. It was later concluded that "the Caughnawaga Indians fought the battle, the Mohawks or Six Nations got the plunder, and FitzGibbon got the credit." The latter is certainly true in regards to Laura Secord.

While the Battle of Beaver Dams was not the deciding battle of the war, it convinced the Americans that they could not venture safely outside of Fort George. By December, they evacuated the fort and left Upper Canada. Although several more battles were fought, none were clearly decisive and both sides agreed to sign the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, thus finally ending the war. Despite this auspicious sign, Secord's contribution to the war effort was not made public. Historians have pondered the reasons for this reluctance to admit her significance. Ruth McKenzie asserts that Laura herself chose to keep her involvement unknown, fearing that publicity might threaten the safety of her family while the war continued. Cecilia Morgan , however, argues that "women's contributions to the defense of the colony were either downplayed or ignored in favor of the image of the helpless Upper Canadian housewife and mother who entrusted her own and her children's safety to the gallant militia and British troops." Instead, Morgan concludes, Secord's image as "a symbol of female loyalty and patriotism" was constructed by women historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in an effort to link loyalism, nationalism and history. For at least seven years after the Battle of Beaver Dams, Secord's momentous journey was kept from public knowledge.

Due to the increasing financial difficulties experienced by the Secords, the first written narrative of Laura's experience was included in a petition to the governor-general in which James Secord requested a license to quarry stone in the Queenston military reserve. This request was granted and another petition submitted two years later in 1822 for a wartime pension resulted in James being granted a yearly annuity of £18. In 1828, James was appointed registrar of the Niagara district Surrogate Court and in 1833 he was promoted to judge of the same court. In this capacity, he had jurisdiction over the wills and estates of deceased persons. Two years later, he resigned his judgeship to become Collector of Customs at Chippawa, whereupon the Secords finally had an income that was comfortable. This situation did not last long, however, for two of their daughters returned home to live with Laura and James when their husbands died.

Laura's financial security was, therefore, always precarious and became even more so when James died in February 1841. At age 66, the hero of Beaver Dams was struggling to support herself, her widowed daughters and grandchildren on a meager income derived from running a private school out of her home. She also submitted two additional petitions to the governor in which she underlined her impoverished state, her lack of support since her husband's death, and her new position as head of the household. Citing her husband's pension, the governor refused her request. Secord's financial troubles continued and, hoping to draw attention to her plight, her son Charles submitted a letter to the periodical The Church in April 1845 which publicized Laura's walk and her service to the British crown as well as to her country. Eight years later, 78-year-old Laura submitted her own account of her adventure to the Anglo American Magazine which was running a series on the War of 1812. Despite these attempts, Secord continued to live on a modest income, and her contribution to the war effort was still not widely known. As Morgan concludes, Laura's attempts to publicize her story "should not be seen as attempts to create a cult for herself, but rather as part of the Upper Canadian patronage game, in which loyal service to crown and country was the way to obtain material rewards."

In 1860, Secord's efforts were finally rewarded when Albert Edward (future Edward VII of England), prince of Wales, visited Chippawa. In an address presented to the prince by the veterans of the War of 1812, Secord made sure that her name was included. Upon learning of her story, the prince sent her a gift of £100 in gold; it was the only money she ever received. While this gesture resulted in more publicity for her, through newspaper and magazine articles, Secord did not become a hero overnight. When she died on October 17, 1868, at age 93, her national fame was still 20 years away.

It was primarily due to the efforts of female historians writing in the late 1880s and 1890s that Secord's story came to be known more widely. In addition to recounting her courageous walk in local historical society publications and newspapers, several amateur historians began a campaign to erect a memorial to Secord. Their efforts were finally achieved on June 22, 1901, when the monument was unveiled at Lundy Lane. A second monument was erected on Queenston Heights in 1910 by the federal government of Canada. In 1905, the provincial government of Ontario paid tribute to Secord by commissioning a painting of her that was hung in the Parliament buildings in Toronto. Finally, Secord's name became forever etched in popular memory when Frank O'Connor chose her as the emblem for his new chain of candy stores.

Although she died 20 years before her deeds became widely known, Laura Secord inspired amateur women historians to publicize her contribution to the war effort while also emphasizing the important roles that women played in forging a national identity. Although Secord herself saw it merely as her duty, her historic walk ensured her a place in the history of Canada.

sources:

McKenzie, Ruth. Laura Secord: The Legend and the Lady. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.

Morgan, Cecilia. "'Of slender frame and delicate appearance': The placing of Laura Secord in the narratives of Canadian Loyalist history," in Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. NS 5 (1994), pp. 195–212.

suggested reading:

Currie, Emma. The Story of Laura Secord and Canadian Reminiscences. St. Catharines, 1913.

Curzon, Sarah. Laura Secord, the Heroine of 1812: a drama and other poems. Toronto, 1887.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor in Women's History, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

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