By Linda Jonasson -
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you or me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.” (George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871)
“How could a nation of eight million fail to subdue a struggling colony of 300,000?” asked Pierre Berton, author of The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813. Canada’s victory in the War of 1812 was the result of a series of miracles. Upper Canada housewife Laura Secord played a large role in the drama. She made the 19-mile long trip through swamps and woods, across creeks and streams, over miry fields and up rocky cliffs, to warn the British of the impending American attack at Beaver Dams, securing a key victory for the Redcoats.
Laura Secord was not even Canadian by birth, but rather American. Her husband, James Secord, the son of United Empire Loyalists, was a British soldier from Upper Canada. He was injured in the War of 1812 battle at Queenston Heights, where General Isaac Brock had been killed. Determined to find James on the battlefield, “Laura picked her way through the red and blue uniformed figures on the ground until at last she found her husband,” explained Leavey, author of Laura Secord: Heroine of the War of 1812. Locating his wound, she tore a strip from her petticoat and applied pressure to it, then begged a British soldier to help her carry her invalid husband home.
As Laura nursed James back to health during the winter of 1813, Queenston grew quiet. However, the following Spring, Americans at Fort Niagara bombarded the town with cannon fire and occupied it. The Secord’s were forced to billet American officers. After serving them dinner one night, Laura washed dishes as the officers conversed about their plan to attack the British at Beaver Dams. Laura plotted to warn the Redcoats, but James, incapable of the journey, considered the 19-mile trek to British headquarters too dangerous for Laura. She replied: “You forget James that God will take care of me.”
Wearing a brown house dress and cotton sunbonnet, the 38-year-old Laura set out on foot on June 22. At her brother’s place in St. David’s, her niece Elizabeth joined her. As the sun rose higher, both women wiped sweat from their brows while they walked over farmer’s fields, brambles scratching at their ankles. Knowing that the penalty for spying was death by firing squad, they took a circuitous route. They passed through the settlement of Homer. Feeling faint at Shipman’s Corners (St. Catharine’s) Elizabeth abandonned the trek, but Laura persevered. She hurried through the Black Swamp complete with rattlesnakes. She traversed Ten Mile Creek by climbing over a giant fallen tree. She climbed the rocks of the Niagara Escarpment. As night fell, she heard wolves cry, but plodded on through a dense forest. Finally, feeling like she could go no further, she came upon a clearing occupied by Native warriors, who escorted her to Lieutenant Fitzgibbon’s headquarters at Decew’s Falls. Her feet blistered, her head faint, Laura rested for the first time in eighteen hours.
After Laura told Lieutenant Fitzgibbon about the planned ambush at Beaver Dams, he scraped together less than 50 men, 15 militiamen and a force of 85 Native warriors. The American presence in the area totalled 542 men. Fitzgibbon ordered the Native regiment to march back and forth, giving the illusion of more men. The Americans bought it and surrendered to the British. With a complete victory at Beaver Dams, the British regained a foothold in the Niagara Peninsula. The war saw many more battles before a peace treaty was signed on Christmas Eve 1814.
Sadly, James Secord never completely recovered from his war wound and he struggled to support his family financially for the rest of his life. A monument to fallen hero General Brock was erected in the 1820’s at Queenston Heights and Laura was given the opportunity to make some money by running tours there; however, in the meantime, a lady who lost her husband in a tragic accident on the Queenston Heights ridge was given the job instead. When Laura’s husband died in 1841, she was left a poor widow. Her attempts at recognition for her war service from the Upper Canada government were ignored until 1860 when the Prince of Wales visited Canada and awarded her 100 pounds. Sarah Curzon wrote a play in 1887 about the heroine which helped make her story legendary. Laura Secord started popping up in students’ textbooks by 1900. She was a Niagara Frontier pioneer who seized the opportunity to defend her adopted country. Her tomb, once unvisited, is now frequented by many. While her homestead once housed American soldiers, it is now a museum hosting tourists from both sides of the border – a border which might not be there if not for this housewife turned heroine.
In 1913, Frank O’Connor (the namesake for Toronto’s O’Connor Drive) opened a shop on Yonge Street in Toronto called Laura Secord Chocolates in honour of the Canadian heroine. Today the Laura Secord logo, widely recognized by Canadians, can be seen at 125 outlets across the country.
Linda Jonasson writes on Canadian history for Maranatha News. Linda lives in Brantford, Ontario.
(For additional information on Laura Secord, read Laura Secord’s Brave Walk by Canadian award-winning author, Connie Brummel-Crook).
(Photos: Public Domain)