Image from the 1992 commemorative Laura Secord Stamp.
Laura Secord (1775-1868) was a wartime heroine whose story became mythologized and engrained in Canadian history, yet to this day many of the details are still quite murky. Most can recall the basic premise of her story; she overheard an American plot to ambush a British outpost and made a seriously long trek through the woods to warn them of the impending surprise attack. But specific aspects about her journey have suffered from misinformation over the past two centuries. Who was Laura and how did she hear about the plot? How long was the walk? Was she alone? Did she bring a cow with her to trick American soldiers? Or did she trick them with chocolates? Did she really do it barefoot? Did her trek even matter? What happened to her after the war? Considering that June 22-24 is the anniversary of Laura’s 1813 trek and the Battle of Beaver Dams, now is the perfect time to clear things up and get some answers to those questions.
A young Laura
Laura was born on September 13, 1775 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and was the eldest daughter of Thomas Ingersoll and Elizabeth Dewey. Her mother died when she was only eight and her father remarried twice afterwards. Her family fought on the side of the Americans during the War of Independence, but must have decided that the British weren’t so bad as they moved to Upper Canada in 1795. It was there that she met James Secord, the youngest son of a loyalist officer and who worked as a merchant in Queenston. They married in 1797 and went on to have seven children.
When the War of 1812 broke out, the Secords were on Great Britain’s side and James was a sergeant in the First Lincoln militia. He was involved in the Battle of Queenston Heights and helped carry General Brock’s body away after he was shot to death. Laura, not sure if her husband was alive or dead after the devastating (but victorious) battle, set out to try to rescue him. She searched through the bloody battlefield and found James close to death; he had been shot through the shoulder and one of his knees had been shattered by a musket ball. Laura carried him home and spent the winter and spring helping him recover, whilst still managing to run their farm and take care of their seven kids. Epic multitasking skills or what?
Laura searches for James after the Battle of Queenston Heights.
By the summer of 1813, the Americans had control over Queenston and so the Secords were forced to billet (provide living quarters for) American soldiers. The three who lived there must have gotten too comfortable around Laura because while she was making dinner for them, she overheard Colonel Charles Boerstler boasting about how he was going to finish off Lieutenant James FitzGibbon and his garrison via a surprise attack on their headquarters near Beaver Dams. Laura knew that FitzGibbon needed to be warned immediately, otherwise the Americans would take over the whole Niagara peninsula. With James unable to walk properly, she knew it was up to her to warn the unsuspecting British.
Early on the morning of June 22, Laura set out on her journey. The direct road to the British outpost was 12 miles away, but fearing that the Americans would catch her she chose to go through the winding wilderness, extending her trek to 19-20 miles (30-32 kilometres). As such, she endured eighteen hours of trekking in the humidity across frontier bush, down ravines, and through mosquito-infested swamps.
Fun Fact: Laura was briefly joined by her niece, Elizabeth Secord, at St. Davids. Elizabeth became exhausted around the time they reached St. Catherines, so Laura continued on alone.
The distance and nature of the walk call three aspects of the Laura Secord myth into question: the cow, the chocolates, and her being barefoot. With the first story, Laura supposedly brought along one of her cows for the journey and milked it when she encountered some American troops—because that would not have looked suspicious at all—and then later set the cow free. The other story has her offering troops chocolates upon being spotted to fool them into thinking that she was totally not about to thwart their plans. With the final tale, Laura was in such a hurry to talk to FitzGibbon that she ran out the door in the morning without putting on any shoes. Feet of steel, perhaps?
“What, you’ve never gone for a leisurely stroll through the woods with a cow?” – Laura Secord, probably.
All of the tales are kind of ridiculous. First, the journey by a human alone would have been difficult, but having to drag along a cow? Also, the Secords were not rich and Laura would not just get rid of a cow at whim. The second tale sounds like something people came up to try to explain why a popular chocolate retailer would name itself after her. Finally, Laura may have been in a hurry to leave, but she would not have been stupid enough to walk 30-32 km without shoes. Historians generally agree that these stories are dramatic embellishments added to make the story more exciting, (and probably to make the Americans sound really dumb), to stir up Canadian nationalism. Laura never needed to trick American soldiers because she made the decision at the beginning of her journey to stay away from them by not taking the direct route. If Laura had been caught, she would have been charged as spy and met her end at the hands of a firing squad.
Secord Led Through the Woods by Mohawks (by Henry Sandham, c. 1910).
Eighteen hours in, Laura came across an Aboriginal encampment and found herself surrounded. Laura explained to the chief about the impending American attack and asked to be taken to FitzGibbon. The Iroquois granted her request and brought her to the home of Captain John Decou, where Fitzgibbon was and Laura told him the whole story.
Laura Secord warning Lieutenant James FitzGibbon of an impending American attack, June 1813. (By Lorne Kidd Smith, c. 1920).
Thanks to Laura’s efforts, two days later Colonel Boerstler’s plans were foiled at the Battle of Beaver Dams. FitzGibbon had 300 Caughnawaga and 100 Mohawk warriors surround the Americans. Boerstler himself was wounded during the fight. FitzGibbon and 50 British soldiers then came in and convinced Boerstler to surrender. He agreed and around 500 of his men were taken prisoner. After the battle an official report was released, however there was no mention of Laura.
So what happened after the war?
Due to the destruction of their farm and James’ shop, the Secords lived in poverty postwar until James received financial compensation for his war injuries. He later became a judge. When he died in 1841, Laura opened up a school out of her home. Her petitions to the government for aid were ignored. It was not until she was 85 years old that she received any sort of recognition for her heroism. While visiting Canada in 1860, Edward VII, the future King of England, learned of Laura and when he return to England, he sent Laura £100. She died in 1868 at the age of 93 and was buried beside James in Niagara Falls.
Now as sad as that is, we all know that after her death Laura finally got the recognition she deserved—although some historians had the audacity to question whether her walk mattered at all. Some claim that Fitzgibbon already knew about the American plot. This is not true, as Fitzgibbon supported Laura’s government petitions a number of times, stating that it was because of the information Laura provided that he placed the Aboriginal warriors in a position to intercept the Americans and therefore she made the victory possible.
So how did Laura become famous? According to historian Cecilia Morgan, Secord’s story became well-known in the 1880s due to the rise of Canadian nationalism and feminism. Upper-class women used Laura’s story to illustrate the value of women to Canadian society and history. They publicized her story through the 1887 play, Laura Secord: The Heroine of 1812, to bolster their argument for voting rights. This play led to articles and eventually entries in textbooks, and then the rest is well, you know, history.
Fun Fact: When Frank P. O’Connor, the founder of Laura Secord Chocolates, first opened his small candy store in Toronto in 1913, he chose to name his business after Laura because she was “a symbol of courage, devotion, and loyalty.”
INGERSOLL, LAURA (Secord), Dictionary of Canadian Biography, first published in 1976, accessed from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ingersoll_laura_9E.html
Morgan, Cecilia (1994). “‘Of Slender Frame and Delicate Appearance’: The Placing Of Laura Secord in the Narratives of Canadian Loyalist History” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 5: 195–212. Accessed from: http://www.erudit.org/revue/jcha/1994/v5/n1/031079ar.pdf
Neilson, Laura. “Secord, Laura.” War of 1812. Government of Canada. Accessed from: http://www.eighteentwelve.ca/?q=eng/Topic/43
Rosts, Scott, Laura Secord’s Trail. Niagara This Week. Published June 21, 2012. Accessed from: http://www.uppercanadahistory.ca/1812/18127.html
Laura Secord, Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=257
Here’s another one just for fun: http://www.harkavagrant.com/historynonsense/secord.png