Her image adorns coins, stamps, and monuments and her name is borrowed by schools, museums, and chocolate. Her life has inspired books, plays, and poems, and she has even been recognized as a ‘Person of National Historical Significance’, by the Department of Canadian Heritage. Laura Secord is someone whose legend is tied to the very history of Canada, and is especially significant for the Niagara region.
Secord is famous for her bravery during the War of 1812. As a young mother, she trekked more than 30 kilometres over 18 hours through dangerous territory, dodging enemy patrols and weathering the elements, to warn pre-confederation Canada of an impending American attack. Thanks to Secord, the British troops and their native allies were able to pre-emptively ambush the American soldiers, stopping them from gaining control over the entire Niagara Peninsula.
While today Laura Secord is a well-known figure, she went without recognition for her heroic deeds for a great deal of her life. It wasn’t until decades after her death that her story was rediscovered, and she transformed from a relatively unknown, but still extremely important figure in Canada’s history, to the cultural and feminist icon she is today.
Laura Secord was born in the United States in 1775. Her father, Thomas Ingersoll, was ironically a patriot, fighting for the United States against the British. Her mother died when she was young, so as the oldest of her four sisters Laura had to take on a large role in her household.
Her father eventually relocated the family to Queenston, a small rural community on the Niagara Escarpment, attracted by the promise of a large land grant. It is here that Laura met her husband, James Secord, a wealthy merchant and soldier. They were married in 1797, had several children, and lived in relative peace for the next decade.
In 1812, the British empire was caught up in the Napoleonic wars, leaving their colonies in North America looking vulnerable, and ripe for the picking. The United States, under President James Madison, launched an opportunistic assault on the British colonies, seeking to assimilate Canada into their union.
Several months into the war the U.S. launched an invasion of the Niagara Peninsula, leading to the battle of Queenston Heights, the war’s first major engagement. The Americans hoped to gain a foothold in the peninsula, which they would use to move further into Upper Canada.
James Secord was one of the many British troops defending their homes. He served under General Isaac Brock, who perished while leading his troops in a charge. James was wounded in both the leg and shoulder during the battle, and Laura, hearing of the dire situation, rushed to help. She found her husband being beat by three American soldiers, and begged them to stop, offering her own life in place of his. Eventually, the soldiers’ captain come upon the scene, reprimanding the soldiers and allowing the Secords to retreat.
British reinforcements eventually arrived, pushing the U.S. troops back over the Niagara river and winning the battle. Upon making their way back home, Laura and James found their house had been looted during the commotion.
The following year the U.S. launched another attack on the Niagara peninsula, and this time they were successful. The Americans captured Fort George, the British military base in the area, as well as Queenston. The Secords were forced to host several U.S. soldiers in their home, a decision that would prove disastrous for the American war effort.
On June 21, 1813, Laura overheard the soldiers plans to launch a surprise attack on British troops stationed nearby. If successful, the Americans would have further solidified their grasp on the Niagara region, their gateway into the rest of Canada. With her husband still wounded from last year’s battle, Laura decided to take matters into her own hands. Early next morning, Laura set off on the journey she is now famous for.
Laura walked for 18 hours, taking a long and difficult route through occupied territory to avoid the patrolling American sentries. Dealing with both dangerous wildlife and blistering heat, Laura marched on. Late at night, feet caked with blood, she ran into a group of Iroquois warriors, who were British allies. They escorted her the rest of the way to the DeCew House, where the British forces were stationed.
Laura warned the soldiers of the impending attack, mere hours before the Americans were due to arrive. Thanks to her information, the few dozen soldiers and their Iroquois allies were able to launch a daring counter-ambush.
Over 500 American troops marched in the night towards DeCew house, vastly outnumbering the British forces. To defeat the superior numbers that faced them, Lieutenant James FitzGibbon devised a cunning plan.
The Americans, believing themselves to have the element of surprise as they marched through the woods, were suddenly attacked by Iroquois warriors. In their momentary panic, they decided to retreat deeper into the forest, only to find FitzGibbon and his 50 troops waiting for them.
FitzGibbon convinced the Americans that they were outnumbered, surrounded by hundreds of Iroquois just beyond the cover of darkness. The Americans, who in truth had the superior force, surrendered then and there.
With the attack thwarted, the British army eventually regained control of the Niagara peninsula. The war raged for another two years, before finally ending in 1815 with neither side gaining or losing territory.
Laura’s bravery, instrumental to the British effort, was promptly forgotten. Her house was burned down during the war, and her family lived in poverty. James eventually died in 1841, and without his meager war pension Laura was left destitute.
She continually petitioned the government for some kind of recognition for her deed during the war, but was denied every time. By a stroke of good fortune, the Prince of Wales heard of Laura’s story while travelling Canada. He sought her out, and awarded the 85 year old widow £100, the only compensation she ever received for her bravery.
Secord died a few years later at the age of 93
It wasn’t until decades later that the story of Laura Secord was rediscovered and she earned the recognition she deserved. In the early 1900’s many plays and books were written on Secord, creating a layer of myth surrounding the actual events. Laura herself wrote of her walk, and her story was corroborated by letters written by FitzGibbon.
Today Laura Secord is recognized as a Canadian icon, who displayed great bravery and determination in service to her country. She is renowned throughout the country, but serves a special place in the history and folklore of the Niagara region.
The house she lived in during the war still stands today in Queenston, after having been painstakingly restored in 1971. Today it serves as a memorial and museum, with tours available for those who want to learn a little more about Laura’s story and its role in the history of Canada.