Sunday, June 22, 2014

Laura Secord—National Heroine

201 years ago housewife and mother Laura Secord learned plans for a secret assault on a vital military instillation.  After a sharp battle an invading army had occupied her town.  Enemy troops had been quartered on the town, including her home.  Her husband, who had been severely wounded in an earlier battle was recovering from his wounds and was allowed to remain in the home although men and boys over the age of 14 had been arrested and deported.
Under the cover of darkness Secord slipped out of her home in the wee small hours of the morning and began a 20 mile journey on foot through several enemy held towns and villages and then through virtual wilderness.  Discovered by allied scouts, she was escorted to the headquarters of the threatened garrison to deliver the warning.  Alerted, the commander was able to prepare and deploy his forces so that they were able to ambush in kill or capture almost the entire enemy force.  This battle bought time for reinforcement to reach the area for battles that would ultimately expel the despised enemy.
Although her brave and daring mission would be ignored or forgotten for decades, when it came to light more than 40 years later the now elderly woman was proclaimed a national hero and she has been celebrated and memorialized in numerous ways ever since.
What?  You say that you never heard of Laura Secord and her valiant actions during the War of 1812?  Perhaps that is because she was Canadian and the invaders were American troops.  Laura, you see, is the Paul Revere figure of Canadian history and lore.
Laura Ingesoll was actually born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in September of 1775, just months after the outbreak of the American Revolution practically in her family’s back yard.  Her father, Thomas Ingersoll was a member of a colonial family stretching back five generation to 1639 in Salem, was a hat maker and a Patriot.  He served as a lieutenant in the militia during most of the action in Massachusetts, including the siege of Boston and remained in that service through 1781 Thomas Ingersoll.   After his military service he was so well thought of by his neighbors that he was elected magistrate. 
As a major of the Great Barrington militia, he was called upon to participate in the suppression of Shay’s Rebellion in 1786. 
Meanwhile his family grew, despite repeated personal tragedy.  Laura was his oldest child.  Three more daughters followed before her mother, Elizabeth died in 1784.  Her father remarried a widow who took a shine to her step daughter and reportedly taught her to read and write as well as domestic arts like spinning and sewing before she died of tuberculosis in 1789.  Thomas married yet another widow with a daughter of her own.  Together the couple had a son and two more daughters by 1794.
The post-Revolutionary period was hard in Massachusetts, which went through a prolonged depression.  Thomas’s business was badly hurt.  Thomas despaired of ever recouping his losses or returning to previous prosperity.  He was also, by some accounts which may have been colored in retrospect, unhappy with the continued persecution of those Loyalists who had not already fled.
For whatever reasons, in 1793 he and three companions made their way to New York City for a rendezvous with Mohawk Chief Joseph Branch, a known ally of the English.  Brant gave the men a pass to travel to Upper Canada where they met with Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe.  The English were eager to settle largely vacant land near the Niagara frontier both as a deterrent to American encroachment and to balance the heavily French populations of Quebec and adjacent areas.  Simcoe offered the men handsome land grants to establish themselves and bring more settlers with them.
Thomas was granted 66,000 acres in the Themes Valley.  He had to settle and improve his land and bring in 40 more New England families to take final possession after seven years.  It was an extraordinarily generous off that Ingersoll could not pass up.
After returning to Great Barrington to wrap up his affairs, he took his family with him to his new property in 1795.  There he founded the village of Oxford-on-the-Thames, which was later renamed for him.  He built and operated a tavern while he tried to develop his estate and find tenants.  He also renounced his American citizenship and swore loyalty to the Crown.
He was now what was bitterly called a late Loyalist and as such was resented by long time English settlers and Loyalists who had escaped or been expelled during and immediately after the Revolution, none of whom got such a sweet deal.  When his patron Simcoe was recalled to England, terms of his grant were slashed.  Then the grant was abrogated entirely because he failed to recruit enough of the promised settlers.
Embitter Thomas had to resettle his family close to the provincial capital of York where he established another tavern and inn. 
He operated it until his death in 1812 and his widow continued until her death in 1833.
Meanwhile Laura had met a prosperous young man in Queenstown and married him shortly in 1797.  James Secord was the descendent of the French Protestant Huguenots who had founded New Rochelle, New York in 1688.  During the Revolution the family had divided between Loyalist and Patriot branches.  The Loyalist proved their loyalty to the Crown by Anglicizing the family name from D’Secor.  They fled to Queenstown after the war.
The young family built a home in St. Davids, now, like Queenstown a part of Niagara-on-the-Lake, directly across the river from New York.  Laura gave birth to her first child, Mary, in St. Davids in 1799 followed by Charlotte in 1801, Harriet in 1803, her only son Charles Badeau in1809, and Appolonia the following year.
James Secord served in the 1st Lincoln Militia under General Isaac Brock when the War of 1812 broke out. His unit was among those that met the first American invasion of Canada at the Battle of Queenstown Heights in October 1812.  He was amongst those who helped carry away Brock’s body when he was killed in the first attack of the.  Later in the battle James was severely wounded in the leg and shoulder during the battle.
Family lore has it that Laura got word of his injuries rushed to his side where she supposedly found him still on the field as three Americans were preparing to beat him death with their gunstocks. She supposedly begged them to save her husband’s life.  According to the lore American Captain John E. Wool, later a major commander in the Mexican War and the man who commanded the troops which suppressed the New York Draft Riots in 1863, arrived on the scene just in time to save Secord, and perhaps his wife.
Laura was permitted to take her husband home—a home which American troops had looted in her absence.  Putting her life back together, repairing her home, and tending the children, she nursed her husband through the winter and spring. 
On May 27 a new American army crossed the river, attacked, and captured Fort George.  Queenstown, St. Davids, and much of the frontier fell to the invading army.  Troops were quartered on civilians like the Secords as the American forces gathered their strength for a new offensive.
Sometime on the evening of June 21, 1813 Laura somehow learned of the American plans to attack troops under Lieutenant James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams, which would have furthered American control in the Niagara Peninsula.  Exactly how she learned is open to question.  In later years she gave conflicting accounts.  She told FitzGibbon that her husband had learned about it from an American officer, but years later told her granddaughter that she had overheard the plans directly from the American soldiers billeted in her home.   One historian believes her reluctance to name a source might have been to protect an American informant she knew still to be living and who could have been charged with treason.  The most commonly repeated story is that she simply overheard idle chatter at her table. 
At any rate early the next morning she began her trek.  Some accounts have here leaving with a cow so that incase she was intercepted by American sentries or patrols she could tell them that she was taking it to relatives.  This, however, is likely one of many later embellishments of the tale.  Her journey took her through Queenstown, St. Davids, Homer, Shipman’s Corners and Short Hills at the Niagara Escarpment before she arrived at the camp of allied Mohawk warriors who led her the rest of the way to FitzGibbon’s headquarters at the DeCew House.
Acting on information received, FitzGibbon deployed his forces, a small contingent of Regulars, Militia and a larger force of Mohawk allies, and was able to defeat the 500 man American attacking force, virtually destroying it and capturing most of the survivors.  In his official account of the action FitzGibbon reported acting on information, but did not identify Laura Secord as the source.  Many years later this would lead to controversy over whether Laura made the journey at all or if he had already received intelligence from his Mohawk scouts.
After the war with their shop in ruins and James unable to work because of his wounds, the family was impoverished, surviving on James’s small soldier pension and rent for a couple of hundred acres of farmland that they owed.  Two more children were born, both daughters.  Her eldest Daughter Mary and her two children moved back home after Mary was widowed in 1821.
The struggling family petitioned the government for some employment for James.  But he was judged too crippled for any post.  But Lieutenant-Governor Peregrine Maitland did offer Laura an extraordinary opportunity—to become custodian of the Brock Monument then under construction with a modest emolument.  But Maitland’s successor reneged on the agreement and awarded the plumb to the widow of a man who had died during its construction.  Yet another disappointment.
Meanwhile in 1828 James finally did secure an appointment as registrar of the Niagara Surrogate Court and was promoted to judge in 1833.  In 1835 James got an even better position as collector of the Port of Chippewa, which came with a house. The family moved their while their only son Charles Badeau took over the Queenstown home and his father’s old job with the courts.
This relative prosperity ended in 1841 when James died of a stroke.  Laura lost her home, her husband’s income as collector, and his pension leaving her penniless.  She had to sell of the remaining land she had held onto.
With help from relatives Laura moved to a small cottage on Water Street in Chippewa.  Her widowed daughter Harriet and her two daughters moved in with her in 1842 followed by her youngest daughter Hannah and her two daughters who also was widowed in 1844.  The crowed all female house hold eked by on scant resources. 
For a while Laura ran a small school, but the establishment of a public common school brought that to an end.
In all of these years the story of Laura and her war exploits remained virtually unknown.  Now, reluctantly, she began to tell the tale in petitions to receive a pension in her own right.  The story also began to be told publicly.  But official refused to act because no mention was made of her in official records.
An 1827 statement by FitzGibbon in support of a fruitless application from James Secord to operate a quarry was unearthed in which he reported:
I do hereby Certify that on the 22d. day of June 1813, Mrs. Secord, Wife of James Secord, Esqr. then of St. Davids, came to me at the Beaver Dam after Sun Set, having come from her house at St. David's by a circuitous route a distance of twelve miles, and informed me that her Husband had learnt from an American officer the preceding night that a Detachment from the American Army then in Fort George would be sent out on the following morning (the 23d.) for the purpose of Surprising and capturing a Detachment of the 49th Regt. then at Beaver Dam under my Command. In Consequence of this information, I placed the Indians under Norton together with my own Detachment in a Situation to intercept the American Detachment and we occupied it during the night of the 22d. – but the Enemy did not come until the morning of the 24th when his Detachment was captured. Colonel Boerstler, their commander, in a conversation with me confirmed fully the information communicated to me by Mrs. Secord and accounted for the attempt not having been made on the 23rd. as at first intended.
Ten years later Secord wrote another certificate affirming Laura’s message.  Mohawk chief John Norton in a diary entry wrote of “a loyal Inhabitant [who] brought information that the Enemy intended to attack, but did not name her.
As these facts emerged, public sentiment swung toward the now elderly woman, even if official were unmoved.  Then in1860, when Secord was 85, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII heard of her story while travelling in Canada.  He was so moved he made an award of £100 to Secord.  It was the only financial gain or recognition she ever received in her life.
Secord died in her home in 1868 at the age of 93.  She was buried next to her husband in the Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls.  Eventually a monument was raised there just yard from another monument commemorating the Battle of Lundy Lane.  The inscription 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.
After her death Laura Secord’s modest fame took off when she was adopted by wealthy Empire Loyalist women who were seeking a national heroine and symbol for their drive for suffrage. Brave, noble, and Secord fit the bill.  Beginning with a hugely successful play in verse, Laura Secord: The Heroine of 1812 by Sarah Anne Curzon in 1887 there was an avalanche of articles, children’s books, novels, and pageants commemorating the heroine.  Each one seemed to elaborate on the very few bare bones of the known facts until it became difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Naturally such adulation led in the 20th Century to debunkers and then to a new round of defenders.  The consensus of modern historians is that Secord did, indeed, make the journey with her information.  The main question is whether it was the first or only such intelligence Fitzgibbons received.  Some believe his Mohawk scouts would have alerted him to American troop movements and that Secord only confirmed the suspicion and pin-pointed the target of the attack.
Secord has been honored, twice, with postage stamps and on a commemorative quarter coin.  Her home has been restored and is now a museum and gift shop at Partition and Queen Streets in Queenstown.  In 2006 Secord was one of fourteen Canadian heroes memorialized with a statue dedicated at the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa.  And schools, parks, streets, and public buildings are named for her across Canada.
But Secord’s most enduring memorial is a commercial one.  In 1913, the centennial year of her walk Frank O’Connor founded a chocolate company and named it Laura Secord Chocolates.  Beginning with one shop in Toronto, the company grew into a chain of shops across the country, much like Fannie May in the United States.  It is now the largest candy merchant in Canada and its black and white boxes featuring an idealized cameo of Secord are familiar in almost every home.

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