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date: 18 September 2020

Secord [née Ingersoll], Laurafree

(1775–1868)
  • Katherine M. J. McKenna

Secord [née Ingersoll], Laura (1775–1868), United Empire loyalist and heroine, was born on 13 September 1775 in Main Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the first child of Thomas Ingersoll (1749–1812), merchant, and Elizabeth Dewey (1758–1784). Although he fought as a patriot during the American War of Independence and was later promoted to major in the militia, Thomas Ingersoll decided in 1785 to seek his fortune in the British colony of Upper Canada. Laura moved with her family to Queenston, near her father's lands in present-day Ingersoll, Ontario. There Thomas for a time ran a tavern, and Laura met her future husband, James Secord (1773–1841). He was of impeccable United Empire loyalist pedigree. Descended from French Huguenot stock, his father and two elder brothers fought on the British side during the American War of Independence (two of them as officers) in Butler's rangers. James and Laura were married, probably in 1797, and had six daughters and one son. They lived in the St David's-Queenston area until James became collector of customs at Chippawa in 1835. It was there that Laura ended her days, dying on 17 October 1868.

Laura Secord's life has become famous because of her role in conveying intelligence of a planned surprise attack by the Americans to Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon during the Anglo-American War, resulting in a decisive victory for the British at the battle of Beaver Dams. Americans may have Paul Revere's ride: Canadians have Laura Secord's walk. Her story has been much embellished over time, and begins with the heroic rescue of her husband, then a sergeant in the 1st Lincoln militia, from the battlefield at Queenston Heights. Reportedly she threw her body upon his wounded frame, challenging the enemy to kill her first. How she later learned of the planned attack is unknown, but tradition has it that some American officers demanded a meal at her house, then fell to discussing strategy loudly. Obviously James Secord was incapacitated, so Laura, although, according to Fitzgibbon, 'of slender and delicate frame', departed on the morning of 22 June 1813 to warn the British. She made a trek of upwards of 20 miles through fields and woods, avoiding the open road. As night fell she happened upon a Canadian Indian encampment, and its chief led her the rest of the way. One early chronicler, W. F. Coffin, wholly invented the tale of her taking a cow and pretending to milk it when accosted by American sentries. This association with wholesome dairy products doubtless contributed to her being adopted in 1913 by Canadian senator Frank O'Connor as the figurehead for his chain of chocolate candy shops, which continued throughout the century.

In her own time Laura Secord's heroism was largely unrecognized. Neither Fitzgibbon, who received honours and a promotion, nor any of the other officers involved, acknowledged her in their official reports of the battle. James Secord, debilitated by his war injuries, received a small pension, but he and Laura struggled in poverty until he was appointed registrar in 1828 and then, in 1833, judge of the surrogate court of the Niagara district. Their repeated petitions to government, supported by certificates from Fitzgibbon, were unsuccessful. After James died on 22 February 1841 Laura returned to a state of poverty.

The first recognition of Laura Secord's heroism came from the prince of Wales in 1860 after a visit to Canada, when he awarded her £100. Some twenty years after her death she was taken up as a cause by early feminists who, glossing over the Ingersoll rebels in favour of the Secord loyalists, aspired to set her on 'a pedestal of equality … upon the roll of Canadian heroes' (Curzon, Preface) as an example of stalwart white pioneer womanhood. They mounted a campaign, appealing to Canadian women and children to contribute 10 cents and 1 penny respectively, and in 1901 raised a monument at her grave in Drummond Hill cemetery, Lundy's Lane, Chippawa, topped by a bronze bust by Mildred Peel, who also painted Laura's portrait in 1905 for the Ontario legislature. This was followed by a monument placed at Queenston Heights in 1910 by the Canadian government and a memorial hall in the Laura Secord School at Queenston.

Since then, some historians have mocked Laura Secord's popular image and contended that her famous walk did not contribute to the defeat of the Americans. Setting aside the many romantic embellishments of her story, most today would agree that the evidence shows that Laura Secord did warn Fitzgibbon in a timely fashion. As such she deserves to be remembered by posterity as the heroine of Beaver Dams.

Sources

  • R. McKenzie, Laura Secord: the legend and the lady (1971)
  • C. Morgan, ‘“Of slender frame and delicate appearance”: the placing of Laura Secord in the narratives of Canadian loyalist history’, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 2nd ser., 5 (1994), 195–212
  • L. Secord, ‘A history of the war between Britain and the United States of America, during the years 1812, 1813 and 1814’, Anglo-American Magazine, 3 (1853), 467
  • C. B. Secord, The Church (18 April 1845)
  • Niagara Mail (27 March 1861)
  • Niagara Mail (3 April 1861)
  • Niagara Mail (17 Oct 1868)
  • W. S. Wallace, The story of Laura Secord: a study in historical evidence (1932)
  • W. F. Coffin, 1812, the war and its moral: a Canadian chronicle (1864), 146–53
  • E. A. Currie, The story of Laura Secord and Canadian reminiscences (1913)
  • G. Ingram, ‘The story of Laura Secord revisited’, Ontario History, 57 (1965), 85–97
  • S. A. Curzon, Laura Secord, the heroine of 1812: a drama; and other poems (1887)
  • J. Carnochan, ‘Laura Secord monument at Lundy's Lane’, Transactions of the Niagara Historical Society (1913), 11–8

Archives

Likenesses

  • M. Peel, bronze bust, 1901, Drummond Hill cemetery, Lundy's Lane, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada
  • M. Peel, oils, 1905, Government of Ontario Legislature
  • bronze effigy on monument medallion, 1910, Queenston Heights, Ontario, Canada
  • portrait, repro. in S. A. Curzon, The story of Laura Secord: a heroine of 1913, 2nd edn (1898), title page
  • portrait, repro. in Currie, Story of Laura Secord, frontispiece
  • portraits, repro. in McKenzie, Laura Secord
  • woodcut, NA Canada

Wealth at Death

died in poverty

National Archives of Canada, Ottawa