Two hundred years ago this June 22, a lone woman with shoes tattered and feet blistered and bloodied stumbled into the history books of Canada. This was one time when eavesdropping resulted in something good; at least from a Canadian point of view.
The story began in June of 1812 when the United States declared war on Great Britain by invading the colony of Upper Canada. In short order, the British had given the Americans some important lessons in effective military leadership. Tragically those lessons had come at a high cost when the brilliant and charismatic military commander Major General Isaac Brock had been mortally felled at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October of 1812.
Subsequent skirmishes and battles had resulted in American troops invading the Niagara district. In June of 1813 they were encamped on the grounds of James Secord, son-in-law of Thomas Ingersoll, and himself another of those had been invalided during the battle at Queenston. Sergeant Secord had been wounded during that aborted invasion attempt and only rescued from the field by his beloved wife Laura.
Two hundred years ago, Americans soldiers were planning to attack the British forces and it appears that they did not give one iota about what the mistress of the house thought or heard. According to the legend, and the story as retold by Laura herself, she overheard the military commanding officer discuss plans to surprise the British commander of a small detachment at Beaver Dams. A successful capture of this outpost would provide them clear access to the entire Niagara peninsula.
With her husband confined to the farm due to his injuries, and when the coast was clear, Laura took it upon herself to warn Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon. Setting out on foot, 38 year old Laura Ingersoll Secord began a 32 kilometer journey through forest, swamp, and brush.
Fraught with many challenging obstacles and deadly dangers, this single woman persevered. Besides natural dangers like wolves and rattlesnakes then common in the unsettled territory, she also had to ford bridgeless creeks and keep an eye out for American patrols which were scouring the same area. A woman travelling alone faced the risk of being molested, arrested or shot. Her trek took more than 18 hours to complete.
Feet blistered and bleeding, she stumbled upon a group of Natives who were allied with the British and with their assistance, Laura was able to share her knowledge of the American plans with their intended victim, Lieutenant Fitzgibbon.
At Beaver Dams, a small band of British regulars and a large force of Natives under the direction of war chief John Norton and Dominique Ducharme turned the tide when they ambushed and defeated the American force. The date was June 24, 1813.
Although Laura deserved much of the credit for this victory, knowledge of her vital role was soon forgotten. In spite of different attempts by Fitzgibbon and others to secure her some form of recognition, Laura and her family continued to live in abject poverty until 1860. That year, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, was visiting the colony. When he heard the story of Laura’s heroism the Prince rewarded her bravery with a purse of £100. Such royal attention finally resulted in public awareness for the eldest daughter of Thomas Ingersoll.
Laura Ingersoll Secord lived another eight years, dying at the age of 93. She was buried in Drummond Cemetery in nearby Niagara Falls. In 1901 the Ontario Historical Society erected a bronze bust to mark her final resting place, and in 1971 efforts began to restore her original home in Queenston.
The federal government finally designated Laura Secord as a Person of National Historic Significance in 2003. This coming June 22 the Prime Minister’s wife will be one of many who re-enact Laura’s famous trek into history