In Canada, most school children will hear the story of Laura Secord — how during the War of 1812, she travelled a great distance on foot to warn the British about an imminent American attack. Even adults are reminded of her courage through the Heritage Minute ad campaign run by Historica Canada. Still, some of us hear the name and our mouths water for a box of chocolates.
I recently scrolled through some vacation pictures and rediscovered photos I’d taken of Laura Secord’s home during a visit to the Niagara Penninsula. The homestead was modest and unassuming. I found myself thinking of her, not in terms of an iconic figure, but as a mother and a wife. Take anyone of us, then strip away the radio, television, internet, landline and cellphone then place our home far away from neighbours and surround us with a forest of trees. I feel vulnerable already, don’t you?
Laura’s mettle had already been proven when she pulled her injured husband, James Secord, from the battlefield at Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, where he’d served as a sergeant in the British army alongside Mohawk allies. He was recovering at their homestead near Queenston six months later when a group of American soldiers on horseback made their approach. It was an early evening in June 1883. Two of the Secord’s children darted through the front door with news of soldier’s advance. When the soldiers demanded food, Laura led them to the kitchen and preparations were made by two servants.
After the men were served, Laura sat upstairs at James bedside and listened to the raucous antics. The soldiers drank generous amounts of wine and frightened the servants. When the Americans’ volume dropped to a low murmur, she crept outside, knelt beneath the open window, concealed in the shadows. (Some accounts say she listened through a thin wall.) Her instincts told her that something was afoot and she was correct. What she overheard was the American plan to attack the British at Beaver Dam. The soldiers finished eating and continued on their way, leaving Laura and James to devise a plan. The British Lieutenant FitzGibbon must be informed.
Because of his injuries, James concurred that Laura must go in his stead. American sentries were posted along the roads. She satisfied their enquiries by explaining that she was walking to the nearby village of St. Davids to visit her half brother, Charles, who lay sick with fever at the home of his future in laws. This was the truth. Laura hoped that she could deliver this information to Charles, and he could relay it to FitzGibbon. The sentries allowed her to pass, but when she reached her brother, it was evident that he was too ill to travel. Laura continued the journey with his fiancé, Elizabeth.
The road to Beaver Dam was thick with American soldiers, so the women determined to take an indirect route that stretched through 32 kilometres of dirt roads and foot paths that, in several places, were swampy and mosquito infested. The rough terrain was made more impossible for Elizabeth by extreme heat and humidity. She remained at Shipman’s Corners, while Laura, fifteen years her senior, continued through the wilderness alone. She must have been fearful, at ever turn, that she may encounter Americans or their Aboriginal allies.
Twilight advanced on the final minutes of her journey. With her head dizzy from the effects of heat and fatigue, she climbed the forested hill to her ultimate destination — British headquarters. For the first time since leaving her home, she ventured into an open meadow only to find her self entering a First Nations encampment. “Woman!” the men yelled over and over. Luckily, she’d stumbled upon British allies. Upon hearing Laura’s story, they delivered her to FitzGibbon at Beaver Dam. Armed with Laura Secord’s information, the British were prepared for the American ambush. The battle was brief and the win went to Britain who captured 500 American infantry and nearly 50 mounted dragoons.
Laura’s condition upon arrival must have been a testament to her experience. Her shawl provided minimal protection from the mosquitos, but it slowed her travel because it caught on branches and thorns as she advanced through the dense bush. Her kid leather shoes became mud soaked and torn, leaving her feet unprotected. Portions of her dress were ripped as well. She was totally and utterly exhausted.
I am reminded that truth is stranger than fiction. As a writer, Laura Secord’s accomplishment reminds me that I can push characters in my stories to go farther and take risks as demanded by their predicament — risks that others may not accept. Laura herself said years later, that considering her advanced age at the time of the now infamous journey, she is amazed that she accomplished it. Perhaps the message here is that, when times demand it, we are capable of putting our heads down and plowing through it.
Lead photo: Library and Archives of Canada