The American invasion of the Niagara peninsula in 1813 produced the enduring legend of one of Canada’s first national heroes, Laura Secord—who has been called “Canada’s Paul Revere”. It is hard to tell, however, how much of the Laura Secord story is myth and how much of it is historical reality.
Laura Secord was the eldest daughter of Thomas Ingersoll, an American who had served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and then become a magistrate in Massachusetts, helping to put down Shay’s Rebellion in 1786. But Ingersoll became increasingly disillusioned at the American Republic’s treatment of former Loyalists, and in 1795 he and his family moved to Queenston and received a government land grant. Ingersoll was one of the thousands of Americans who immigrated to Canada during these years, who became known somewhat mockingly as “Late Loyalists”.
In 1797, Laura married James Secord, a well-off merchant whose ancestors had moved to Canada from France in the 17th century. They moved into a house in Queenston and opened a small shop.
When the United States declared war and invaded Canada in 1812, James Secord was, like everyone else of military age, called up with the militia, joining the 1st Lincoln Regiment which was under the command of General Isaac Brock. According to later stories, when General Brock was killed during the Battle of Queenston, Secord was one of the troopers who carried his body back to the rear.
Soon after in the battle, Secord himself was wounded in the shoulder and leg. Later legend has it that when he failed to return home that evening, his wife Laura went to the battlefield to search for him, and found three American soldiers standing over her wounded husband, about to club him with their muskets. According to the story, she tearfully pleaded with them to spare his life, but they remained unmoved until the American Captain John Wool (later a General) happened upon the scene, reprimanded the troopers, and allowed Laura to take James home to recuperate from his wounds.
Seven months later, when the Americans won the Battle of Fort George and occupied the area, James Secord was still bedridden from his wounds. As was the current military practice of the time, the local citizens were made to billet the occupying soldiers in their homes, and one of the rooms in the Secord house, near the river in Queenston, became the quarters of several US Army privates.
On the night of June 21, Laura obtained the information that the Americans were planning to launch a surprise attack on a nearby British outpost at Beaver Dams, commanded by Lieutenant James FitzGibbon, and it was here that the legend of Laura Secord was born. In later years, Laura told different versions of how she got this information, at one point declaring that an American officer had told her, and at another time asserting that she had overheard the US troopers talking about it at her dinner table.
In any case, she decided that she had to give a warning to FitzGibbon. So at first light the next morning, she set out on foot for the outpost, 20 miles away. In some versions, she was accompanied by a young niece who got just part of the way there and then turned back, leaving Secord to continue alone. In another story, Secord was driving her cow ahead of her so she had an excuse to be on the road if an American military patrol stopped her. One description even has her stopping for a few minutes to milk the cow in order to fool some sentries.
After walking about 12 miles, Secord came upon a Native American camp on the side of the road. They happened to be Mohawk allies of the British, and when they heard her story, they sent a small party of warriors to accompany her for the rest of the way.
On the evening of the 22nd, Secord finally reached the headquarters of Lt FitzGibbon and delivered her warning about the impending attack, allowing him to reinforce the outpost with additional troops. When the American attack on Beaver Dams came on June 24, they were soundly defeated, and the Canadians later went on to drive the Americans out of Niagara and back to the United States.
After the War, with their shop destroyed, the Secords lived on the small war pension received by James. When the city of Queenston opened a memorial museum to General Isaac Brock, Laura Secord was at first offered the job of managing it, but the position then went to the widow of a museum benefactor. When James Secord died in 1841, his war pension stopped, and Laura Secord fell into desperate poverty.
Over the years, Laura sent a stream of letters to the Canadian Government, describing her wartime service to the nation (with supporting affidavits from FitzGibbon himself) and asking for a war pension for herself. The only help she ever received came in 1860 when the British Prince of Wales, while visiting Niagara, heard the story of the war hero who was now a poverty-stricken widow, and sent her a reward of one hundred pounds for her service. Laura Secord died in 1868 at the age of 93.
It wasn’t until after her death, however, that her story became widely known and she was honored as a national hero. In the 1880s, the Canadian suffragette movement adopted her as an example of the dedication and patriotism of Canadian women and their suitability to have the right to vote. In 1887, a play was performed in Montreal called Laura Secord: The Heroine of 1812 which helped to popularize her story. Since then, the “Canadian Paul Revere” has been the subject of countless books, plays and movies.
In 1912, to celebrate her patriotic actions on the 100th anniversary of the War, the Laura Secord Chocolates Company was founded in Toronto. It has no actual connection to any of Secord’s descendants. It is now the largest candy manufacturer in Canada.
Today, Laura Secord is buried in the Queenston cemetery, next to her husband. A memorial tells her story. Near the river, the Laura Secord House has been restored with funding from the chocolate company, who then donated it to the city as a museum and historical site. Costumed re-enactors now give guided tours.