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Laura Secord's long trek to thwart American invasion

Laura Secord remained unknown for most of her life. She only gained acknowledgement for her heroic efforts after writing to the visiting Prince of Wales in 1860.

She walked 30 km in house slippers.

Laura Secord and Cayuga warrior John Tutela both played a crucial role in keeping the Americans from taking over the Niagara Peninsula during the War of 1812. (Canada: The Story of Us)

Laura Secord has long been a Canadian hero and icon. Almost everyone knows the story: during the War of 1812 (which pitted pre-Confederation Canada against the teenaged United States of America), Laura Secord braved wild animals, rough terrain and enemy soldiers to travel over 30 km to warn the British of a planned American attack.

Her unprecedented act of bravery gave the British and their Indigenous allies an upper hand on the Americans, but Secord wasn't always recognized as a Canadian and feminist hero (or even as a chocolate mascot). For decades, she wasn't known at all.

God save the Queen(ston)

Here's a shocker: Laura Secord, Canadian hero, was born in the United States.

Her father, Thomas Ingersoll, fought against the British during the American Revolution. He moved the family to Upper Canada in 1796, where Laura Ingersoll soon married James Secord, son of a well-established Loyalist family.

Here's a shocker: Laura  Secord , Canadian hero, was born in the United States.

The War of 1812 looms large in the Canadian national psyche, but few Canadians, if pressed, can actually explain what the war was all about. Most historians now see the war as a calculated attempt by then-American-president James Madison to annex Canada while England was preoccupied fighting Napoleon.

In 1813, invading Americans descended upon Queenston, on the Niagara Peninsula. They raided the town, turning British Loyalists' homes into their own personal Airbnbs. The Secords —  including James, who was still recovering from earlier war injuries — were forced to house and feed the invading American soldiers.

Laura Secord learned of a planned American attack on DeCew House – the stone mansion where the British army was garrisoned. Secret plan uncovered, she was faced with a Clash-like dilemma: should she stay — allowing the Americans to spring their surprise attack — or should she go to DeCew House to warn the British, but abandon her family.

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Secord walks

Courting trouble, Laura Secord chose to go. She set out early morning on June 21, travelling with her niece Elizabeth through dangerous American-occupied territory (Elizabeth ditched her aunt a few hours later.)

Secord trudged for 18 hours in house slippers. "Except for moccasins, which many women wore outdoors, there were then no walking shoes such as women have today," writes Ruth McKenzie in Laura Secord: The Legend and the Lady.  "Laura wore house slippers, probably made of light kid with low heels and ties at the instep. They offered very poor protection on country roads, still less in crossing fields or going through the woods."

Late at night, she came across a band of Iroquois warriors, allies of the British. One of the warriors, John Tutela of the Cayuga Nation, recalled the encounter with Secord many years later. He described leading her to his English-speaking captain, suspicious that she could be a spy for the Americans. "After we realized she was a friend, we all walked up and shook her hand." She insisted she be taken to James FitzGibbon, commander of the British soldiers at DeCew House.

Secord told FitzGibbon that 500 American soldiers were on their way to lay siege to DeCew House. FitzGibbon had only a few dozen soldiers. He also had the aid of about 400 friendly warriors from the Mohawk and other Six Nations, but still felt outnumbered.

FitzGibbon devised a risky plan. A small group of Iroquois scouts ambushed the advancing American soldiers. The Americans escaped, but ran into FitzGibbon's troops. FitzGibbon bluffed, inflating the number of British troops, and noted the large number of Iroquois allies in the surrounding forest. 

Author Ruth McKenzie believes it was the Americans' fear of Indigenous "savagery" that led 500 American soldiers to surrender to under 50 British ones.

The dark side of Laura Secord's heroic efforts is how the British victory relied on American fears of the "uncivilized" Indigenous population. Author Ruth McKenzie believes it was the Americans' fear of Indigenous "savagery" that led 500 American soldiers to surrender to under 50 British ones.

Laura who?

This "Battle of Beaver Dams" was a game-changer in the war along the U.S.-Canadian border. The losses lowered morale and discredited the Americans' commanding officers. The U.S. Commander for the region was soon relieved of his duties. American troops rarely ventured further into the Niagara region afterward.

Given her bravery and its role in the Battle of Beaver Dams, you'd think Laura Secord would immediately have been enshrined as a national treasure. The only problem: almost nobody knew it happened.

FitzGibbon's military reputation grew following Beaver Dams (he later became Canada's go-to guy for riot-breaking). Meanwhile, Laura Secord and the Iroquois warriors who actually fought the Battle of Beaver Dams wasted away in obscurity. Once again, a white guy took credit for the work of women and Indigenous people.

Secord only gained acknowledgement for her heroic efforts after writing to the visiting Prince of Wales in 1860.

Later life wasn't a box of chocolates for Laura Secord. She lived in relative poverty after James died in 1841. She only gained acknowledgement for her heroic efforts after writing to the visiting Prince of Wales in 1860. The Prince awarded the 85-year-old widow £100, just under $10,000 in today's money.

Secord's legend grew following her death, and with the publication of an account by William Coffin. Coffin added new, completely fictitious, details: a bovine companion, a run-in with an American sentry, threats from the confused Mohawks. Then followed a popular play by Sarah Anne Curzon and – the reason most Canadians know her name – the founding of Laura Secord Chocolates in 1913, on the 100th anniversary of her fateful walk (the company had no connections with the Secord family).

Yet some historians have persisted in downplaying Secord's role. Most famously, historian W. Stewart Wallace believed the entire story a myth. J. K. Johnson doesn't doubt Secord's courage, but claims she "braved unspeakable dangers to tell [FitzGibbon] something he already knew."

Pierre Berton devoted but one sentence to Secord in his 928-page, two-volume tome on the War of 1812.

The victory at Beaver Dams helped a then-disparate Canada begin to develop something like a Canadian identity — one with strong ties to England.  Whether or not Laura Secord's treacherous journey was responsible, she became an icon to many Canadians. She was a heroine for early Canadian feminists and anglophiles: author Ruth Mackenzie notes Secord folklore rose to popularity in the late 1800s as upper-class women in Canada worked to develop emotional ties with Great Britain.

Secord represented the bravery of early European settlers in Upper Canada, and was arguably a key reason Canada remained a distinct country and not yet another American conquest in the in the early 1800s.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Laura Secord walked for 18 hours in house slippers because cobblers didn't make outdoor shoes for women in 1813. Outdoor shoes for women were available in 1813; the article has been updated with more details about Laura Secord's likely shoes. 

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