QUEENSTON, Ont. — —
Questions abound to this day whether Laura Secord was really the heroine that she is portrayed in dramatic events of the War of 1812.
She is often credited with putting her life at risk in June 1813 after supposedly overhearing a conversation of several American officers dining at her home in Queenston.
According to that version, the Americans reportedly intended to surprise the British outpost at Beaver Dams (now part of Thorold, Ont.) and capture the officer in charge, Lt. James FitzGibbon. It was deemed urgent that the lieutenant be fully informed about the sneak attack. Since Secord’s husband, James, was disabled, she was determined to deliver the message herself at the crack of dawn.
After walking almost 20 miles, Secord was captured by British Indian allies, the Caughnawaga, and finally taken before Fitzgibbon.
When the attack didn’t occur on June 23 as Secord had predicted, she was then questioned further about her Loyalist upbringing and the details of her story.
Fortunately, for her sake, a Frenchman who had been in charge of the British Indian allies sounded the alarm that the Americans were rapidly approaching.
Some 300 Caughnawaga swung into action — joined by about 100 Mohawk — and attacked Lt. Col. C.G. Boerstler’s rear guard, whipping the American troops into a state of terror. Boerstler quickly surrendered at what would be known as the Battle of Beaver Dams.
Historian and author Walter R. Boreman (”1812: The War That Forged A Nation”) noted the legend of Laura Secord seemed to mushroom beyond description.
“Her story was elaborated to the point that some versions include details of her driving a mil cow part of the way in an effort to conceal the real purpose behind her walk. And there are questions of how Secord learned about the pending attack,” Boreman adds.
Niagara County Historian Catherine Emerson offers a different view of Secord and her famous midnight dash along the Niagara Peninsula to save Canada. Emerson describes Secord’s journey as a mere “Sunday walk” in the woods compared to her U.S. counterpart, Betsy Doyle.
Better known as “Fanny” Doyle, she was the wife of a captured American artillery officer who took part in the War of 1812 fighting and then seemed to vanish. Emerson’s exhaustive research revealed that Fanny escaped the fall of Fort Niagara in December 1813 and managed to hike 300 miles to an American military camp near Albany where she worked as an Army nurse until her death in 1819.
If debate erupts over the top heroine of the war (”Laura vs. Betsy”), the Queenston housewife will undoubtedly win hands down in the “Best Known,” category, a recent Toronto Star article concluded. After all, the newspaper argued, Laura’s portrait made it onto a Canada Post stamp and her name is carried on products of a popular confectionary chain.
Author and historian Pierre Berton (”Flames Across the Border: The Canadian-American Tragedy, 1813-1814”) said Secord’s adventure was destined to become an imperishable Canadian legend.
“In all her long life, she will tell her story many times, embellishing it here and there, muddying it more than a little,” Berton said, “Laura’s story will be used to underline the growing myth that the War of 1812 was won by true-blooded Canadians.”
Yet, a mystery remains, he contends, Laura never made it clear exactly how she heard the rumor of the planned attack on June 21.
Secord and her husband, James, were poverty-stricken in the post-war years. In 1828, James was given a small pension because of his war wound. Later, he was appointed registrar, then judge of the Niagara Surrogate Court.
He died in 1841, leaving his widow without any financial support. She operated a school for children in a Chippawa, Ont., cottage. When she died in 1868 at age 93, she was buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Today, the Laura Secord homestead at 29 Queenston St., Queenston, Ont., is a heritage site open to the public. It is easily reached via the Niagara Parkway, north of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, to the quiet hamlet at the bottom of the steep hill.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of articles to mark the War of 1812 bicentennial and the impact of that conflict on the Niagara Frontier.