June 22 in (Feminist) History

mrs_james_secordOn this day in 1813, Laura Secord walked 20 miles (32 km) through American-occupied territory to warn British forces in Canada of an impending attack by American forces. While perhaps little known elsewhere, in Canada her story is much better known, to the point of becoming almost like a legend. There have been books, poetry, and plays written about her, and she was given a number of honors including stamps and coins, a statue, a museum, and a school named after her.

She was the first child born to Thomas Ingersoll and his wife Elizabeth Dewey in the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1775. She was followed by three more daughters, the third of which was given up for adoption to an aunt. Two more wives, one step-daughter, and four more girls and three boys followed. Thomas, who was a major in the army, eventually became weighed down by the persecution of Loyalists and the economic conditions following the Revolutionary War. After meeting with the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant in 1793, he traveled to Upper Canada and petitioned for a land grant, which he received on the condition that it be populated by other families within seven years. The Ingersoll family moved to Oxford-on-the-Thames (later known as Ingersoll, Ontario) in 1795, though after failing to fulfill the conditions of the contract they lost the land and eventually moved to Credit River (near where Toronto is now) and ran an Inn until Thomas’ death.

When the family moved, Laura remained in Queenston and married James Secord, a wealthy man whose family originated in France, after five “D’Secor” brothers fled the persecution of Protestant Huguenots and settled in New York, where they founded New Rochelle and changed their name to Secord. Laura lived with her husband in a house in St. David’s, with a first-floor shop, and she had five children, four of them girls. Her husband James served in the 1st Lincoln Militia when the War of 1812 broke out. When he was severely wounded in the fighting, Laura rushed to his side; some stories (possibly embellishments) claim she found three American soldiers readying to beat him to death and begged to save his life. Whatever happened, they returned home, where Laura nursed her injured husband back to health and in time, amassed a collection of American soldiers who were billeted in their home.

It was on the evening of June 21st, 1813, that she overheard the American plans for a surprise attack on British troops; how she heard it isn’t officially known, though it is speculated she overheard conversations between the U.S. soldiers billeted in her home. With her husband still recovering from his battle wounds, Laura herself left her home early the next morning and walked the 20 miles to warn Lieutenant James FitzGibbon. Her journey took her from present-day Queenston, through St. Davis, and the Niagara Escarpment (currently under possession by the Americans), until she arrived at the camp of Mohawk warriors allied to the British troops. The warriors lead her to FitzGibbon’s headquarters, where she passed along her message so the troops could ready for an attack. Despite the fact that it was her message which lead to the warning needed, and to the British force and Mohawk warriors winning the Battle of Beaver Dams, Laura was not mentioned in any reports immediately after the battle.

Her life following the war was unfortunately plagued with poverty and other strife, especially after her husband died in 1841. She was supported by better-off members of her family, and eventually moved to a cottage with her daughter Harriet (and her two daughters) and Hannah (and her two daughters), both of whom had been widowed. Despite numerous attempts at petitioning the government for acknowledgement of Laura’s deeds, they continued to be unsuccessful; the only official recognition she ever received was from the Prince of Wales, who heard the story and sent £100 to Laura when she was 85 years old. She died at the age of 93, in 1868, and was buried next to her husband. Her grave is marked with a monument that details her 20 mile walk during the War of 1812. Numerous (male) historians have since questioned her story, attempting to say that it was a myth and that she contributed nothing to the Battle of Beaver Dams, despite first-hand claims from Lietenant FitzGibbon. However her legacy lives on, made famous in the 1880s and the women’s suffrage movement and perpetuated by other early feminists and historians.

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