Laura warns Fitzgibbon - Lorne Kidd Smith 1920.

CONNECTIONS: Laura Ingersoll did the extraordinary

Is heroism always so complex? Is the hero of one the enemy of another? Is heroism always dependent upon context—are the heroes of today denigrated tomorrow?

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

Romanticized image of Laura used on a candy box. Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Heroes are funny things. Laura Ingersoll was celebrated in Canada and condemned in the United States. There is no dispute about what she did. There is only dispute about whether it was heroic or heinous. It was 1813, and the two countries were at war, therefore, both countries agree what she did was brave and resourceful—while both agree her actions were crucial in winning a battle, to one country Ingersoll was a heroine, to the other she was a traitor.

Laura Ingersoll was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on September 12, 1775. She grew up in a handsome clapboard house that fronted on Main Street and backed on the river. (Located approximately where Mason Library is today)

There were Ingersolls in Berkshire County from inception. In 1736, when Sheffield was an idea but not a reality, and there were few if any white settlers, the General Court in Boston asked Thomas Ingersoll “to repair to Housatonic to know the minds of the Indians.”

Ingersoll settled in Sheffield. He was rewarded and respected for the role he played in carving out the territory. However, by 1777 the fortunes of the Ingersoll family had changed. Looking less favorably upon the Ingersoll family than the British had, the new government called them Tories and seized the Ingersoll property.

Laura’s father made peace with the rebellion in the way many did: he signed a loyalty oath to the new country. With his land restored, Ingersoll served as an officer during the Revolutionary War. After the war, now Major Ingersoll was instrumental in the battle at Sheffield to quell Shays’ Rebellion.

It may be, however, that the loyalty oath did not fully reflect Ingersoll’s loyalty. In 1795 he moved his family to British Canada. He was given land called a “loyalist grant.” As Canadians, they were, once again, British subjects.

At her new home in Canada, Laura met James Secord. Like her father, he came to Canada and was given a loyalty grant. Laura was twenty years old. The courtship progressed and soon James and Laura married.

Laura’s father died in Canada in 1812. That year Laura’s brother Charles was an officer in the British army fighting the United States. Laura was a thirty-seven-year-old mother of five—poised to enter history.

As the War of 1812 raged on, Canada’s position see-sawed. At times it was in American hands only to be retaken by the British. In August Major General Isaac Brock defeated the Americans at Detroit. In October, Brock, “the hero of Upper Canada,” was killed defending Queenstown. With him on that battlefield was James Secord.

Statues of Laura Ingersoll Second in Ottawa Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Laura went to the battlefield, searched among the dead and dying and found James. He was badly wounded, but alive. Laura carried him home to safety. It was her first intrepid act but not her last.

The battle resumed around them, and this time the Americans won. In June 1813 Americans were in possession of the territory around the Secord home. Travel was restricted, and Canadians were expected to billet American troops.

As Laura fed the invaders, she overheard them plot an ambush of Lt. Col. James Fitzgibbons and his Canadian troops 20 miles north of Laura’s house.

“If we succeed, we will control Upper Canada.” The American officer said.

James was still too ill to travel. The situation seemed dire. Fitzgibbons must be warned. Laura resolved to go.

The first obstacle was to leave the territory. As the American sentry called, “Halt,” Laura prepared her story.

She had a brother in the next town. He was a soldier, wounded and near death. She must go to him and nurse or bury him.

The sentry believed Laura, and she was allowed to pass through. Now she faced a twenty-mile trek through woods and swamp. Her way was inhabited by wild animals, snakes, and renegades. It required bravery, resolution, and fortitude but she made it. She warned Fitzgibbons—then—she collapsed.

In a letter Fitzgibbons wrote thanking Laura for his victory and his life, he said, “I dreaded at the time that you must suffer in health in consequence of fatigue and anxiety.”

 He needn’t have feared. Laura lived to 93 years old; she died in 1868.

 After the war, fully recovered, James took the post at the Customs House. When information was received that smugglers would be landing that night, James, and his assistant prepared to capture them.

Laura was concerned. It was her brother and one man against many more than two smugglers. She dressed as a man, hefted a gun, and took her position as a third defender ready to capture smugglers. They were successful and no one ever knew the third “man” was Laura.

Is heroism always so complex? Is the hero of one the enemy of another? Is heroism always dependent upon context—are the heroes of today denigrated tomorrow?

A hero is a person who, faced with a dire situation, does the extraordinary. Perhaps there are times when the act transcends borders and dates on a calendar. Perhaps sometimes the hero is a woman.