The astonishing story of Laura Secord is unique in the annals of American and Canadian history. Born and raised in Great Barrington, and later elevated to legendary status in her adopted Canada, Laura’s life adventure has sometimes been misunderstood, inaccurately reported and embellished. The author has spent over a decade researching the subject, and separating fact from fiction. Although the narrative that follows is somewhat lengthy — it is a fascinating account that deserves to be read and appreciated.
In addition, the Great Barrington Historical Society will present the lecture “Laura Ingersoll Secord: Rebel for the Wrong Cause?” Saturday, Nov. 2, at 2 p.m. at Saint James Place. For tickets and more information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar.
On June 18, 1812, the United States shocked the world by declaring war on Great Britain. For years, the British had been battling the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. Desperate for sailors to maintain its huge fleet, Britain began stopping American ships in search of sailors who had deserted the tyrannical British Navy. The Brits also press-ganged American seamen while they were at it. They even seized U.S. ships that traded with France.
The United States repeatedly insisted that the illegal impressments cease. But Great Britain, like many on the European continent, did not take the United States seriously. Congressional “war hawks” in Washington, D.C., clamored for justice. Although the fledgling U.S. government was ill equipped to fight, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain.
Because of the impressment issue, one might assume that the war would be fought largely at sea. But maritime rights were only part of the story. Rather than immediately launch a naval war against the “ruler of the high seas,” the U.S. government had other ideas. Officials hatched a plan to eradicate the British presence from all of North America by invading Canada (which was still in the firm grasp of the King of England).
Great Britain had been helping Native Americans in the western territories of the U.S., much to the chagrin of the white settlers. British soldiers from Canada had formed alliances with the indigenous peoples, promising to help establish a permanent homeland for them by driving the white settlers away. Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky and others lobbied Congress to remove the Indian and British threat. Annexation of Canada, promised Thomas Jefferson, would simply be “a mere matter of marching.” Most New Englanders, however, were strongly opposed to a war with England, fearing it would devastate their already weak economy.
The U.S. government assumed that Canadians would welcome “liberation” from British tyranny. But most Canadians saw things differently. They had strong nationalist feelings, and although they weren’t satisfied with their British-controlled government, the thought of an American invasion was abhorrent to them. A cautious but useful military alliance was quickly forged with British troops and friendly First Nations (Canadian Indians). Most able-bodied residents joined the local militias to support the British against impending attack. One of the enlistees from Upper Canada (now Ontario) was James Secord, young husband of Laura Ingersoll Secord.
But who was Laura Secord? Several Canadian provinces have schools named after her. Three monuments in Ontario honor her. She is featured on a postage stamp and Canadian currency. Laura’s former home in Queenston, Ontario, is a popular tourist site. Several books, songs, plays and even comic books tell of her bravery. YouTube videos honor her, although some are embellished or inaccurate. Laura Secord-brand chocolate is one of the most popular confections in Canada.
Although revered as a national heroine in Canada, few in Massachusetts have ever heard of Laura Ingersoll Secord. Yet she was born and raised in Great Barrington. Among those Berkshire County locals who have heard of her, some mistakenly believe that she and her parents were traitorous Tories.
The Ingersoll home, a modest Cape Cod-style dwelling, stood on the site of the present Mason Library. A small bronze plaque placed on the library lawn by the Great Barrington Historic District Commission briefly acknowledges her accomplishments. After the plaque was installed in 1997, several witnesses claim that a local resident covered it over with a black plastic bag every Memorial Day.
Why is Laura Secord so beloved in Canada yet so misunderstood in Great Barrington? The story actually begins Sept. 13, 1775, when Laura Ingersoll Secord was born, the first child of 26-year-old Thomas Ingersoll and his 17-year-old wife, Elizabeth Dewey. Thomas Ingersoll was a reasonably prosperous businessman who owned several acres between his Main Street home and the Housatonic River. Self-employed as a hatter, Ingersoll also had other business interests including a gristmill. He also served as town constable and tax collector.
With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, Ingersoll enlisted in the militia, first serving as a second lieutenant. While British Loyalists (Tories) fled to New York and Canada, Ingersoll served his country until the end of the war, rising to the rank of captain and later major. When Shays’ Rebellion broke out in 1786-87, Maj. Ingersoll again answered the call of the militia and helped suppress the rebellion. There is no doubt that Thomas Ingersoll was a traditional patriot.
Thomas Ingersoll’s business interests suffered during the war, and the weak post-war economy didn’t help matters. Then, his young wife, Elizabeth, died suddenly, leaving 8-year-old Laura to care for her three little sisters. Mr. Ingersoll married again, but his second wife passed away when Laura was about 14 years old. According to several accounts, Laura had expressive dark eyes, light brown hair and a slender figure. She was of medium height with a small frame and fair complexion. Although she appeared to be delicate and fragile, time would show her to be strong and courageous.
By the time Thomas Ingersoll married a third time (Sarah Whiting Backus), he may have been ready to leave sad memories behind. Encouraged by communications with Mohawk Native Chief Joseph Brant and the promise of dirt-cheap land, Ingersoll and several other townsfolk — including the beloved Episcopal priest Gideon Bostwick (who had been a Tory) — decided to move to Upper Canada (now Ontario). Upon successful application for a land grant, Bostwick, Ingersoll and their associates were granted an entire township with thousands of acres. But before they could leave Great Barrington, Rev. Bostwick died unexpectedly. This left the task of resettlement fully on the shoulders of Ingersoll.
Maj. Ingersoll left his family behind in Great Barrington for a time while he attended to his new venture in the wilderness. It took two years to settle his affairs in Great Barrington. In 1795, wife Sally Ingersoll signed over the deed on the last of her husband’s property while Laura (then age 20) witnessed the signing. They then joined Thomas in Canada.
By November 1795, Ingersoll was operating a tavern near the docks and warehouses in the busy port village of Queenston (several miles north of Niagara Falls). The tavern supplied much-needed cash as he began the task of clearing his land on the River Thames. He began building the first road to the new township and likely had it surveyed by former Great Barrington teacher/surveyor William Hambly and Ingersoll’s brother-in-law Charles Whiting.
Ingersoll’s tavern flourished and in 1796, he joined the local Masonic Lodge. His tavern was one of two in the area that hosted the local Masons. Young James Secord had also recently joined the Lodge. Laura served in the tavern and often ran the enterprise while her father was away, so it is likely that she met her future husband at the tavern. James Secord lived on a 200-acre farm that his family had received as a United Empire Loyalist grant given to sons of British Loyalists from America.
About 1805, government land policy changed dramatically in Upper Canada after popular Gov. John Simcoe was replaced. Although Ingersoll had fulfilled his obligation to attract the minimum number of new settlers, the new government claimed Ingersoll had failed to complete road construction and the building of other facilities. His entire land claim was taken away from him.
Why was Ingersoll’s land really taken? A few historians theorized that, as an American patriot during the Revolutionary War, Ingersoll’s loyalty to British Canada came under question even though he had signed a British loyalty document in Upper Canada. There is some irony in this scenario since some present-day residents of Great Barrington (and Canada) incorrectly assume he was a Tory during the Revolutionary War. Ingersoll died in 1812, likely discouraged and disillusioned.
Several years later, Laura’s half-brother Charles convinced the Upper Canada Legislature that his late father had been harshly treated and not given enough time to resolve matters. The government concurred and returned the land to Charles, where he founded the new village of “Ingersoll” in memory of his father. A statue honoring the elder Ingersoll was erected at the town hall in 2000.
By 1811, James Secord was a moderately successful wholesaler. He and Laura, along with their five children, lived in a modest but pleasant home at the base of Queenston Heights, not far from the Niagara River. This house still stands and is now the Laura Secord Homestead Museum. A large bronze plaque in the yard states that Canadian heroine Laura Ingersoll Secord was born in Great Barrington.
On Oct. 13, 1812, the United States attacked Upper Canada. The initial invasion was launched from Lewiston, New York, across the Niagara River to Queenston. The plan was to capture the strategically located Queenston Heights. The battle began before dawn, and as fighting escalated, local townsfolk ran for cover. James Secord had recently rejoined the county militia and was ready to help defend Queenston Heights. As the battle unfolded — initially in the streets of Queenston — Laura quickly gathered her children and fled to a neighbor’s farmhouse about a mile away. At the same time, James helped move artillery pieces onto the slopes of Queenston Heights.
By mid morning, legendary British general (and military genius) Sir Isaac Brock had been killed and the Americans captured Queenston Heights. Their victory was short-lived. Reinforcements from the New York state militia refused to cross the river into Canada. Unlike U.S. Army “regulars,” some state militiamen refused to fight outside the boundary of their state. When British and Canadian reinforcements arrived, the American troops were driven back across the river.
After the fighting was over, Laura Secord climbed Queenston Heights in search of her husband, who had reportedly been injured. She found him badly wounded with bullets lodged in his shoulder and knee. With the help of a friendly officer, she brought James back home. When she arrived, Laura found that her home had been ransacked by the enemy and most everything valuable had been carted away. In fact, much of the entire village had been looted.
During the bitterly cold winter months that followed, Laura Secord devoted considerable energy to the care of her wounded husband. With no income, the family began to feel the stress. By the spring of 1813, the Niagara Peninsula had become a sort of “no-man’s land.” The Americans controlled strategically important Fort George at the entrance to the Niagara River. They also had small outposts along the road to Queenston. Not far away, the British had three detachments stationed on the south side of Lake Ontario overlooking the Niagara countryside. From time to time, U.S. soldiers demanded food and supplies from local residents like the Secords. Several troops of American militiamen, including one led by Capt. Cyrenius Chapin — a blustery and boastful doctor from Buffalo — continually terrorized and robbed the local settlers. The Canadians despised the invaders as well as their American commanders for failing to keep proper order of their troops. Although the American top brass may have been unaware of the rank-and-file soldiers’ misdeeds, Chapin was not held in high regard by at least one American officer, Gen. McClure, who described Chapin as “a vain boasting liar.”
Stationed at a stone house hideaway near the tiny hamlets of DeCew Falls and Beaver Dams, British Lt. James FitzGibbon’s guerilla outpost was staffed with small group of approximately 50 army regulars and militia. A group of friendly First Nations warriors — Caughnawaga Mohawks — were encamped nearby. FitzGibbon, a prodigy of Gen. Brock, was a clever gamesman and a constant irritant to the occupying Americans. He saw it as his duty to protect the locals and harass the invading soldiers. His tactics were often risky, sometimes humorous, occasionally foolhardy and always successful.
Several American soldiers grew determined to crush FitzGibbon and his small guerilla force. Capt. Chapin saw this as an opportunity to obtain recognition for himself. In June 1813, he approached Lt. Col. Charles Boerstler, an American officer stationed at Fort George, to lead the attack against FitzGibbon. Boerstler was not impressed with Chapin and quickly dismissed the idea. Chapin then went over Boerstler’s head to Brig. Gen. John Boyd (who was once described as “a compound of ignorance, vanity and petulance”). Chapin convinced Boyd that the plan was sound. That very afternoon an astonished Col. Boerstler was ordered to lead 500 men, supported by a few Native warriors, against FitzGibbon’s stronghold at Beaver Dams. Chapin promised to act as guide and lead the way, claiming he knew the route of march well.
At Laura Secord’s house, three American officers had taken residence in the upstairs rooms and ordered their morning and evening meals there. The home had thin walls and all conversations carried throughout the structure. Historians speculate that a loudmouth, boastful Capt. Chapin, visiting on the evening of June 22, 1813, told the three officers about the planned attack on FitzGibbon. Laura politely provided supper and spirits to the soldiers. Chapin began drinking and bragging about the plan that was in the making — how the Americans would march to the DeCew house and destroy FitzGibbon’s troops. After the soldiers finished their meal, shuffled out of the house and rode away, Laura and James exchanged fearful glances. They were deeply troubled by what they overheard. Laura’s granddaughter, with whom she lived for many years in nearby Chippawa, Ontario, described the conversation as told to her years later.
“James!” Laura whispered, “Somebody ought to tell FitzGibbon they are coming!” To which Laura’s husband replied, “If I crawled on my hands and knees, I could not get there in time.” Laura paused for a moment and then said, “Well, suppose I go?” But James was cautious. “I do not think any man could get through, let alone a woman,” he said. But Laura had the last word. “You forget, James, that God will take care of me,” she replied.
Despite her brave words, Laura was fearful as she and James devised a plan. Well before dawn the next morning, Laura set out on the first leg of her journey toward the tiny hamlet of St. Davids. If she encountered enemy sentries, Laura would explain that she was going to visit her half-brother Charles who was quite ill. (This was true.) She first reached her sister-in-law Hannah Secord’s mill home without incident. Hannah was a widow with 10 children. She sent her daughter Elizabeth with Laura for the next leg of the journey to Shipman’s Corners (part of the city of St. Catharines today). The rest of the journey would be much more difficult.
To avoid detection by hostile forces rumored to be in the area, Laura knew she must stay off the main roads. This meant taking a circuitous route of nearly 20 miles, mostly through wilderness. She crossed a small bridge in St. Catharines, hiked along the far side of Twelve Mile Creek, forded the same creek again by scaling a fallen tree trunk, and pushed through deep forests.
Time was short and Laura knew she had to reach FitzGibbon by evening. As the hours dragged on, the sweltering summer heat and humidity tortured her. Rattlesnakes were prevalent in the area, as were wolves. Still she persevered, stumbling over fallen trees, slogging through dense undergrowth and losing her shoes (and sense of direction) while scaling a rocky escarpment. But by dusk she realized she was near the DeCew house. As she trudged forward, Laura suddenly found herself surrounded by Native warriors, the Mohawks. She was terrified.
Years later she wrote about the experience: “with some yells [the Mohawks] said ‘Woman,’ which made me tremble. I went up to one of the chiefs, made him understand that I had great news for FitzGibbon, and that he must let me pass . . . The chief at first objected . . . but finally consented . . . [to] accompany me to FitzGibbon’s station.”
For Great Barrington’s 250th celebration in 2011, a small delegation from Great Barrington visited the Laura Secord Homestead Museum in Queenston, and also visited Ingersoll, Ontario. Below is some news footage of the visit:
Upon arrival, FitzGibbon looked at Laura in amazement. Standing in torn and tattered dress and nearly overcome with exhaustion, she informed FitzGibbon of the approaching danger. Writing about the encounter years later, FitzGibbon said, “Mrs. Secord was a person of slight and delicate frame and made this effort in weather excessively warm, and I dreaded at the time that she must suffer in health . . . of fatigue and anxiety, she having been exposed to danger from the enemy, through whose line of communication she had to pass.”
Meanwhile, Col. Boerstler and his troops arrived in Queenston late at night. Patrols and guards were posted everywhere to prevent locals from escaping to warn the British. Little did they know that Laura had already delivered the news.
FitzGibbon had to act quickly. Since he had only 50 men in his detachment, he enlisted the help of the numerous Caughnawaga Mohawk allies that had encamped at Beaver Dams not far from his fortification. First he sent word to his superior officers requesting reinforcements. Then he sent some of the Mohawks on a reconnaissance mission. The next day they reported back that American troops were indeed on the way. Fitzgibbon was unsure when help might arrive, so he and his officers planned a surprise attack with bluff and bravado. The Native warriors were directed to hide in the woods on both sides of the road leading to Beaver Dams.
Unaware that a trap had been laid, the Americans marched on toward Beaver Dams and FitzGibbon’s encampment at the DeCew house. The Americans were tired and behind schedule because their “guide,” the illustrious Capt. Chapin, had lost his way. Following Chapin’s troops was Col. Boerstler, leading 500 foot soldiers and cavalry as well as horse teams hauling ammunition wagons and two large field guns.
The First Nations warriors quietly crossed the road behind the troops. Shortly thereafter, the beech woods rang out with shots from all sides. Col. Boerstler’s troops, who had expected to surprise the British, were instead taken by surprise. The Americans had no idea how few troops surrounded them. But they had heard horrible tales of scalping and torture by the Indians and were terrified.
Col. Boerstler was wounded shortly after the battle began. Although in considerable pain, he continued to command his troops. On the other hand, the boastful Capt. Chapin was nowhere to be seen. He was later found hiding in a ditch some distance from the action. The colonel considered making one last charge to clear the road and retreat. But the result, even if successful, would mean many casualties. At this critical moment, Lt. FitzGibbon decided to bluff the Americans into surrender. With a white handkerchief waving and bugles sounding a “cease fire,” FitzGibbon offered to negotiate. He pretended that British reinforcements had arrived and that the Americans were now greatly outnumbered. Furthermore, he implied that the Indians would be hard to control if the fighting went on. Surrender might be wise, FitzGibbon advised, because a bloody, scalp-taking massacre by the Native warriors might result if the Americans held out. (Both the British and Americans were wary of the Native warriors, yet each side used them to stir fear in the minds of their opponent.)
Boerstler conferred with his officers. Should they run the risk of a bloody retreat? Or should they surrender? The officers agreed that that surrender would save the lives of many men. It was decided that Col. Boerstler and his regular army troops would be taken as prisoners of war. However, the state militia (Capt. Chapin’s group) and enlisted volunteers would be returned to the United States as free men. It is interesting to note, however, that one small part of the agreement was not kept. For reasons one can only imagine, Capt. Chapin and a few of his cronies were not released but instead thrown in prison. It should be noted, however, that Capt. Chapin eventually redeemed himself, becoming a prominent doctor in Buffalo, New York, with a medical school named after him.
Public acclaim for the stunning victory went to FitzGibbon. Through local newspapers and word of mouth, FitzGibbon became even more legendary. The First Nations warriors, however, were left bitterly disappointed that they did not get more credit for their effort. Although they were given considerable recognition in the official military report, that was seen only by a few officers. Displeased with their treatment, the Caughnawagas resigned and returned home to Lower Canada (now Quebec).
Of what significance was the “Battle of Beaver Dams”? First, it was the only battle of the war fought almost entirely by First Nations warriors. And it can be argued that Laura Secord’s warning ultimately saved the lives of hundreds of men — Native, Canadian, British and American. With the loss at Beaver Dams and other setbacks, the U.S. lost its initiative on the Niagara frontier. The remainder of the war was largely fought elsewhere. However, two weeks after the Beaver Dams surrender, American Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn was relieved of his command. A few historical texts give considerable mention to James FitzGibbon and Laura Secord; others make no mention of them. Certainly more significant battles occurred elsewhere — along the St. Lawrence River and in Plattsburgh, New York. But that doesn’t lessen Laura Secord’s bravery or James FitzGibbon’s cleverness.
In the typical tradition of British military accounts, FitzGibbon’s official report made no mention of Laura Secord — probably because she was a woman and civilian. One could argue that FitzGibbon knew how to “market” himself, and planned to take full credit for Boerstler’s surrender. FitzGibbon was only 33 years old and was certainly ambitious. On the other hand, the British knew they could rely on the cooperation of Canadian citizens to quietly assist them. With the enemy still in the area, any publicity for Laura and her family would have endangered them all. FitzGibbon likely remained silent to protect her. There is little doubt, however, that Laura did fear reprisal and therefore kept quiet.
When the War of 1812 finally ground to a halt in 1815, neither Great Britain nor the United States could honestly claim victory. No concessions were made by either side. Nothing was resolved. But both sides had grown weary of war. Peace was welcomed and appreciated by all, especially by Canadians caught in the crossfire. The United States gave up all plans to annex its northern neighbor. Canadian citizens later achieved independence from Great Britain by peaceful means in 1867.
Although James Secord’s health gradually improved, he never fully recovered. For the rest of his life, he was forced to accept modest wages for less demanding jobs, although he did retain hundreds of acres of land rented out to tenant farmers mostly in western Upper Canada. It was only after James’ death in 1841 that Laura — in need of money — began to speak more often of her wartime efforts, with the hope of securing a small government pension. On several occasions, James FitzGibbon wrote glowingly of Laura Secord and supported her efforts to receive compensation.
But even with the help of FitzGibbon, Laura was ignored by the government. Gradually, however, the story of her adventures appeared in a few newspapers and books, albeit with some inaccuracies. Finally, at the age of 85, Laura was “rescued” by a handsome prince. Soon after visiting the Niagara District in 1860 and learning of Laura’s bravery, the 19-year-old Prince of Wales (the eldest son of Queen Victoria and who was later crowned King Edward VII) awarded her a gift of 100 pounds in gold.
Reinvigorated by the recognition, Laura Secord lived for seven more years, finally passing away in 1868 at the age of 93. By 1910, two monuments had been erected to honor Laura: one at her gravesite in Niagara Falls and the other atop Queenston Heights. In the decades that followed, the legend of Laura Secord took on a life of its own. Historical fact was mixed with fiction until the truth became muddied.
Back in Great Barrington, however, Laura Secord remained largely forgotten or ignored. Local historian Charles Taylor, in his definitive “History of Great Barrington” published in 1882, mentioned Thomas Ingersoll and family but made no reference to Laura. Was Taylor unaware of her? Perhaps this was true during the writing of his book, but certainly not later on. When Canadian historian and author Emma Currie began research on a book about Laura Secord, she contacted Taylor for help. (Mrs. Currie’s ancestors were also from Great Barrington.) He spent many hours researching her questions and providing her with considerable information, so much so that she wrote of Taylor’s friendly and helpful support in the second edition of her book. (Many of Taylor’s letters are in the Special Collections archives at Brock University in Ontario.)
Several years ago, local historian Bernard Drew was shown a collection of privately held documents written by Charles Taylor, including a 23-page collection of notes about the Ingersoll family and Laura Secord. According to Drew, Charles Taylor wrote that Laura’s “later history shows her to have been a woman of great determination of character — of courage . . . She has passed into history as a heroine and deservedly so . . .” However, a later edition of Taylor’s history, updated in the 1920s by his son-in-law, again fails to mention Laura Secord.
At least a few residents of Great Barrington were aware of Laura Secord by the early 1900s. When the Ingersoll home was first moved and then torn down during the construction of the Mason Library, structural artifacts were removed and sent to Canada for a Laura Secord exhibit. They remain in the local Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.
During the 1930s, Canadian historian William Wallace, who was later forced to retract his words, began to question the significance of Laura Secord’s journey. He suggested that Indian scouts had already informed Lt. FitzGibbon of the impending attack before Laura ever reached him. Although few doubted Laura’s bravery, the declaration of “Canadian heroine” bestowed upon her was called into question. The controversy was not totally laid to rest until 1959, when early correspondence by FitzGibbon was discovered in the Canadian government archives. The old letters proved once and for all that it was Laura Secord who first informed FitzGibbon about the impending attack.
Were traitorous acts committed by U.S. citizens during the War of 1812? No doubt. As stated earlier, most New Englanders were against the war. Feelings ran so high that a few newspapers seriously suggested that New England secede from the Union. Furthermore, many New Englanders profited by supplying goods directly to British troops. For example, after the Brits invaded and occupied a portion of northern Maine, local merchants earned good money selling food and supplies to the British troops. Washington politicians expressed outrage at this “traitorous” behavior by U.S. citizens. Some argued that if the Americans had not kept British troops so well supplied, the British Army might have been forced to surrender.
On the other hand, Laura Secord was no traitor to the United States. After living in Canada for nearly 20 years, she was a British subject and “resident” of Canada when she made her brave journey. Her actions were not motivated by potential profit or glory. She and her family suffered greatly as a result of the invasion. And they struggled financially for the rest of their lives. Laura Ingersoll Secord deserves to be remembered and honored by her hometown as the daughter of a patriot, a courageous Canadian heroine who saved her husband’s life, and who risked her own life to protect her country from invasion. As a result of her actions, numerous lives were saved, including many American lives.