Friday, September 17, 2010

Laura Ingersoll Secord- A Canadian Folk Heroine

We know in theory that every struggle has two sides and that it takes more than one person to win a war. However, one person can be quite instrumental in turning the tides of defeat and victory.

Here is an account by writer Cathryn Wellner who writes here about Laura Ingersoll Secord, a Canadian folk heroine whose valor and dedication is central to the Canadian version of who won the War of 1812.

Her thoughtful and well-written Cross-border perspectives about both sides of North America's 49th Parallel can often bridge two world views. Such is the case in this guest post; this introduction to another version of the War of 1812 reminds me that the folk stories I have heard about the event are not the only ones and that not all folk stories share the same message.

Cathryn's appreciation for the geographics of her own life is unique. Accessible and personal, they take us into the 'living room' of her life (not to mention the 34th home she has lived in) where her folk tales - life stories - preserve small and large moments alike that we all can relate to.

Here is what she has written about Laura Ingersoll Secord:

Growing up on the American side of the 49th parallel, I had Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, and Sacajawea in my small Pantheon of folk heroines. I can’t recall any woman who figured prominently in the history I learned about the War of 1812.

That was the year we Americans shocked the world by declaring war on Britain.

The Brits were busy fighting Napoleon. The Americans were busy making plans to take over the parts of the American continent still in crown hands. That included Upper Canada.

That’s where histories on each side of the 49th parallel differ. In my schoolbooks, the War of 1812 was a glorious victory. We kicked the powerful British out of the United States.

When I moved to Canada in 1990, I was shocked to learn Canadians see the War of 1812 as a coup. A fledgling nation whipped the Americans and sent them packing, permanently, outside the boundaries of Canada.

And Laura Ingersoll Secord is the symbol of that victory. Granted, she was only one factor in a larger story, but a folk account condenses a larger history into a manageable package, one that conveys something of a nation’s character.

From south of the 49th parallel, Laura could be viewed as a traitor. The only reason she isn’t is that we don’t grow up hearing about her. She was born American, but her father sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. From his perspective, the wrong side won so he moved the family to Upper Canada.

Growing up in Upper Canada, Laura had no particular reason to be sympathetic to Americans. She married a United Empire Loyalist, James Secord, who was wounded in the first major battle of the War of 1812, the Battle of Queenston Heights. He was still recovering on the day that marks Laura’s entry into the folk history of Canada.

American soldiers had taken over the Secord home. They had no reason to pay attention to the woman who cooked and cleaned for them. Laura plied them with alcohol and quietly, unobtrusively listened to their plans.

Colonel Boerstler was bragging about the upcoming victory. His troops would surprise Lt. Fitzgibbons, whose garrison was at Beaver Dams. Once they won that battle, they would easily take control of the Niagara peninsula.

Early on the morning of June 22, 1813, the 40-year-old mother of five slipped out of the house and walked 20 miles to warn Lt. Fitzgibbon. Challenged by Mohawk warriors along the way, she managed to convey her message and gain their escort.

When Colonel Boerstler attacked, the small British force and their larger contingent of Mohawk allies were ready. The Americans were soundly defeated, with all but six of them taken prisoner.

At least, that’s one of the stories. No one questions Laura’s having warned Lt. Fitzgibbon, but even her account varied during her life. Some argue he already knew of the attack before she arrived. Later accounts have added all kinds of embellishments.

The actual details are less important than the symbolic meaning. Laura Ingersoll Secord entered the folk canon of Canada because she represents something fundamental in the nation’s psyche: its unique identity vis-à-vis its more powerful southern neighbour.

In his 1981 book, Flames Across the Border, Pierre Berton described the incident this way: "Laura's story will be used to underline the growing myth that the War of 1812 was won by true-blue Canadians—in this case a brave Loyalist housewife who single-handedly saved the British Army from defeat"

For more about Laura Ingersoll Secord:

One of the best overviews, which examines both print and online resources, is Marsha Ann Tate’s “Looking for Laura Secord on the Web: Using a Famous Figure from the War of 1812 as a Model for Evaluating Historical Web Sites”

To catch the flavour of Canadians’ view of the incident, read the lyrics to “Secord’s Warning”, by the lively musical group, Tanglefoot. You can also download a clip from the song at

The last verse always rouses a cheer with Canadian folk music audiences:

“So all you Yankee soldier lads who dare to cross our border
Thinking to save us from ourselves
Usurping British order
There’s women and men Canadians all
Of every rank and station
To stand on guard and keep us free
From Yankee domination”

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